Commentary on Matthew 22:1-14
Matthew’s parable of the wedding banquet depicts a scenario with several seemingly strange aspects:
a king’s invitation to a wedding banquet that is rejected by all the guests; his multiple attempts to entice them to attend; mistreatment of his servants by the latter; his violent and excessive punishment of invited guests; opening up the banquet to anyone and everyone; and the violent response expulsion of a guest whose attire the king deemed improper.
Two aspects of the parable especially call for further exploration: rejection of the king’s invitation and his violent response to invited guests at different points in the story.
From the outset, the parable makes it clear that none of the originally invited guests evinced interest in dining with the king.
Their reasons for declining invitations are unclear but the king’s attitude towards his guests, especially when he had someone thrown out on flimsy grounds, suggests that he likely had a reputation as an impetuous ruler who expected others to act entirely on his terms. The king comes across as someone who had a penchant for employing excessive violence to punish people. That none of his entreaties managed to entice the originally invited guests reflects their ambivalence about him and the undesirability of his company.
In a context where the number of people who attend a wedding banquet reflected the host’s social status, the no-show by the originally invited guests was a profound embarrassment to the king. It was damaging to his social capital and potentially detrimental to his economic interests.
Such a predicament explains his repeated entreaties to the guests and extension of the invitation to “all the people” the servants could find at the street corners. But the king’s impetuous behavior and penchant for violence come to the fore when he ruthlessly targets one of the substitute guests and orders him to be thrown out because of what he considered to be an improper attire. He calls him etaire which is translated as “friend” but, as Stanley Saunders notes, within the context of Matthews gospel, “it is an ironic or even hostile greeting.”1
The parable has primarily been interpreted as an allegory. In many of these allegorical readings, the originally invited guests are analogous to Jewish religious leaders who refused to participate in God’s eschatological banquet and treated God’s messengers harshly. God punished them by using Rome to destroy the city of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 C.E. This parable, like most parables, is certainly ambiguous and multivalent, but it is important to examine whether the king can be taken as analogous to God.
There are two main problems with seeing the king as analogous to God. First, the parable has often been employed to justify suggestions that the originally invited guests were Jewish religious leaders whose refusal to attend the banquet allowed Gentiles, the later invited guests, to participate in God’s eschatological banquet. Beyond the historical and ecclesial context in which the Matthean community may have employed this parable as an allegory, such supersessionist readings remain problematic to this day. Second, many of these allegorical readings depict God as the arbitrary and violent protagonist in the parable who ruthlessly punished those who challenged his authority and burned their city. In the end, he mistreats even those who attended the banquet at his urging and did him a favor. As Saunders pointed out, this king is a demanding and venomous ruler like Herod.2
We cannot dismiss allegorical readings simply because they implicitly perpetuate characterizations of God as angry and violent. God is at times associated with violence in parts of the Bible. However, equating the king in the parable with God and theologizing away such texts runs the risk of providing theological justification for violence some rulers carry out against their own subjects.
Since God is beyond reproach, rulers who act violently as God does in this parable are also beyond reproach and scrutiny. As R.S. Sugirtharajah has helpfully noted, during the colonial era, British interpreters like William Arnot routinely employed texts such as this to justify the empire’s oppressive economic and military policies in India.3 Seen in this context, normalizing depictions of God as angry and violent ruler who ruthlessly punishes others has the effect of condoning imperial violence—past and present—that operates in arbitrary ways and dehumanizes people at the margins.
That Matthew may well have used it as an allegory within his ecclesial context does not require us to retain the same interpretive lens. Equating the king with God potentially attenuates our ability to critically examine the ways rulers treat their subjects as expendables, as did the king to the man who was not properly dressed.
Attributing characteristics of violence to God can become a mechanism for normalizing violence and is at times used to give our own rulers permission to employ excessive violence. By extension it is also a means of allowing ourselves to be violent—through deeds or words—towards our neighbors that are less privileged than us.
If God the ruler is violent, human rulers and humans too can be justified in using excessive violence against others.
Such an approach is especially problematic when rulers use religious institutions and symbols such as the Bible to justify their violence and oppression of those under their jurisdiction. In a cultural and political context where physical violence towards the other—immigrants, racial minorities, and women—has increasingly become commonplace, it is especially important that our interpretations of scriptures do not inadvertently suggest violence as a manifestation of the divine.
The violence towards the end of the parable highlights the absurdity of the host’s suggestion that an invited guest was not worthy of the banquet.
One must ask why the motif of worthiness is a one-way street in this text. If one asks whether this particular king was fit to rule over his people, he emerges as someone who was deeply undeserving of his power and abused it at will.
Rulers—both ancient and contemporary—have a proclivity to be oppressive and solely focused on their own interests at the expense of others. Will they adopt an approach and policies that are appropriate for their office? Will we hold them accountable for their actions and ask if they are worthy of the power entrusted to them?
Stanley Saunders, Preaching The Gospel of Matthew (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 224.
Rasiah S. Sugirtharajah, “Imperial Critical Commentaries: Christian Discourse and Commentarial Writings in Colonial India,” JSNT 73 (1999), 83-113.