< March 08, 2015 >

Commentary on Matthew 22:1-14

 

More than a few elements in Matthew’s story of the wedding feast seem way over the top by any measure of civil, rational behavior.

In the honor-based social systems of antiquity, it would have been unthinkable for invited guests, who would have been from the upper levels of the society and under social and financial obligation to the king to refuse his invitation. Matthew describes not a friendly dinner, unlike the similar story in Luke, but an affair of state in which the guests would signal their allegiance to the host and his heir. Their insolence toward the king and shameful treatment and murder of his slaves constitutes an open revolt. They apparently lack the resources, however, to pursue such a course to its end, for the king immediately destroys them and their city.

The shocking vista of a burning city seems, however, to be only a passing detail, for Jesus shifts the story back to the feast and the king’s efforts to fill the banquet hall -- dinner is apparently still in the oven -- with whomever can be found. Once the hall is filled with guests, including both the good and the bad, the focus turns once more and narrows, finally, to a brief, disturbing encounter with one of the newly invited guests, who has turned up without a wedding garment. Why, we wonder, is the king so adamant about one guest’s clothing, and why is the outcome of this breach of etiquette so dire? Why, more generally, is this story so violent? What does it say about the kingdom of heaven?

In despair of rational explanations for this parable’s extreme images, most interpreters, all the way back to Chrysostom, have turned to allegory: the king represents God; the son is Jesus (although the son does not figure significantly in this story); the wedding feast is the messianic banquet; the rejected slaves are the prophets. The most pernicious allegorical turns typically identify those originally called to the banquet as Israel and the second round of invitees -- drawn from the streets -- as the (Gentile) church. In these readings, Matthew 22:1-7 depicts Israel’s rejection of God and God’s subsequent judgment against Israel, including the destruction of Jerusalem (the burnt city), while 22:8-10 announces the founding of the church, with 22:11-14 serving as a warning to Christians not to fail to wear the clothing of Christian virtues.

This allegorical reading of the parable, now usually identified as the “traditional” interpretation, is seductive because it ties up so many loose ends, rubs off the rough edges, and, most important, locates the church happily at the banquet. It also throws the door wide open to Christian triumphalism and anti-Semitism. We should also be wary of what it says about our image of God. Why are we so often inclined to align and identify God with the male authority figures in Jesus’ parables? More to the point in this story, does God really behave like an ancient oriental potentate? Can we read the parable without resorting to facile identifications of the king and other characters with any particular historical or theological figures?

Both the harsh, hyperbolic tones of the story and the sudden shifts of perspective and setting as the story bumps along from one image to the next lend it an exaggerated, cartoonish quality. As the culminating element in the string of three parables (cf. Matthew 21:28-32, The Two Sons; and 21:33-46, The Wicked Tenants) that comprise Jesus’ response to Jerusalem elites’ challenge to his authority during his occupation of the temple, we should not be surprised if this literary political cartoon is aimed at the politics of the Jewish elites in relation to God’s politics. The first portion of the parable (22:1-7) depicts in graphic, hyperbolic images the unraveling of a society in which the basic codes of respect and obligation are no longer honored, as well as the violence that lies just beneath the facades of decorum. The second portion (22:8-10) does not depict a happy messianic banquet, but the king’s determination to reassert his honor, by filling the hall with “everyone you find” (22:9), regardless of whether they are good or bad (22:10). The scene is driven more by the king’s affronted honor than by any inclusive graciousness toward the little people who are now called to the banquet, as the final scene will make clear. The king also notes that those first called “were not worthy” (22:8), i.e., that they failed to demonstrate appropriate allegiance and honor toward him. The focus on the dynamics of honor continues into the final scene (22:11-14).

When the feast finally does begin, there is still one person who breaks the honor code, by attending the banquet without an appropriate wedding garment (usually clean white clothing), and so draws the ire of the king. Commentators often wonder whether this guest lacked either the appropriate attire or time to change, but the simple fact is that he is the exception, the one guest whose clothing does not fit the context. If those first invited to the banquet were unworthy because they ignored, spurned, or turned to violence in response to the king’s invitation, this banqueter is unworthy because, having accepted the invitation, he fails to discern and participate appropriately in the event, thereby dishonoring both the king and his son.

Through and through, this parable is about “worthiness.” Nothing in this story requires us to read it as a coded description of salvation history from a Christian supersessionist perspective. In fact, when read without allegorical accretions, the parable is a parody of the ancient Mediterranean social and political conventions of honor and shame, and of the violence that lies just beneath their surface and props them up. Like the parable of the two sons, which precedes, it emphasizes the importance of doing the right thing, i.e., what the father/king asks. Like the parable of the tenant farmers, which follows, it points toward the rebellion against their “king” in which the Jewish leaders are now engaging and unveils the violence of the whole system to which they have given themselves. Whether God will act like this king is a question the parable raises but does not answer. Any audience that hears it, whether ancient or modern, Jewish or Christian, should ask: How might we best honor the one to whom we owe allegiance? Can we give allegiance both to the God of Jesus Christ and to the systems of honor and shame and of violence that dominate our world?