The Guest at the Banquet

Matthew 22:1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying:  2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.  3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come.  Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’  5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business,  6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.  7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.  8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.  9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’  10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 

11  “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe,  12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.  13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’  14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Fredrich Wilhelm I, king of Prussia in the early 18th century, had a hot temper and a short fuse.  He often would walk unattended through the streets of Berlin and if people saw him coming they would do their best to make themselves scarce, because if anyone displeased him for even the slightest of reasons he wouldn’t hesitate to thrash them with his walking stick.  One day an unlucky man who didn’t see him coming in time attempted to slide into a doorway to avoid the cantankerous king but his efforts were in vain.

“You,” called Fredrich Wilhelm, “where are you going?”

“Into the house, Your Majesty,” replied the nervous man.

“Into the house?  Your house?” asked the king.

“No,” replied the poor man.

“Why are you entering it, then?” asked Fredrich Wilhelm.

The unfortunate man, afraid he might be accused of burglary, decided to tell the truth.  “In order to avoid you, Your Majesty.”

Fredrich Wilhelm scowled. “To avoid me?  Why would you want to avoid me?”

“Because I fear you, Your Majesty.”

King Fredrich turned purple with rage and began to beat the poor man’s shoulders with his walking stick as he shouted, “You’re not supposed to fear me!  You’re supposed to love me!  Love me, you scum!  Love me!”

Do we sometimes see God as being like Fredrich Wilhelm—hot tempered with a short fuse, ready to punish for infractions large and small?

I thought about that as I read the parable in this week’s gospel lesson and how we have traditionally interpreted it.

I need to say before I go any further that this parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew is one of the most challenging, if not the most challenging for preachers and scholars.  Just about any way you approach it you will find problems and loose ends—pieces that just don’t fit.  No less a scholar than David Lose said, “This parable seems just plain nasty. Not so much because it’s difficult to interpret – it is to some degree – though mostly, I think, because we don’t like what it says—but rather because of the indiscriminate violence in the passage.  What are we to make of it?”[1]

As with so many of Jesus’ parables, we have traditionally interpreted this story of the wedding banquet as an allegory and assigned identities to the characters. 

In most of these interpretations, the king who gives the banquet represents God and the bridegroom/son represents Jesus.  

In one traditional interpretation, the original invited guests who turn down the invitation represent the people of Israel, and the people brought in off the streets represent the gentiles who are brought into the feast when Israel turns down the invitation.  

In one historical interpretation, the invited guests who refuse to come represent the Pharisees and the street people who take their place represent the new Christian community, those people first hearing and reading Matthew’s gospel.

There is another interpretation, David Lose calls it the “Lutheran” interpretation, which doesn’t dwell on those who decline the invitation or the street people who take their place at the table.  This interpretation focuses, instead, on the gracious generosity of the king who issues the invitation in the first place, first to the chosen, then in opening it up to “everyone they found.” 

In all these interpretations, the wedding robe is understood to be God’s grace which clothes us in imputed righteousness.  The guest who is thrown out into the outer darkness for failing to wear a wedding robe is understood to represent someone who refuses to accept God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

That’s pretty much how I’ve always heard this parable preached or taught.  These interpretations works well enough up to a point, but they’re not without their problems.  So let’s look at some of those problems, the things we gloss over if we keep hearing this story the same way we’ve always heard it.

Let’s start with the son, the guest of honor at the banquet.  If this is Jesus, in this story being told by Jesus, he is oddly passive in this story.  The son does nothing.  He does not deliver the invitation or announcement of the feast.  He does not supply the wedding robes which, in traditional interpretations represent being clothed in grace.  He does not intervene on behalf of the guest being ejected into the outer darkness.  He is utterly and completely passive.  Would Jesus have described himself that way?  Is that how you understand Christ?

