I love this morning’s parable of the Wedding Feast—the way Luke tells it. Matthew’s version, not so much!
Matthew’s version challenges so much of what I believe about God’s graciousness, God’s invitation to be part of God’s community. It pushes against the parts of me that make serving a Lutheran church so comfortable—my conviction that salvation is all about God’s gracious call, that we do nothing to earn God’s love and acceptance.
Fortunately, scholars generally believe Luke’s version is closer to the original, and Matthew ‘tweaks’ it a bit to fit the community for whom he was recording it. Remember, the Gospels were not written down until a long time after the events they record. The letters of Paul were written first. The Gospels were not written down until after AD 70, when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem to put an end to rebellion. The loss of the Temple was cataclysmic for that community, it shook the foundations of Jewish faith, and caused those who followed Jesus to break away from their roots. It also led those Jesus-followers to start writing down the stories that would eventually become the Gospels. Until AD 70, they had been able to tell those “Jesus stories” to one another in person. But after the fall of Jerusalem they were scattered all around the Roman Empire. They wrote them down, and as they developed into separate communities, they began to reflect on things he said a little differently, seeing them through the lens of their own experiences.
Each Gospel reveals the writer’s underlying bias or purpose. Mark, believed to be the first, has a sense of urgency in it. Everything happens IMMEDIATELY! and the narrative is a little choppier. (The writer of the Gospel according to Mark could have used a good editor.) The Gospel according to Luke was written with Gentile converts to Christianity in mind. Jewish word and customs are often translated or explained, and we see a much more ‘global’ Jesus, one who interacts with Gentiles and strangers more comfortably and freely, and a much more ‘social justice’ Jesus, who reaches out to the marginalized.
The Gospel according to Matthew, from which our readings are taken for lectionary year A, was written for Jewish Christians (yes, that may sound odd to us), people who had been born into Judaism but had become followers of Jesus.
Matthew needs them to shift their primary allegiance away from the old traditions, leadership, and interpretations of Jewish Law to Jesus, and to the things he taught and did. But Matthew keeps as much of their familiar framework as possible. Matthew gives guidelines for how to be community of faith in this new, post-Temple world, and so is a lot more critical of Jewish leadership. Matthew needs to hold the Jewish leadership accountable for the terrible things that have happened, so that others can see hope and new life in this Jesus Movement, and Matthew keeps the idea of judgment in front of them, so that they’ll stay on the straight-and-narrow and survive the chaos that followed the destruction of Jerusalem by staying in community with one another.
Matthew is not my favorite Gospel. As I said earlier I much prefer the way Luke tells this parable: there’s no violence or harsh judgment, it’s a parable about God’s desire to include the “undesirable”—the poor, the lame, the sick, the outcast—which is Luke’s underlying bias.
So why is it so different in the Gospel of Matthew? It has shifted it to more of an allegory, where each character/action relates to something in life. So we are to see the “king” is God, the wedding party is the Community of God, the slaves sent with invitation are the prophets, the people who reject the invitation are those who have rejected Jesus, particularly leadership of Israel. This bias against Jewish leadership has had tragic consequences in the two millennia since it was written, and I imagine the writer of this Gospel might tone the rhetoric down if he knew what would be done with it—but in Matthew, Jesus passes pretty harsh judgment on those who have failed to fulfill the covenant with God.
And the city that is destroyed is Jerusalem.
Matthew is trying to help them process this devastating event, to find meaning in it. I don’t like how he does that—he sees it as God’s judgment on them, a la Jerry Falwell—but I recognize what he’s doing. Something horrible has happened, and he’s looking for a way to give them a sense of hope and new purpose. So he offers an interpretation that may sound familiar to us, in these days following hurricane, flood, earthquake and fire. In Matthew’s world view, it’s simple: reject the invitation, come up with flimsy excuses why you can’t participate in God’s purposes for the world and live with the consequences. Accept the invitation, participate in God’s Feast, and all is well.
And that’s lovely, of course…until you get to that second part, that “parable within a parable” about the guy without the right clothes. (Generations of uncomfortable “Sunday Best” clothing can be tracked back to this parable!) I don’t think it’s about what actually wear on Sunday, of course. But what does it mean? What is Matthew’s point in adding this extra chapter to the parable of the Wedding Feast?
Theories abound, some good, some not so good. And although I don’t like the way it’s phrased, I think there is an important message in it, particularly for American Christians today, who too often act like ‘getting saved’ is having your ticket for heaven punched, so you can rest easy about what’s going to happen to your eternal soul, but don’t have to think much about what you do in the meantime.
Matthew’s version of the Wedding Feast says that it’s not that simple. There is a complicated balance of grace and responsibility. Grace has brought us through the door—but we have a responsibility to put God’s grace to good use, to share this good news we’ve received. Do we reflect joy at being included? Do we allow ourselves to be transformed, changed? Do we become people of celebration and gratitude? Do we look for ways to extend grace to others? Or do we walk around this party as though we were still toiling away? If we don’t “put on Christ” we’ve missed the point. We may be standing in the middle of the feast, but we’re not participating. We’re not part of it, and we might as well be outside weeping and gnashing our teeth.
When we have fully “entered into the feast” we find ourselves able to be joyful and at peace whatever the circumstances. St. Paul wrote these words from prison:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
We can be in the middle of a wedding feast and be in hell because we aren’t able to enjoy it, and we can be in prison and write words of such beauty and joy that people remember and cherish them 2000 years later.
Which person do you want to be?