We come to the troubling images and themes in the parable of the wedding banquet (Matthew 21:1-14. Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 23  ) in the troubling shadows of the most recent conflict and destruction in the holy lands. I take no side as all sides are victims and perpetuators of the violence but I do greatly grieve the suffering. While we should not project current affairs back into an ancient text I think there is a resonance with the pain and disturbance that the original audience of Matthew’s account of the gospel would have been experiencing in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE. Appreciating this may help us understand this troubling text a little better.
And a troubling text this parable is. Matthew seems to have taken the same parable that Luke reports and added details most of which make it a more disturbing and complex story. Context as always is important. The context within the text itself includes that this is still part of Jesus’ response to the question about his authority and takes place within the escalating tension of the last week of his earthly life. And as mentioned the context for the original audience of Matthew’s account of the gospel is that of the aftermath of the near destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. The people of God are again in exile and looking around to see why and how these terrible things have come to pass.
It is also worth acknowledging that banquets in general, and especially wedding banquets, are images of the kingdom of God where God will provide all that is needed and there will be celebrations. While parables are not simple allegories (where each story element represents a real time event or issue) we do have to hear that the elite were invited but did not come to the party when the time came! It is hard to avoid that Matthew’s perspective is that the people of God have failed to respond to the invitation to recognise the Messiah and therefore the invitation list has been opened up to others! This raises some disconcerting issues for many of us: what does it mean to be invited and under what circumstances; why is there the suggestion of punishment and suffering for those who do not accept the invitation; and particularly why would someone who has accepted the invitation then be punished for dressing wrongly?!
I think it very important to remember what parables are, and are not. Parables take often existing simple stories and use them for a particular point or points, often with the sting in the tail of the story being the most subversive and important teaching. Parables are meant to disrupt and disturb our understanding not affirm our existing prejudices and limited and limiting views. We should feel unsettled not simply for what we are being taught but what we are being asked to unlearn!!
In a world where the important get invited first this parables says that all will end up being invited and the least and the lost are the most likely to end up accepting and enjoying the kingdom – now that’s upside down and inside out wisdom! This parable suggests that the king desires to party and wishes to include whoever will come. The only filter being who will say yes.
There is also the disturbing image of punishment for those who do not attend or who do not dress appropriately. It is worth noting that this reoccurring theme in Matthew of punishment is his addition to material we see elsewhere and probably relates, as we have already suggested, to his processing of the reasons for the suffering and apparent punishment of those who experienced the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. It is certainly a theme that can be found in the Hebrew bible that the people of God brought suffering and exile upon themselves by their disobedience. We might ponder to what extent do we prefer to think suffering is God’s punishment of us or our neighbour rather than entertain that we bring suffering upon ourselves sometimes and frequently upon our neighbours?!
Related to this the language about called and chosen can sound to our twenty first century ears as predeterminism or exclusion. However read in the light of that first audience I think we might hear that we are called or invited but that experiencing being chosen is a two way process and requires our participation. All are chosen by God the Creator and God as host of the banquet but not all of us claim our status as chosen.
And maybe most importantly the parable suggests that saying Yes is the beginning of things not the end, that wearing the right wedding or celebratory clothes is important, is how we belong and fully participate in the feast.
The imagery of clothing also has connections to the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, and the early writings of Paul. In general the image of clothing refers to an outer reflection of an inner state. Therefore in the parable when the inappropriately dressed person is thrown out of the banquet it is not a commentary on being poorly or alternatively dressed in a social or material sense – in the way that we often are amused or critical of others - but on having an inappropriate or inadequate inner state. In Isaiah (61:10) “He has clothed me with garments of salvation ... the robe of righteousness.” In Paul’s epistles he often speaks in the imagery of clothing. In Galatians (3:26-27) Paul says that having been baptised we are to be “clothed in Christ” as a description of our union with Christ. In Romans (13:14) Paul says we are to “put on Christ”. In Ephesians (4:22-23) Paul says that we are to put away our old self and to be renewed in the spirit of our minds “and to clothe ourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” And in Paul’s letter to the Colossians (3:5-14) he is quite detailed about the attitudes in which we are to be clothed: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience ...above all, clothe yourselves with love ...”
And having told us what being clothed in Christ means Paul says something of great value about how one might develop that attitude in the portion of his letter to the Philippians. Remember that this was written toward the end of his life when he was imprisoned in Rome. Paul is not talking about empty and easy rejoicing when all is going well but a deep attitude toward life in the faith. In the midst of trials and suffering the heart can choose to think upon what is true, just, pure, pleasing, commendable - anything worthy of praise (Philippians 4:8).
So let us delight that we and all we meet are invited to the banquet. Let us be available to celebrate. And let us become clothed in a right attitude and approach to life – not denying the horror and problems but focusing on what is good and of God so that what we attend to might flourish in our world for the good of all.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, and open our eyes and hearts to glimpse all that is still good and hopeful, for the sake of your kingdom.