What about the idea that those who first receive the invitation represent the people of Israel, the Jews, and the street people who take their place at the banquet are the Gentiles who would later dominate the church?  The people of Israel reject the king’s, God’s, invitation, so God destroys them. On one level, it’s easy to see how this fits. You can interpret the slaves delivering the invitation as the prophets.  You could argue that the destruction of the city is an allusion to the Romans having destroyed Jerusalem.  But remember, the first people reading this account in Matthew were Jewish Christians, probably living in Syria.  There is good evidence that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew.[2]  Even the people hearing this story in the Jewish Christian community of Matthew’s gospel still thought of themselves as Jews, as the people of Israel, but Jews who had received Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah.  Would they be likely to hear this as a story about God’s rejection of Jews and acceptance of Gentiles in their place?  Also, this interpretation leads all too readily to antisemitism—and has historically been used for that purpose.  Would Jesus, a Jew, be likely to tell a story with such a theme even if it wasn’t the main theme?

If we choose an interpretation that focuses primarily on God’s grace, then what do we make of the king’s violence?  If grace is our theme, how do we understand the king ordering one of the guests to be bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth simply because he didn’t wear a wedding robe, especially since we are given no reason for why he’s not doing so?  And what do we make of that last line—many are called but few are chosen—when it seems like the many are staying at the banquet and the few, the one, really is being chosen for a rough exit?

If we take any of these approaches, we miss something else going on in this parable in Matthew.  There is a very similar story in Luke 14, a story of a great banquet, but it is a much milder story.  The host is a merely a man, not a king.  The invited guests make excuses, but no one is punished for not coming, except that they don’t get to taste the delicacies at the banquet.  No violence.  No wedding robes.  No outer darkness.  But in this story in Matthew those are the things Jesus is using to make a point.  But what, exactly, is the point he is trying to make?

If we look closely we’ll see that there is a lot going on politically in this story.  The host is not just a man, he’s a king.  That means that the invitation to the banquet carries a certain weight.  It is, in fact, a genteel form of command appearance.  The noted English Biblical scholar, Richard Baukham, put it this way:

The attendance of the great men of the kingdom at the wedding feast of the king’s son would be expected not only as a necessary expression of the honor they owe the king but also as an expression of their loyalty to the legitimate succession to his throne. Political allegiance is at stake. Excuses would hardly be acceptable, and the invitees (unlike those in the Lukan parable) offer none. To refuse the invitation is tantamount to rebellion. In refusing it, the invitees are deliberately treating the king’s authority with contempt. They know full well that their behavior will be understood as insurrection. This is what they intend, and those who kill the king’s messengers only make this intention known more emphatically. The king responds as kings do to insurrection (v. 7).[3] 

So… we have a king whose kingdom is in open rebellion.  Why?  In response to his envoys being killed he launches an all-out attack and destroys the rebellious city.  But the feast is all prepared and must go ahead.  He has to save face.  He has to show his political strength and force.  The aristocrats who were invited are out, so he turns populist.  He brings in people off the street.  It’s right out of the Roman playbook–bread and circuses, just like Julius Caesar.  Just like Augustus.  But when he sees one poor schmo who isn’t in formal wear he has him booted.

And now we’re back to Fredrich Wilhelm I.  Capricious.  Thin-skinned. Hot tempered.  Short fused. 

Is that how we see God?  

More importantly, since Jesus is the one telling this story, is that how Jesus saw God?

I don’t think so.

Quoting Jesus from just this Gospel of Matthew, we hear him say, “Your Father in heaven makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (5:9).  “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (6:8)  “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (6:26)  “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” (10:29)

Does that sound like the king in this parable?  Or is Jesus trying to tell us something else here?   

