11 But when the king came in to meet the guests he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. 12 He said to him, ‘My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?’ But he was reduced to silence.
What to Wear. Scholars are of mixed opinion about the urgency of the “feast is ready” in v.8 as it applied to those invited when the servants scour the main road. One line of thought offers that these royal wedding feasts were several days in the making and even more in the execution. Not all guests came at the beginning nor stayed until the end. There was a great deal of coming-and-going during it all. There is no reason to suppose that, once invited, these people have no time to go home, to change their clothes, and to borrow clothes from their neighbors, if necessary.
For any such occasion guests would be expected to wear clothes that were both longer than those worn by ordinary people on working days and also newly washed. Those who could afford it would wear white, but it was sufficient for ordinary people to wear as near to white as washing their poorer quality clothes could achieve. Poor people, who might own only one patched tunic and cloak each, would often borrow clothes for occasions such as weddings or religious festivals.
How could those unexpectedly herded into the wedding hall from the main roads wear the expected clothing, which all but one of them seem to do? Again, realism is sacrificed to meaning. However, the issue has troubled some readers, and is normally addressed by the traditional speculation (deriving from Augustine) that the host was himself responsible for providing a wedding robe, so that this man’s fault was in his refusal to accept what was freely offered. While it is a nice thought, it lacks any convincing evidence in terms of contemporary wedding customs (see the Note on 22:11). The clothing expected at a wedding was not a special garment but simply decent, clean white clothes such as anyone should have had available. In that case the man’s fault is that, even though invited to a royal wedding, he had not gone home to change into his best; to turn up in ordinary, dirty clothes was an insult to the host. The symbolism is of someone who presumes on the free offer of salvation by assuming that therefore there are no obligations attached.
In early Christianity, the new identity of conversion was often pictured as donning a new set of clothes; the language of changing clothes was utilized to express the giving up of the old way of life and putting on the new Christian identity (see Rom 13:12–14; Gal 3:27; Eph 6:11; Col 3:12; cf. Luke 15:22; Rev 3:4; 6:11; 19:8). At the allegorical level, the man was expected to have the faith and deeds of an authentic Christian life, corresponding to the “fruits” in the imagery of the preceding parable. When confronted with his lack, the man has no response, for he is without excuse. The Reformer John Calvin commented on the garments: “As to the wedding garment, is it faith, or is it a holy life? This is a useless controversy; for faith cannot be separated from good works, nor do good works proceed from any other source than from faith.” From Calvin’s perspective our silent friend perhaps lacks both.
Matthew 22:11 a wedding garment: the repentance, change of heart and mind, that is the condition for entrance into the kingdom (Mt 3:2; 4:17) must be continued in a life of good deeds (Mt 7:21–23). With respect to the idea that the king provided the garments, some commentaries point to Midrash 416 which mentions Judges 14:12–13 and 2 Kings 10:22, but the former refers to wedding gifts and the latter to vestments for worship. When looks at all the OT and NT verses to support this speculation, only one of them is close to being relevant, Rev 19:8, at least it refers to a wedding, but it speaks of the clothing of the bride, not of the guests.
Jeremias, Parables 187–188, quotes a parable of Johanan Ben Zakkai from b. Šabb. 153a., where it is the wearing of dirty working clothes which excludes the unprepared guests. A later version of the story identifies the clean clothes of the accepted guests as “fulfilment of the commandments, good works, and the study of the Torah.”