First Thoughts on Passages from Matthew in the Lectionary

Pentecost 18

William Loader

Pentecost 18: 12 October Matthew 22:1-14

This is the third parable in Jesus' reply to the question of his authority (21:23-27). The first (21:28-32) dealt with the rejection of John's ministry. The second (21:33-46) dealt with the rejection of his own ministry. This parable deals with the rejection of the ministry of the disciples and the dire consequences for Israel and Jerusalem.

Like many parables, this one has had varied applications before reaching Matthew. It is closely related to Luke 14:16-24, the Great Supper, which is probably, in turn, closer to the Q version. There is also a simple version in the Gospel of Thomas (Saying 64), touched up with Thomas type themes. Matthew's version consists of two parts, (i) the invitation and the alternative strategy to fill the number of guests after so many declined (22:1-10); and (ii) the badly dressed guest (22:11-14). Only the first part has parallels with Luke, Q and Thomas. None of those speaks of a wedding and none of them speaks of a king and his son, but only of a feast. Perhaps these features belonged to a separate story about a badly dressed guest, which Matthew has appended to the original parable. Perhaps it is Matthew's own creative imagination.

At the base of this tradition is a simple story which envisages village life. It worked like this. You announced you were having a party on a certain day. People would know you were getting it ready. When it was ready to roll, you sent word to those who had been invited. It would be very embarrassing if then hardly anyone turned up. This is what happened in the story. So the person throwing the party decided that the best thing would be just to invite anyone in the village whom they ran across. It worked. Like many of Jesus' parables, the experience would have rung bells for people. It was easy to relate to. What was Jesus saying? One can almost hear the response; 'Pretty flaming obvious, mate!' Jesus was annoyed about being turned down.

Heard in its broader perspective, this story contains echoes which allow us to see that this was anything but a Jesus ego-trip. Like the prophets before him (for instance, see Isa 25:6), Jesus often spoke of the kingdom of God as a great feast. People would come from north and south, east and west, and dine with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Matt 8:11). The call to respond to the good news of God's kingdom was an invitation to the feast. The invitation had gone out, the people had been summoned to come, but they refused. They made excuses. Too busy, too distracted to come to the party. So the invitation is extended to others. Jesus' pious compatriots refuse him; the sinners respond positively.

The alternative guests are a feature of the story which was bound in time to be linked not only with the irreligious, but also with all outcasts (in Luke, especially with people marginalised through disability and poverty) and eventually with Gentiles. The parable then became a story in which the church identified itself as those who had responded in contrast to those who refused the invitation. The story had been well worked over and served to help people come to terms with what had been happening.

Well worn stories are difficult to retell. They can become too bland and familiar. They end up serving the status quo. Matthew gets hold of the story, pushes and pulls it, and lays it out afresh in a version much better suited for TV! It is more dramatic; it is also deadly serious. The first modification is to abandon verisimilitude. Everyone knew it was a parable. It does not have to match reality, at least on the surface. It was OK to take some licence to play with the detail.

Transforming it into a story about a king offering a party for his son made the links with Jesus and God much clearer. In Matthew there are now two attempts to get those invited to come, reflecting doubtless not only Jesus' ministry but also the mission of the disciples. Having the king then send an army to destroy those who refused is 'over the top' for bland realism. How could you lay siege to a city, then invite other guests and run the party all on the same day! The destruction of the city is a direct reference to the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 CE, which Matthew saw as God's punishment for the rejection of Jesus' and the church's mission (see 23:34-36). Writing still as a Jew in a Jewish context with largely Jewish hearers this could hardly have been more pointed. Israel has failed again. Israel's temple has been destroyed again. Repent!

Just when hearers might have been tempted to retreat into a self-righteous sectarian huddle, bemoaning how evil the world is out there, Matthew expands the parable to bring the spotlight on those who turn up at the feast. 'Where's your suit and tie?' Whatever the expectation, someone came wrongly dressed. The breech of this cultural norm may mean little for those who know God looks on the heart (although it is fascinating how it persists in various forms today), but it serves Matthew as a vehicle for challenging his hearers about clothing one's life in righteousness, a familiar image. It is Matthew's theme (Jesus' theme, John the Baptist's theme) returning: no privilege on the basis of status, not even the status of having joined the Christian community. Only a life of transformed attitude and performance counts. Matthew undermines the 'them and us' approach. There can be no sectarian righteous elite.

As with last week's passage, we find here some of Matthew's fierce agenda with his fellow Jews. We may want to explain the debacle of 70 CE differently, although Jesus' way of challenging abusive power, had it won broad support, might have averted the disaster. It is not inappropriate to look critically at stories designed to bolster one's sense of identity. But Matthew pulls back from that kind of smugness. The challenge of the story lies both in the warning about refusals and in the richness of the image of salvation as a feast. The latter connects us with the eucharist as a vision and agenda of what is to come. Beyond the strategy to save the party at the story level is the much richer notion of God's generosity, not as an afterthought, but as God's enthusiastic being and delight in all people and pain at their refusal to share the life freely offered. A theology in retreat pictures a miffed god in retreat with a pretty violent temper, typical of a closed group of elites under siege. From Matthew you could take off along that track, but you need not. It was against such elitism that Jesus protested the universality of God's love and goodness. We feed on the brokenness of such love and nourish ourselves for celebration with a cup which was not withheld for an elite. Do we?

Epistle: Pentecost 18: 12 October  Philippians 4:1-9

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