Is there a way to hear this parable where we hear Good News?  Is there a way to hear this short story by Jesus where we Gentile Christians don’t get a version Good News that’s just cheap grace at someone else’s expense?  As Debi Thomas put it, “— not the mingy Good News that secures my salvation and my comfort at the expense of other people’s bodies and souls — but rather, the Good News of the Gospel that is inclusive, disruptive, radical, and earth-shattering. The Good News that centers on the Jesus I trust and love.  What would it be like to look for Jesus and his Good News in this story?”[4]

What happens if we reassign the roles in our allegory?  

Credit where credit is due.  I am indebted to Debi Thomas for what comes next, an idea which has completely changed the way I see this parable.  In her weekly lectionary essay in Journey with Jesus she wrestled with all the difficulties in this parable and then arrived at a solution unlike any I’ve ever seen or read before.  I’ve shared her essay with several colleagues and we all think she’s on to something.

What if the king represents all the powers that be in this world, the powers that insist we conform to their norms—religion, politics, the boundaries of society—the powers that rise up to crush anything or anyone that steps too far out of line, that rejects and ejects those who don’t wear the garment of conformity?

What if all the people in this parable are just that?  People in their stratified layers.  The aristocrats and wealthy who get the embossed invitations to all that’s good in life and then everybody else—regular people who go about their lives making do but who sometimes get a fabulous break because the original guests are no-shows.

What if Jesus is describing the system as it was, and as it is—the way the world works, with its hierarchies of wealth and levers of power, with its struggles for control and its pressures to create and maintain business as usual?

And then, what if the “God” figure in this parable is the guest without a wedding robe?   What if Jesus is the one who refuses to wear the wedding robe, the garment of conformity?  What if Jesus is making a statement and saying, “I refuse to play along.”

When the king asked “Friend how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” the guest was speechless.  When Jesus stood before Pilate, he was speechless, too.[5]

What if the way to the real celebration was to opt out of the coerced party hosted by the powers that be,  to refuse to wear the clothes of conformity, to let yourself be bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness, just as the way to Christ’s resurrection was through the cross and the tomb, just as the way to eternal life is through death?

What if Jesus is the guest being forcefully ushered out of the party?  What would that mean for us as followers of Jesus?

Would you be willing to take off your robes of privilege, position, power and wealth to follow him into the outer darkness?   Would I?

Many are called.  Few are chosen.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.


[1] In the Meantime, Pentecost 19, A Limited Vision, David Lose.net

[2] Was the Gospel of Matthew Originally Written in Hebrew?,  George Howard, Bible Review 2:4, Winter 1986

[3] Parable of the Royal Wedding Feast, Richard Baukham; Journal of Biblical Literature, Fall, 1996, p.484

[4] The God Who Isn’t, Debi Thomas, Journey With Jesus, October 11, 2020

[5] Matthew 27:12-14

I Can Read it Myself. Sort of.

Every God-breathed writing is also useful for teaching, for reproach, for correction and restoration, and for instruction in righteousness and justice so that the person of God may be completely equipped for every good work. – 2 Timothy 3:16, (my translation)

“I have my own Bible and I can read it myself,” said the man, a little heatedly. “I don’t need anybody to tell me what it says.” Much as I wanted to respond, I knew it wasn’t the right moment. That discussion would have to wait for a calmer time. Besides, I knew exactly how he felt. I remember feeling that way, too.

When I first went to seminary I thought I was pretty darn well prepared, at least in the important qualification of Knowing My Bible. In 1980 I had worked as a line producer on the team that recorded and produced Zondervan’s NIV translation of The Bible for distribution on cassette. We would start recording the narrator at 6:00 a.m. Mid-day I would edit the tapes, cutting out mistakes and outtakes. In mid-afternoon we often recorded actors from the South Coast Repertory Theater voicing different characters in the text. I did some of the voice work, too. In the evening, more editing, then mixing with sound effects and music. Often we worked until midnight. Many nights I simply slept at the studio so I could start the cycle all over again at 6 the next morning. For nine months I was utterly immersed in the Bible. Genesis through Revelation. So when I entered seminary in the fall of 1992, I Knew My Bible.

