The Wedding Banquet: Turning It Inside Out

Matthew 22:1-14

I have preached this parable before, of course. I have preached it as it is written and as it is often most typically understood — as a kind of warning to accept the invitation to the ‘banquet’ and to be ready when doing so. In fact, even this week as I read it I was going down that path once more. Only this time, I was reading it with eyes of surprise. For who turns down the invitation of the king? Even if one is not a particularly strong supporter of a particular ruler, don’t you think you would show up out of curiosity, or just to rub elbows with the wealthy and powerful? Fast forward a few thousand years and take up residence in the culture I call home and I can certainly imagine how it might be difficult to turn down the invitation to the inauguration of a president, even if one didn’t vote for him or her. Or tickets to the World Series, even if your own team was not playing. Oh, the enthusiasm would not be the same, but you would likely go just for the experience — particularly if the consequences of NOT going were as dire as they play out in the story Jesus tells today.

So this is the direction I was going. And if you want a reflection that goes down that path, I would invite you to spend some time with my words from three years ago. (You can find them here.)  Only this time I changed course. And while there are a thousand reasons I may be entirely wrong, given the fact that in my perusal of the commentaries I have not as of yet found anyone else going in this direction, still, I am settling here for a while.

For you see, the ‘king’ as described in the story before us now is not one that seems anything like the God I have been taught to worship, much less one I could give my allegiance to in this life. For this king rules with threat and violence and vengeance — even though at first it seems that violence is only in response to violence already perpetrated by his citizens. Even so, the God who is Jesus surely does not rule in this way and so I wonder how it is that we so quickly fall into what, for centuries, has been perhaps the most obvious, straightforward understanding of Jesus’ words today.

And so I propose another way.

What if?

  • What if those invited did not come to the banquet as a sign of protest?
  • What if they did not drop everything and go because the promises of the king were false, or because in this king’s reign there was no justice, or because the poor were left in their poverty with no recourse?
  • What if they did not go to celebrate with the king because the king was no king worthy of the title?

And while it is hard to justify mistreating and killing those slaves who had no other real choice but to deliver the message with which they were sent, one does not know what happened between the slaves and the people before such violence was perpetrated on them. Certainly some people who live in oppressive regimes wind up behaving in ways which are otherwise reprehensible simply because they feel they have no other choice. And it is worth noting that not everyone behaved in this way and yet the king, in his vengeful ways  not only punishes the ‘murderers,’ but everyone else who called that city home.

And yes, it is in keeping with our understanding of how God works that the king would invite all and everyone who would heed that invitation to come to the wedding banquet. And yet, what comes next again seems over the top, no matter how we try to explain it away. And this is why I can’t help but wonder if the king was only trying to fill that banquet hall so as not to suffer shame in the eyes of friends and adversaries alike. I cannot help but believe that Jesus was was, in fact, more like those who would never have been among the first invited to the wedding banquet of the king’s son, but would have found himself in the second batch of invitees. Indeed, as this parable comes to its conclusion, I cannot help but wonder if Jesus is not the one without the wedding robe — the one who could not, would not pretend to honor a tyrant king by putting on that wedding robe — who in behalf of all of us was thrown into the outer darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.

I have no way of knowing this for sure, of course. In fact, I know that many of you can make a solid argument that I am way off base in term’s of Matthew’s intent here. And yet, the Bible is a Living Word, is it not? And isn’t it possible that it might take on new meaning in new days? And isn’t it just as likely that the kingdom of heaven is more like any one of us who refuses to bow to the powers that be when innocents suffer than like a king who throws his power around and destroys those who would not do his will?

More than this, the places my imagination took me this week as I pondered this parable seem more in keeping with the way Jesus often turned things inside out and on their heads when he told stories. So why not with this story. Why not?

I have no way of knowing, of course, but this is what I am wondering now.  How about you?

  • How do you understand this parable of Jesus? Is it possible, faithful, helpful to hear it in a new way? Why or why not?
  • What arguments do you have in favor of hearing it in the more traditional way?
  • If my proposed way of hearing this story doesn’t add up for you, why is that? What questions or comments would you offer to help us hear it more clearly together?

 

45 comments

  1. Jane Uzzell says:

    I agree with you–what if he was just trying to fill the hall to show how good he was as king, and those who didn’t show up were protesting? And, I agree that Jesus was more than likely in the 2nd invitees, the ones without the robes. So, now that I agree, what does this parable teach me? That even if I’m not in the 1st invitees, I should go, and would it not be best as a protester to go? That I have to think about. Thank you for taking it in a different direction.

  2. David Schreiber says:

    Janet, I first want to say thank-you for your blog. You nearly always have a fresh, personal approach to hearing and proclaiming the Promise, and this is no exception. You are not alone in this hearing, as Girardian exegetes have a very different take on this text, though it is a “thin” tradition. Paul Nuechterlein’s marvelous site has this page you may find interesting: http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/proper23a/

  3. Thank you so much for offering this interpretation, which is one I had never considered. I think it’s very valid to consider Jesus as the one who is thrown out into darkness, as he was crucified outside the city walls by those in power. Your interpretation has shown me a way through this parable and offered a fresh angle on it. If I end up going in this direction in my sermon on Sunday, I will give you a shout out!

