Thought for the day
In the parables of Jesus, wedding feasts are mentioned from time to time. The original parable may have ended with the words “invite everyone you can find to the wedding.” The detail of the troops—highly unlikely as an actual part of a wedding invitation(!)—realistically portrays the later destruction of Jerusalem, which Christians did indeed look back upon as punishment precisely for that rejection. The final verse is difficult for us today on a spiritual level. However, it is meant to provoke (re)conversion in a possibly (!) complacent church.
Lord, we know that you love us and invite us to the wedding feast of the Lamb. Help us to respond to your love that we may be followers of your Son not only in name but also in fact.
Matt 22:1 Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven can be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to summon those who had been invited to the banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited, “Look! The feast I have prepared for you is ready. My oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.”’ 5 But they were indifferent and went away, one to his farm, another to his business. 6 The rest seized his slaves, insolently mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was furious! He sent his soldiers, and they put those murderers to death and set their city on fire. 8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but the ones who had been invited were not worthy. 9 So go into the main streets and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 And those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all they found, both bad and good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 But when the king came in to see the wedding guests, he saw a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ But he had nothing to say. 13 Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Tie him up hand and foot and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”
In this parable, the main story seems to contradict the final paragraph! It is interesting to note that the same parable is found in Luke 14:15-24, but this time without the appendix, leaving us with the image of the kingdom of God open to all comers. Matthew’s version makes the parable “edgy” and uncomfortable to read.
Several expressions are to be found only or almost only in Matthew: outer darkness (Matt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30); gnashing of teeth (Matt 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Luke 13:28); friend (there are two words for friend in the NT, philos and hetairos—Matthew alone uses the latter and always in an unfriendly way (Matt 20:13; 22:12; 26:50 [= Judas]).
All of this means that the final paragraph was added by Matthew to the text to speak to some situation in the community for which he was writing.
This editorial fingerprint is confirmed by the strange insertion of the story of a war in the middle of the parable. The very difficult v. 7 produces a dissonant combination of nuptial and bellicose imagery. (On a practical level, interrupting the gathering of guests by a mini-war would surely have created problems for those preparing the food!) In reality, this insertion is a further “allegorisation” of the text, bringing in an apparent reference to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in ad 70. Naturally, as this took place some forty years after the ministry of Jesus, it cannot have been part of the original parable. So, all in all, a lot of “interference” by Matthew to get the old parable to speak again to his community. He may be anxious that the story of the rejection of the original guests (the Jews) and their replacement by the new guests (the Gentiles) might lead to undue complacency and so he introduces the guest “not dressed” for the occasion. Hence the scary warning at the end: many are called but few are chosen.
Kind of writing
We have again a parable, but a highly allegorised, even historicised text. It may just possibly have had a context in the ministry, as Jesus did address the rulers and did use wedding imagery. It is likely that an early version lacked the reference to history and the theological reading of Jesus’ own final destiny.
Old Testament background
(i) God is often called a king in the Old Testament. It matters here that God is named not simply as a host but as a ruler because it is precisely as ruler that God will dispense justice at the end.
(ii) A feast recurs regularly as an image of God’s future, end-time “hospitality.”
(iii) Wedding language is common in the Old Testament to refer to the God of the covenant, with God as the bridegroom and Israel as the bride.
New Testament foreground
(i) Other parables we have heard recently deal with similar topics—e.g. that of the weeds in the wheat. Again, at issue is a “church” question—what to do with those “in” but not “of”. This was not an issue during the ministry of Jesus, but in the settled context of Matthew’s Gospel is very much an issue. Just as in that parable, the message is do nothing—leave it to the Lord. Behind that, as we saw with the parable of the weeds and the wheat, lies the hope that people may change, so that our judgement of others is premature. At the same time, these parables do recognise a problem in the community.
(ii) The imagery of the feast occurs frequently in the parables and that in turn mirrors Jesus’ own practice of open table-fellowship, a symbol of the Kingdom of God.