I knew my Bible. Well, I knew that Bible, the NIV—and that was what set me up for my first shock in my first class on my first day at seminary. We were required to used a different translation! We were required to use the NRSV as our primary Bible, but also to use it in reference to other selected translations, commentaries and lexical materials. Not only that, but, at least in Dr. Victor Gold’s Old Testament class, the NIV was specifically NOT allowed. This did not sit well with me. When I asked why, he stated that there were several reasons and that he hoped that by the time I completed his class I would be able to answer that question for myself. Then he picked up my copy of the NIV from my desk, thumbed through a few pages and read from the forward, “One of the goals of this translation team was to adhere as strictly as possible to the traditional interpretation of the text.” The traditional interpretation of the text. “That’s code,” he said, “for the King James Version, and the King James, for all its poetic grandeur, is in many respects a very poor translation of the original texts.”

I thought I knew my Bible. I thought I could read it myself and didn’t really need anyone to tell me what it said. I was just beginning to learn how little I really knew. It was more than uncomfortable. Sometimes I felt something akin to anger as this thing I loved so much, this hard-won familiarity with the text in which I had taken so much pride and in which I had found some necessary self-assurance as I embarked on this adventure in seminary education was dismantled piece by piece to reveal a chasm of ignorance.

Thank God for my professors, my teachers, who managed to humble me without humiliating me so that they could spark a hunger for a deeper knowledge and more complex and meaningful relationship with the Bible and, more importantly, the God we encounter in its pages. Thank God for Bob Smith and Everett Kalin who taught us to read and translate the ancient Koine Greek of the New Testament and opened our eyes to myriad translation choices that must be made in doing so. Thank God, even, for curmudgeonly Victor Gold who set a very high bar for exegesis of the Old Testament, demanding that we understand the cultural context in which the texts were written, requiring us to compare translations and textual variants, and requiring us to compare the Hebrew stories to analogous stories from the ancient writings of the other neighboring ancient cultures. Thank God for Martha Ellen Stortz who boggled our minds in Church History with an overview of the astonishing diversity of beliefs that fell under the label of “Christian” in its first four centuries before Orthodoxy was officially established by imperial edict. Thank God for all of them for teaching us that The Bible, as such, didn’t even exist until Constantine ordered Eusebius to arrange production of 50 copies, and that, even then, the question of which books were in and which were out would not be “officially” closed for another 12 centuries and is, in fact, still an open question when different denominations and traditions discuss the matter. Thank God for Timothy Lull, that giant of a Luther scholar who helped us put all these pieces together in the context of Martin Luther’s writings, theology and interpretive paradigms. Thank God for Ted Peters, the systematic theologian, who opened our eyes to the ways that these sacred texts have created divergent theological rivers through history and are still branching new streams today because different people in different places living in different circumstances will hear the same text in very different ways—and God is speaking through all of them. Thank God for Gary Pence, the thoughtfully good-natured classics scholar/theologian/psychologist who helped keep our heads from exploding and steered our angst into what would eventually become deep pastoral channels. Thank God for all of them for reminding us, repeatedly, that this book we cherish and carry with us, this book which has quite literally shaped our world—this book is not a book at all, but a library, an aggregation of ancient pieces written at diverse times over a period of 3000 years by more than 40 authors in at least 3 languages—a collection of history, folk tales, poetry, laws and prophetic oracles that portray how these ancient peoples experienced God so that we can have some context for our own experience of God.

I have my own Bible. I can read it for myself. But oh, how much richer I am because I have learned to read it with others. And I still need others to help me discern more fully what it is saying. Thank God for those who have read with me, who taught me to read more deeply, who teach me still.

Each will be like a hiding place from the wind, a covert from the tempest, like streams of water in a dry place, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land. Then the eyes of those who have sight will not be closed, and the ears of those who have hearing will listen. –Isaiah 32.2-3

So…with whom are you reading your Bible?