If we are honest, this parable of the wedding guests is perplexing and almost beyond understanding. It weaves here and there, turning expectations upside down and just when you think “I’ve got it!” – no you haven’t because it twists again.
All too often the church and its teachers and preachers have presented this parable of the wedding banquet in a simplistic way, probably interpreting it through gentile thinking and thereby missing the point of what Jesus the Jew might have been saying, or more likely what Matthew the Jew put into the mouth of Jesus for the good teaching of the Matthew community!
This parable is often interpreted with the following characters:
Perhaps this is what Matthew intended? Perhaps it was his seeking some forms of revenge or justice upon his fellow Jews who had kicked him and his community out from the synagogue and who had thereby made Matthew and his fellow Jewish followers of Jesus forfeit their ethnic inheritance as Jews? Perhaps it is Matthew reminding and encouraging his people that the Jews were the original Chosen People of God but that they had received their chance and they walked the other way?
However, this perhaps associating of the various characters in the story with God, Jesus and the Jews, it is an interpretation placed upon the original Matthew story by later gentile preachers and teachers? Perhaps it is a case of later gentile spiritualising what is a story of the misuse of power, supposedly told by Jesus in the dirty, smelly and unsanitary alleyways and narrow lanes of the towns and villages where he wandered?
As I highlighted in a recent sermon, the culture within which Jesus and the later Gospel writers lived was one where honour and shame were of paramount importance. Here, in the story, the rich ruler intended to throw a party of great importance but as each one of those who were invited walked away, or worse still attacked the messengers, the rich ruler’s honour was truly damaged.
In a rage the rich ruler sent an invitation to the poor and dispossessed to take the places of the rich man’s friends and socially equal neighbours. This was now a party of the disreputable and the sleazy. The rich man’s shame was complete. So was Matthew really saying that God was capable of being shamed? Or that God was a savage, destructive, vengeful killer?
But what if this was a worldly, social commentary rather than a spiritual story that Matthew and then Luke attributed to Jesus? How differently might we read it today? How much more could this parable be relevant to the world in which we live – a world in which might is right and where power is abused and its misuse corrupts?
Perhaps this parable was really concerned with highlighting a violent world that went well beyond the ‘eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ sense of justice – a Jewish limitation to revenge rather than a punishment of utmost savagery? Perhaps it was commentary upon a world in which people, especially the rich and powerful, could settle old scores in a most vicious and humiliating manner? Worse still, was it an indictment of the rich victimising and abusing the poor – those without a voice and without power?
The story took place in a society where there was a kind of Pharisaic prosperity gospel in which to be rich and powerful was evidence of God’s blessing upon you, but to be poor and cast out was evidence that God had with held his blessing from you. Perhaps Matthew was saying to his community, “The kingdom of God is not the way that our Pharisees, our Jewish religious teachers, see things! Wealth, power and status are no evidence that God has blessed them especially. In fact, we know from what has happened to us that God’s favour is really upon the poor and the expelled, the exploited and the rejected – remember what Jesus told us in that special sermon of blessings all those years ago? Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. We are the people of all these blessings! We know it because we have suffered it and yet know that God’s Spirit is with us!”
Have you noticed that this passage in today’s lectionary of Matthew 22 is really a continuation of those very blessings [Beatitudes] in Matthew chapter 5? Have you noticed something else – that Mark does not tell of the blessings and nor does John? The blessings are the creation of Matthew and later copied by Luke. This is a list of reassurances and comforts to a despised, expelled, exploited and rejected community. Probably it was not intended to be an over-spiritualised attack upon the Jews who had acted so harshly upon the Jewish followers of Jesus. It was social commentary and an encouragement to the Matthew community to hold on in there regardless of the personal costs, and not to walk away from the God whom they had met so fully in Jesus.
Now comes the critical question: which interpretation will speak most relevantly to the world in which we live? Is it the ‘churchy’ interpretation that talks of shame and evil actions and a vengeful god? Or is it the interpretation that this parable is highlighting the differences between the kingdoms of this world [power abused and the poor exploited] and the Kingdom of God, politically and militarily powerless but where love is the ultimate winner?
I go for the latter interpretation. But this is not a call for the poor and the exploited to sit back, to live without challenging the status quo that keeps them in the gutters. Nor is it a free ticket for us who have power and money to stand aside and say to the poor, “Don’t worry, God really blesses you more than God blesses us.”
The story of the wedding banquet is first a call for us to recognise the unequal and violent nature of the world in which we live, and second, to acknowledge our part in maintaining the inequalities of the status quo and then to actively work for a fairer distribution of the world’s wealth. Open any newspaper or watch any television news today and you will probably see an item on one or more of the following:
The poor and powerless, the exploited and threatened are at the heart of the parable of the wedding banquet. As followers of Jesus, can we step aside from this parable and the world to which it speaks, interpreting the story as a simple Matthew attack upon the Jews who had expelled him and his community? Can we ease our conscience for our inactivity by interpreting this story as religious history and as nothing else? Or should we read and interpret this story as a call to action on behalf of all who are powerless, voiceless, exploited and demeaned?
If the Christian message is to have any transformational power in our time then it has to be the latter. In the words of St Ambrose, “It is not from your own possessions that you are bestowing charity upon the poor, but you are restoring to them what is theirs by right. For what was given to every one for the use of all, you have taken for your own exclusive use. Thus, far from giving lavishly, you are but paying part of your debt”.
Copyright ©: 2011, Rev John Churcher. All rights reserved. Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION ® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.