What then are we to say? Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law. Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, “See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame. Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. I can testify that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. (Rom 9:30-10:4)
The introductory words above constitute the basis for the commentary for this passage, but a word or two on some verses may not be out of place.
Verses 1-2 The original hearers would have been familiar with “nuptial” imagery for the covenant and the metaphor would trigger expectations. In itself attractive, the marital metaphor is polyvalent in the Old Testament and can also be used to refer to infidelity, judgement and rejection (as here).
Verse 3 The “slaves” are the prophets of old. “They would not come”: the obduracy is evident and blameworthy.
Verses 4-6 The insistence is impressive; the reasons for rejection are merely everyday concerns; the killing of the slaves refers back to the treatment meted out to figures such as Jeremiah. In Matthew’s mind, the negative reaction to the prophets provides a context for the rejection of Jesus himself.
Verse 7 This unexpected interruption is most likely Matthew’s reflection on the Jewish War and the destruction of the Holy City and the Temple.
Verse 8-9 These verses mark, in some way, the expansion of grace beyond the limits of ethnic Judaism. As the historical Jesus met very few Gentiles, the inclusion of non-Jews was not an issue during the ministry but echoes later “church” concerns.
Verse 10 This verse marks the transition to the final paragraph. Naturally the other version in Luke lacks the distinction “good and bad” and goes its own, also theological way: “Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’” (Luke 14:23-24)
Verse 11 In the culture, outer clothing reflects the inner person. Thus the lack of a wedding robe means inwardly unworthy to be present.
Verse 12 The word “friend”, apparently kind, is very unsettling in Matthew’s Gospel. It is always hostile, as the references above indicate. “Speechless” is lit. he was silent, that is, without being able to give an account of himself.
Verse 13 As noted above, exterior darkness and gnashing of teeth are expressions almost exclusively Matthean. For final blessedness, more is required than simply belonging to the community.
Verse 14 This awkward, well-remembered verse is found only here in the New Testament and it is in tension with the overall tone and tenor of the parable. It represents the growth of a more stringent, even pessimistic view of the Kingdom, in some contrast with the parables of extraordinary growth. It is not always easy to separate the great assurances of faith from the risks of smugness and complacency.
Pointers for prayer
1. Scripture often speaks of the kingdom of God as a banquet. It is not meant to be taken only as referring to life after death but it also shows how God wants us to be in our relationships with one another in this life. The image of people being at a meal where everyone is happy and welcome and where all hunger and thirst is satisfied gets across the idea that God loves, accepts and welcomes us and wants us to make that experience available to one another. Think of times in your life when you have had “banquet” experiences and when you have felt accepted and loved?
2. The host enlists the help of his servants to invite people to the banquet. We are commissioned by the Lord to invite people to the banquet of the kingdom, to the fullness of life—as parents, teachers, friends, etc. What has it been like for you to play a part in leading others to a fuller life?
3. There are many ways in which we can reflect on the guests invited, e.g. a) The ones invited first all found excuses to refuse the invitation. How do you feel when someone turns down an invitation you offer? Have there been times when you have found excuses to refuse an invitation from the Lord, or from others? What effect did this have in your life, or on others? b) The second round of invitations went out to “everyone in the streets, good and bad.” What is it like for you to receive an invitation, particularly when you do not consider yourself worthy of that invitation? c) Notice that the banquet of the kingdom is an inclusive one. When have you given an open, inclusive invitation to others?
4. As in the parable last week there is a message about being alert to invitations that offer a fuller life and the danger of losing out if we neglect to respond to such invitations. Perhaps there have been opportunities offered to you that you missed, and now regret. Think also of the blessings you received because you seized the moment and took an opportunity that presented itself.
5. The second parable puts the focus on how we respond to invitations. Some invitations are ones that challenge us to change, to conversion, to put on a ‘wedding garment’. What has been your experience of changing in response to an invitation you received?
God of all goodness and kindness, you invite all peoples to the banquet and offer them a feast beyond compare.
Give us your saving grace to keep unstained the robe of our baptism until that day when you welcome us to heaven’s joyful table. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.