  4. Karen Cluts says:

    What you have seen in this parable seems to be much more the kind of surprise ending that parables would have had to the original hearer. Given the context of this discourse with the chief priests and elders, I think it fits with the parable last week when the son of the landowner is thrown out of the vineyard, beaten and killed. And even with the first parable that it will be the least expected people that accept God’s grace rather than the religious elite. Thanks for your new insight.

    • Janet Hunt says:

      Thanks, Karen, for your comment. Yes, I am thinking that the ‘surprise’ ending is more in keeping with how parables are usually heard. I’m glad you found my reflection helpful!

  5. Charleen Jongejan Harder says:

    This is truly an intriguing perspective. My mind is going in several directions. But there is truth in the saying that the king behaves in ways that seem unlike the God of grace and mercy and unfailing faithfulness. There is threat and violence and revenge. I have heard a caution on the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 which encourages a similar suspicion that the master may not be equivalent with God. In that case, however, that pericope does not begin with “The kingdom of heaven is like…”

    • Janet Hunt says:

      Thanks, Charleen for your comment. I also struggled with the fact that this begins with ‘the kingdom of heaven is like…’ And yet, I can’t help but wonder if the ‘likeness’ is found in the one without the wedding robe who is bound and thrown into the outer darkness. I still can’t help but wonder if that is Jesus.

      • And, remember, Matthew 11:12 “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” as pointed out in the Girardian reflection referenced above. So, perhaps, it is started rightly with “The kingdom of heaven is like…” to point out the violence that plagues it and the peaceful uprising that may surmount it one day.

        I LOVE your reading of this parable, Janet, I am transfixed by the images you present. Most especially because the Matthew version is so very different from the Luke version, there must be something else going on other than “y’all come”.

        • Janet Hunt says:

          Thanks, Greta, I’m glad you found my offering helpful. Please check out the other comments shared here as a number of them offer links to other resources where the thinking is similar!

      • Charleen Jongejan Harder says:

        Now I find myself juggling a few perspectives. I am preaching this in connection with communion. I had intended a “Come to the Feast!!! All are Invited!!!” angle, and this interpretation complexifies things. How do we approach the feast? How can we identify which feast we’re attending? How do we resist violence if we experience it in the invitation?

        • Janet Hunt says:

          Charleen, I have no easy answers for you. You might consider focusing on the Isaiah passage which is the RCL first lesson this week and just step away from this one altogether if you want to stay with “Come to the Feast.” Or maybe you consider what it is to come to this particular feast as it is described in Matthew. Certainly the more traditional reading of the parable has a whole lot of backing out there!

  6. Pat Schutz says:

    This is really helpful. I have been wrestling with traditional interpretations, costly discipleship–we are called to “change,” to respond to the Spirit’s activity. Yet, I also felt, reading the text, like I didn’t want to “work for” a king like that, wouldn’t want to be forced to dress like everyone else…literally felt like I was being pushed into a place I didn’t want to go…and if I felt that way, what about the others grabbed off the streets? Grace? Or tyranny? To think of Jesus as that one, speechless (see also Matt. 26.63a, 27.12), is to be open to the Spirit doing a new thing with/through the living Word. More pondering necessary. Thanks!

      • Thank you so much for this fresh perspective. I was searching and hadn’t quite found it. Looking at Jesus as the one thrown out for not conforming I see how, yes, this could also be like the kingdom of heaven that he spoke of…the hard part, the carrying our cross part, the costly part, the dying part that leads to new life.

  7. Karl Hartmann says:

    Theologians always want a formula. A King represents God, we are told. Perhaps, even in a parable attributed to Jesus, a king is just a king, and the real message is about the real Kingdom.

  8. Julie Beck says:

    Janet, as always your thoughts are a welcomed “prime for the pump”…I deeply appreciate your thoughts and the way that you encourage & challenge us to see things in a fresh way…thank you!

    • Janet Hunt says:

      Thanks, Glen, for passing on the reference and link to Marty Aiken’s paper. He does at length what my reflections only begin to hint at. I would commend it to anyone who feels compelled to follow this manner of thinking about this parable.

  9. You are definitely not alone in this interpretation, Jane. D. Mark Davis’s translation this week’s text supports your reading (http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.ca/2014/10/the-kingdom-of-heavens-v-kingdom-of.html), and we had a very similar discussion at the pastor’s bible study I participate in.

    Moreover, I think this reading fits much better with the narrative arc of chapters 21 and 22. This whole string of parables is Jesus’ response to the challenge from the Temple leaders about the source of his authority, and he is contrasting the kinds of authority that they respect (power and violence) with the authority he has in his own person (the authority of the cornerstone – who is cast out by those who think they know God).

    Thank you for your invitation to think about the reasons to reject an evil king’s invitation. That part of the implications of the parable I had not thought of.

  10. Nancy Raca says:

    Thank you so much! This was a very helpful and timely read of this parable. The Bible is indeed a Living Word and still has unexpected messages for us!

