Today we have would-be dinner guests murdering servants, a King who overreacts, a man dressed inappropriately, then thrown into outer darkness – and wailing and gnashing of teeth. For those of a certain vintage it’s like a Roald Dahl ‘Tales of the Unexpected’. Or, if you prefer, one of those Zombie horror movies on Netflix – where there’s seemingly no happy ending but you’re sure there’ll be a sequel.
It’s yet another example of Jesus looking to capture the imagination of his, largely critical, audience in a surprising way. It’s an attempt to shock people who think they’ve done no wrong into reflecting about their own attitudes and actions. And that, of course, means us now as well as them then.
All sorts of people
Stripping away the packaging, Jesus is telling his audience that the invitation sent out by God for salvation is extended to all sorts of people. In Matthew, it’s to anyone who could be found, including both the good and the bad. In the equivalent story in Luke, it includes the poor and the lame, the blind and the maimed. Those considered to be outcasts by the people that he was talking to. And that’s not just good news, that’s great news. Every single one of us is offered salvation. The question is, how do we respond?
Our Gospel passage harks back to a conversation which started seven hundred years earlier and is found in our OT reading today (26:6-9). Isaiah dreams of a great feast to be held at the end of time where the Lord puts on a spread for all peoples, without distinction. No distinction between status or health or wealth or nationality. Death will be at an end and tears will be wiped away on this glorious day of salvation.
Which sounds lovely – but over the years the thought of Jews and Gentiles sitting down for dinner together became rather unpopular. A number of writings (e.g. Enoch) pushed back against this idea and around the time of Jesus, the Qumran community (which wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls) were certain that only pious, healthy and fully-abled Jews would be allowed to attend that final banquet.
As you might expect, Jesus had rather different ideas. In Luke 13 he describes people coming from all points of the compass to eat with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the prophets. Then in Luke 14, and here in Matthew 22, both versions of the same parable, he takes it a stage further.
In a traditional Middle Eastern scenario, the host of a banquet would invite people first and, depending on who accepted, would then cater accordingly. On the day, the animals would be butchered and the food prepared. As it was nearing readiness, the host would send round his servants to tell those who had said ‘yes’ that grub was up, so come now to the table before it gets cold.
In our story, none of those who had previously accepted, come. And, initially, no reason is given, and the King sends a second batch of servants to ask again. This time, some flimsy excuses are offered up, which are more detailed in Luke than in Matthew. Now if you’re invited to a meal, and you accept, then you’re expected to attend. An implausible excuse is a deliberate and public insult – bad enough for anyone who has gone to the trouble and expense of putting on a spread. But in Matthew’s version it’s the King who is the host, the King who is insulted and humiliated.
More than that, just like the earlier parable about the tenants in the vineyard, the servants are roughed up and killed. A further gross insult to the King, whose honour is now very much at stake.
So, what does the King do in response to that insult? In Luke, the host shows amazing grace. He had every right to retaliate but he turns the energy, that would or should be anger, into grace instead. He tells his servants to invite all those others on the margins. All those that the Qumran community would have excluded.
In Matthew, we do eventually get to a similar point, with anyone and everyone invited to attend, including both the good and the bad. It’s undeserved. They didn’t earn a place at the banquet. They’re there through God’s good grace.
But first, the King has the murderers killed and their whole city burnt, which presumably would have affected many more than just those few who had committed the insult and the crime. It doesn’t seem like a proportionate response. And all this while presumably the meal is being kept warm in a low oven…
But then the actions of the guests against the King are tantamount to insurrection and high treason. For Jesus’ immediate audience, the King’s response was possibly the least unexpected part of the story. His servants had been killed and his honour insulted multiple times. The King should respond in the strongest terms or risk being shamed and appear weak.
For us now though, we might be feeling a bit uncomfortable. The King, the host of the banquet, represents God. We expect to see the turning of a cheek, forgiveness given seventy times seven. That’s what we see in Luke’s version and the one in the Gospel of Thomas too. And it is hard to square with the picture that we get of God elsewhere. What’s going on?
Well, it is just a parable and maybe we shouldn’t overthink every detail but there is a thought that perhaps Matthew, writing some years after Jesus, added this extra bit himself, thinking especially of the destruction and burning of the Temple in Jerusalem. Maybe Matthew was looking to rationalise it and show it as a punishment from God. Or perhaps, if Jesus did say it, then he was tying his listeners back in to the start of the reading from Isaiah – that the destruction meted out to foreign cities in the past could be true for them now. Which does rather draw you to Israel and Gaza today. Cities being burnt and destroyed.
But then what of the man without wedding clothes, who ends up in outer darkness accompanied by wailing and gnashing of teeth?
If the man’s just been pulled in off the street, of course he’s not got the right clothes on. But then, presumably all the other late arrivals were in the same position or there would be a number who were similarly in lumber. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. There’s something about this particular man.
Augustine said that the cultural custom at the time was for a King to offer his guests appropriate clothing if they didn’t arrive with any – which the other guests presumably must have accepted – but this man must have refused.
Other commentators have written that this just meant having a clean set of your best clothes and that time must have been given to go home and get changed, which everyone else had done but not him.
Either way, the point here is about there still being standards and expectations, some change of life and attitude, in the Kingdom of Heaven, no matter how late you receive the invitation. And that’s a notice to us all. Metaphorically, how well dressed are we for the Kingdom?
There might also be a clue in how the man in the wrong clothes is addressed. He’s called ‘Friend’. Jesus uses the same greeting in the parable of the labourers in the vineyard when those who have worked since morning are grumbling at the generosity of the owner at paying everyone the same wage: ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual wage?’ (20:13). Is there a warning here to us about meanness of spirit?
Jesus also uses ‘friend’ somewhere else too. It’s how he addresses Judas when he comes to betray him in the Garden of Gethsemane. ‘Friend, do what you are here to do’ (26:50). So, perhaps that word stuck and, years on, Matthew is especially thinking of Judas.
Our passage ends with ‘Many are called, but few are chosen.’ Judas was called, and, ultimately, he made his own choice. In our attitudes and actions, what choices do we make? Do we exclude ourselves from our own calling?
Luke doesn’t make a big thing about outer darkness, wailing and gnashing teeth. It does seem to be one of Matthew’s favourite catchphrases though. In Jewish thought, these words describe the fate of the ungodly. Not necessarily for eternity. More a time of regret for choices made, since in Judaism the focus is on sanctification in this world rather than what happens in the next. The power of repentance now, both individual and communal.
Here and elsewhere, the shocking provocation spoken by Jesus to his audience was that the Kingdom of Heaven would be populated by believers, regardless of their heritage or nationality or physical appearance or ability. He wasn’t having a go at Jews or Judaism in favour of Gentiles. The contrast Jesus was making was one of belief versus unbelief.
We are similarly challenged. Have we for years been receiving the invitation to God’s banquet of salvation – but refusing to come when initially we showed all the signs of acceptance? Or have we come along but not changed in any way?
It’s a little like the parable of the seed and the sower. We might all receive the same quality of seed, but what is the state of our soil – and how fruitful have we been with what we’ve been given? Amen
- Bailey, K.E. (2008). Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes. SPCK.
- Blomberg, C.L. (1990). Interpreting the Parables. Apollos.
- France, R.T. (1985). IVP.
- Levine, A-J. (2022). The difficult words of Jesus. Canterbury.