Invited to Feast with the King

ur_invitedIn the Various Traditions. Among the various sources of Christian tradition, this parable of the wedding banquet has been preserved in three distinct versions. The simplest, and some say most authentic, rendering of the parable can be found in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. In Thomas’ version, the parable is composed of a series of refusals to a dinner. Each of the guests who begged off did so for reasons of business or commerce. Consequently the host sent servants into the streets to bring back whomever they could find. The tag line of the parable proclaims: “Buyers and merchants will not enter the places of my Father” (Thomas 64:12). Luke’s version of the parable (Luke 14:16-24), also preserves the reversal motif and bears evidence of the evangelist’s conviction, that the poor, outcasts, those otherwise marginalized from society will find a welcome in the kingdom.

Matthean Differences. However, when Matthew’s rendering of this parable is compared to these other sources, there are, several obvious differences. The main portion (vv. 1-10) of the parable is offered as an allegorical presentation of salvation history. The host has become a king (God) who was preparing a wedding banquet (symbol of kingdom) for his son (Jesus). The two groups of servants were probably representative of the Hebrew prophets and the Christian apostles, whereas the invited guests who repeatedly refused the king’s invitation and brutalized the servants were intended to portray Israel. People from the byroads represented the gentiles to whom the gospel was also to be extended.

In verse seven, the parable takes a strange twist; the city of the guests is destroyed. Starting a war while the meal is prepared and on the table strains even the wide range of flexibility allowed to parables. Add to that the mention of the burning of the murderers’ city – especially in the light of the Lucan tradition of the story and we begin to suspect something added from Matthew’s community – or something Luke thought to omit Most scholars believe that the Matthean community and evangelist were referencing the destruction of Jerusalem which occurred in 70 C.E. at the hands of Titus and the Roman army. Matthew projected this event back into this parable of Jesus. By so doing he was simply updating the history of salvation as it had unfolded by the time his gospel reached its final form in the mid-80s C.E.

Matthew’s Trajectory. Matthew makes this story the climax of the progression of this three-parable set: The first of the triad, the parable of the two sons (21:28–32), focuses on the (more than a) prophet John; the second, the parable of the lord’s vineyard given to others (21:33–46), pictures the whole prophetic line climaxing in Jesus, the Son who is killed. This third parable is understood from Matthew’s own post-Easter perspective, facing the parousia and final judgment. This final parable thus follows the perspective in picturing the history of salvation from the original calling of Israel to the last judgment, and places Jesus and the church in the succession of Israel’s prophets, persecuted and rejected by Israel.

The parable has the same addressees as the preceding one except that now he specifically includes the Pharisees. Matthew’s insertion of “again” (palin, or “once more”) connects the parable to the preceding one as well, as do all the points we noted above. This means that the Matthean meaning cannot be derived from the parable alone, but only from the narrative structure of which it is now an integral part.

2 “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. 3 He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast, but they refused to come. 4 A second time he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those invited: “Behold, I have prepared my banquet, my calves and fattened cattle are killed, and everything is ready; come to the feast.”’ 5 Some ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business. 6 The rest laid hold of his servants, mistreated them, and killed them.

The Invitation. Rabbinic and Hellenistic sources indicate that a two-stage invitation was quiet normal – an ancient “Save the Date” coupled to the actual invitation itself. But in the 1st century modality, the invitation sent well in advance of the banquet. The invitation was acknowledged and accepted by those invited, who then received a courtesy reminder on the day of the banquet itself.

The problems begin “on the day” when those who had committed themselves to attend the banquet simply declare their unwillingness/refusal to come (ouk ēthelon elthein). What are we to make of this reaction? There are two avenues often pursued: one personal, one political (of a sorts). One could take the approach that the invitation to come was a threat to the invitees’ own pursuits. They want to do what they want to do when they want to do it. One goes to his field and another to his business. These aren’t excuses (as in Luke 14:18-20), but personal concerns that they think are more important than the king’s invitation to this most important celebration for his son.

On a political scale, refusal of a king’s invitation, especially by so many and so suddenly suggests something is afoot. There are two likely things: a general snubbing and disrespect toward the king, or perhaps more sinisterly, a conspiracy and that would be tantamount to rebellion (2 Sam 10:4). But then the king is a patient and accommodating person (again, cf. the preceding parable).

Either way, the unwillingness/refusal to come share the festive occasion with the King is to send the signal that loyalty and commitment are waning. In religious terms, people are wandering from the Covenant. Yet, the king does not strike out or retaliate, but sends a second group of slaves. This element of the story is peculiar to Matthew. Not only do those invited continue to refuse, but some go so far as to abuse and kill the messengers as well. If “a second time” (v.4) is considered the day of the feast – and there is good reason to do so since “everything is ready” – then it may be that Matthew is not talking about early and later prophets, but the Christian evangelists of Matthew’s own time. Certainly, many of the late-1st century evangelists were ignored; some were martyred.

Notes

Matthew 22:2 may be likened: an unusual form of the verb which can rightly be translated as “the kingdom of heaven has become like.” The kingdom has thus already dawned in the ministry of Jesus and has become like “a king who gave a wedding feast.”

wedding feast: the Old Testament’s portrayal of final salvation under the image of a banquet (Is 25:6) is taken up also in Mt 8:11; cf. Lk 13:15.

Matthew 22:3–4 servants…other servants: probably Christian missionaries in both instances; cf. Mt 23:34.

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