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Matthew 22:1-14

October 6, 2014

This parable is very similar to Luke’s parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14:15-24.  But they are also substantially different.  Matthew’s is a response to the religious leaders questioning Jesus’ authority, whereas Luke’s is a friendly/challenging response to a dinner guest’s positive comment.  Luke’s version emphasizes surprising inclusion whereas Matthew’s emphasizes a warning about exclusion.  Luke’s is about a rich man having a banquet whereas Matthew’s is about a king hosting a wedding.  Luke’s is nonviolent in tone whereas Matthew’s is quite violent.  Luke’s feels like a natural story whereas Matthew’s seems to be a very conscious allegory.

Jesus could have told both parables, or it may be that Luke and Matthew are giving their own versions of a single parable told (perhaps on many occasions) by Jesus.  My own sense is that Luke’s version is more natural and original to Jesus, whereas Matthew has refashioned the parable into an allegory about the history of the early church and the final judgment to come.  If it is an allegory about the history of the early church and the coming judgment, then its meaning is something like this:

The king (God) is having a wedding banquet (the inauguration and celebration of the kingdom of God on earth) for his son (Jesus).  God has sent his slaves (prophets) to announce an invitation to join this wedding feast.  The invited guests (the Jewish leaders) reject the invitation and even kill some of the prophets (like John the Baptist, and some early disciples of Jesus, and Jesus’ brother James).  Enraged by this rejection, God sent an army (the Romans) to destroy the Jewish leaders and their city (Jerusalem and the temple).  Now God sends his slaves (Christian missionaries) into the streets (the Gentile world) to invite everyone to the wedding feast.  They gather everyone they can, both good and bad (Christians who actually follow the ethical teachings of Jesus and those who claim to be Christians who do not follow the ethical teachings of Jesus).  When God notices a guest who is not wearing a wedding garment (not clothed with the higher righteousness taught by Jesus), God confronts him and the guest is speechless (without excuse).  So God throws him into outer darkness (final judgment and separation from God).

These themes can be found throughout Matthew’s Gospel.  Matthew sees that the church contains a mix of genuine and false followers of Jesus (the parables of the wheat and the tares, and of the dragnet of fish).  He is concerned that those who claim to be Christians must actually follow Jesus’ teachings (Matthew 7:15-27) or they will be tossed out at the last judgment.  In the meantime, the church must try to exclude those who continue to sin against others and will not repent (Matthew 18:15-18).

This parable, as it stands, is notable for both grace and judgment.  The shocking grace is that everyone is invited, and indeed many will join–both good and bad.  Matthew acknowledges that this is the nature of the church.  The gracious, loving, open invitation to all means that, inevitably, the result will be a mix.  We are not capable of determining who is genuine and who is not (“Judge not lest you be judged”), so the wheat and weeds grow up together, the good and the bad fish are caught together, and the banquet house is filled with those dressed appropriately and inappropriately.  The only excluding that is allowed is when persistent sin is harming those in the church; this the church cannot tolerate.  So the church will continue to be a mix of the genuine and the false until God does the final sorting at the end of history.  This is how I read Matthew’s theology and understanding of the church.

It seems to me that Matthew has preserved Jesus’ original radical call of grace, inclusion and acceptance, and has combined it with the practicality of limited and loving discipline (Matthew 18) needed as the church continues.  I think Matthew has preserved Jesus’ original insistence that God does the final judging/excluding–not us.  Matthew’s ecclesiology (theology of the church) is realistic and functional while also combined with amazing grace and constantly offered forgiveness.  The church will inevitably disappoint us from time to time when we see the smelly fish or the dirty-clad wedding guests within.  But how could the church be otherwise if it is also a community of grace with an open invitation?

Reinhold Niebuhr, comparing the church to Noah’s ark, once said we would not be able to stand the stench within if it were not for the storm without.  My own experience with the church is more positive than that.  I am glad it is filled with ordinary and flawed people who make constant mistakes.  It means I’m at home.  What gives me real joy and hope is that we’re here because we are loved and we want to share that love.

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