  11. Pat Lehrer says:

    Janet, Thank you! This makes so much more sense than the more traditional reading of this text. And your interpretation is so incredibly contemporary to our own times. As a preacher, your site is one of my most trusted go-to sites! Bless you and your ministry!

  12. It seems a fair thing to understand a parable in the context of the present reader/ listener, hence your line of thought. It’s quite imaginative. But also there is some advantage to understand it in the context of the initial speaker and initial listeners, and for this parable, to wonder how and when it was written. Is it a screed against Rome recalling its destruction (with implication for a later date of the gospel, as some other parts of Matthew suggest) or is the concept of the wedding of the King’s son the whole point? I’m following the latter idea, ignoring the last few verses and concentrating on the fact that throughout the OT God describes himself as the bride or groom of Israel, often left standing at the altar or otherwise betrayed leading up to the crisis of the Diaspora. This whole chapter is an argument between Jesus and the priests. Nevertheless, I’m thinking that this parable uses the wedding image as a expected model not only for the intimate relationship between God/Jesus and humanity, but also as the model for the relationship between members of the congregation. The Philippians text in the RCL helps with this. Perhaps the nature of the commitment within (and the nature of Christian love in the early communities) found in common wedding texts is a good model for how we ought to approach each other, and how we collectively ought to approach Christian justice issues?

    • Janet Hunt says:

      I appreciate you sharing your perspective, Henry. It is true that the wedding/banquet imagery is strong throughout the Old Testament. Even so, I struggle with this king’s apparently tyrannical behavior, which is why I found myself led to wonder in a different direction. Can you help me understand how you reconcile that?

      • I wrestled with this issue for some time, not getting to a fully satisfying point. Albright and Mann (Anchor Bible) suggest it is polemic bleeding through Matthew from the conflict in the Jewish Christian community, clearly 11-14 seem a disconnected second parable. I am at a loss as are many about how to read the tyrannical behavior other than to read it as a historical rehearsal of the history of the fall of Israel and Judah to Assyria and Babylon (reminding the priests, of course, who are schooled in OT scripture), but I feel strongly that the parable has meaning today by how it strikes the context of the current listener influenced by its historical character. This is why I focused on how the NT scripture may shape the wedding image for modern congregational listeners.

        • Janet Hunt says:

          Henry, I would be curious as to how you finally reconciled the ‘tyrannical behavior’ in this parable and where you landed in terms of ‘shaping the wedding image’ for modern listeners. Please keep me posted!

  13. I read the parable the same way this week.

    The person who showed up at the wedding refusing to wear the wedding garments was the one who stood up to fear. He stood up to submission to the world.

    The king in the story is not like a loving God but rather as a brutal dictator who demands nothing less than full submisssion. None of the first group of guests will come, and look what happens to them. The good and bad which are rounded up are like professional mourners at a funeral. They are there because they have to be. They are there to make the dictator look good, nothing more.

    Yet one person, like the protestor before the tanks at Tienemen Square stand up to the world. In a world where society would like everyone to fall into line there is one who doesn’t. Like Jesus he is silent before his accuser. Like Jesus he is the one who suffers for everyone.

    So is this the kingdom of God. we are living in the kingdom when we refused to knuckel under to the world and are willing to stand out. We are not willing to be forced into submission.

    Many are called yet only one was chosen. Only one was cast out.

    • Janet Hunt says:

      Thanks, Jay, for sharing your thoughts on the parable, I especially appreciate your way of understanding the last line of this pericope. “Only one was chosen. Only one was cast out.” Thank you.

  14. Beth Olson says:

    Given the context of the country and the world these days, I found your interpretation thought-provoking and helpful. Thank you for the ways in which you are a conduit for the creative work of the Spirit!

  15. Nicole C. Trotter says:

    I had a similar thought in the bath tub just moments ago… What if a king is just that? (A king.) The kind that burns down a city and destroys a temple? What if the listeners heard the parable with that as their lens? And what if they are protesting, at times violently to resist engaging with an empire that has destroyed the temple of their true King. And what if the thing that wakes up the listeners (as parables did and do,) is that the kings reaction is so disproportionately violent that this can’t be God, but rather a empire they are rejecting, in exchange for something new, namely another kingdom, offered through Jesus Christ. The part I still struggle with in this less common interpretation is the rest of Matthew’s writings, that seem to support the more traditional view of this parable. But overall, I’ve enjoyed going down this road…

    • Janet Hunt says:

      Nicole, it appears our imaginations took us in the same direction this week. Yes, it is hard to reconcile with the rest, which as you said, is the challenge here. Blessings to you as you sort this out!

  16. Peter De Franco says:

    Following your Girardian interpretation, I was wondering if the parable of the vineyard and the parable of the wedding feast can be considered a pair of parables addressing the resistance to the Reign of God coming from the religious authorities (vineyard) and the political authorities (wedding feast).

  17. Rick says:

    Verse 6 indicates unjustified violence on all sides. Yes, this is a troubling parable. There is no one righteous. No, not one.

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