Gospel Text – Matthew 22:1-14
These late parables in Matthew are very challenging for the interpreter but are worth the extra effort when you dig in. Let me give you a few thoughts to prime the pump, and then let’s see where it goes.
You will remember that the focus during the past few weeks has been on the “little ones” and our call to use power to serve them in their need. This is the reverse of thinking in the first century and the twenty-first century. In chapter 19, Jesus will apply this framework to the question of divorce, and to the rich young man. The disciples assume that power, privilege, and position flow toward the deserving. But the case of the rich young man challenges that assumption. Peter then wonders if the meritocracy is based on sacrifice rather than riches. That’s the question asked and answered at the end of the chapter. Matthew 19:30 and 20:16 create what is called an inclusio. We know that Matthew is focusing our attention on the great reversal at the heart of God’s reign.
There is the continuing question of “greatness” in the reign of God. That issue has not yet been settled. We hear that the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve. He enacts this in the healing of the blind man at the end of chapter 20. This is the climax before the Palm Sunday parade. In this way we know what greatness in the reign of God truly is—not military might or political power or the wonders of wealth but rather self-giving service.
In Matthew 21 Jesus “invades” Jerusalem in a mock royal procession. He enters the temple and attacks the commercial system that undergirds the institutional collaboration, cowardice, and corruption at the heart of the temple system. At the same time, he heals the blind and the lame—the least, the lost and the little ones, the last in the earthly kingdom. The Jerusalem authorities challenge Jesus to present his authority credentials to justify why he has done these things.
He responds with a series of parables that turn the question back on the Jerusalem elites. The parable of the wedding banquet is a further response to that question and to the great disruption he describes. “Religion,” writes Douglas John Hall, “is glad to consider itself a beacon to those who are drowning in the seas of life. But it resists fervently,” he notes, “the prospect that in order to save the perishing it may have to risk its own life.” (The Stewardship of Life in the Kingdom of Death, page 19).
Now to the parable. It may be two parables in one, but it is important to see and grapple with the connection between the two. First, we have the invitation to the privileged – the typical and expected guests. But they resolutely reject the invitation and kill the messengers.
Why did the first invited kill the messengers? The royal invitation is treated like an invasion (do we hear echoes of the Palm Sunday parade?). Acceptance of the invitation is acknowledgement of the king’s authority. “By what authority” remains the controlling question here. The first ones ignore, then reject, and then attack the authority of the king. They don’t accept the king’s jurisdiction and the implicit claims on their allegiance, property, and persons. They just want to be left alone.
Robert Farrar Capon’s comment at this point is just too good to pass up. “Score a sad point, therefore,” he writes in Kingdom, Grace and Judgment, “for the unhappy truth that the world is full of fools who won’t believe a good thing when they hear it. Free grace, dying love, and unqualified acceptance might as well be a fifteen foot crocodile, the way we respond to it,” Capon concludes, “all our protestations to the contrary, we will sooner accept a God we will be fed to than one we will be fed by” (Kindle Location 5927). I resemble that remark!
This dynamic is rooted in the patron/client system of obligations at work in first-century Mediterranean culture. In their Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Malina and Rohrbaugh fill in some of the details. They note that the double invitation was typical for such events. The two invitations “allowed potential guests to find out who was coming and whether everything had been arranged properly. If the right people were coming,” they continue, “all would come. If the right people stayed away, all would follow suit. Trivial excuses follow” (page 134).
They note that the flimsy excuses communicate disapproval with the dinner arrangements. The disapproval becomes an insult to the king’s honor when the slaves are murdered. A royal insult produces a royally irritated and violent response. An additional response is the invitation to the non-elite since the first invited are deemed not to be “worthy.” The king would provide the wedding garments for these “non-elites,” since they couldn’t be expected to have the right clothes on hand. The king spots a person who shames the king by not accepting the gift of clothing. The king responds by shaming the man through expulsion.
If you are a Harry Potter fan, you might think about the way in which the gift of clothing set free the elf, Dobby. For non-fans, it won’t be much of an illustration, but for HP afficionados the connection will, I think, be immediate.
Malina and Rohrbaugh describe at length the importance of table fellowship as a social ceremony and indicator of status. Matthew is clear that the Christian table is to be an inclusive one. The gospel begins with representatives of the “nations,” coming to the manger in the persons of the kings from the East. The pre-passion narrative concludes with the Parable of the Great Judgment of all the nations. The great commission sends the apostles to teach the gospel to all nations. “The refusal of those first invited to the great banquet,” write Malina and Rohrbaugh, “is…a statement of social exclusivism among the elite, while the invitations to ‘everyone you find’ (22:9) are evidence of inclusive Christian social practices that are reflected in their meals” (page 137).
I would suggest several resources at this point. John Pavlovitz’s book, A Bigger Table, is an important read in thinking about our practices of invitation, welcome and inclusion. “There’s no altar call, no spiritual gifts assessment, no membership class, no moral screening, no litmus test to verify everyone’s theology and to identify those worthy enough to earn a seat at the table.” Pavlovitz writes. “Their hunger and Jesus’ love for them alone, nothing else, make them worthy. This is a serious gut check for us” (pages 61-62). If you want a video illustration, you might find clips from Babette’s Feast. Or you might use the “welcome” scene from Antwone Fisher. The latter is a particularly moving experience of inclusion.
Do you find any connections between this text and communion participation? “The only ones who will not enjoy the Marriage Supper of the Lamb,” writes Capon, “are those who, in the very thick of the festivities, refuse to believe they are at it” (Kindle Location 5991). I still resemble that remark. “Hell,” Capon concludes, “is simply the nowhere that is the only thing left for those who will not accept their acceptance by grace” (Kindle Location 6011).
Historically this text has been used to bash the Jews for rejecting the gospel. Let’s not be part of that faithless and disgusting practice. These parables to the leaders are pleas for repentance. Why tell them if Jesus is certain that no change is forthcoming? At the end of Matthew’s Holy Week, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and longs to cover the inhabitants like a loving mother hen (but they would have none of it).
These parables hope that the listeners might still respond to God’s love and repent. Please, Jesus seems to plead. Please, wake up! What will it take for us to wake from our anxious and angry slumber in our own time and place?
The 2014 workingpreacher.org commentary by Lance Pape is particularly good on this text. The real crime, as Pape notes, is “failure to party.” The first part of the text is a failure to party from “the outside.” In this time of terminal seriousness and deadly despair, this is a necessary and challenging message! The second reading supports this theme, especially in verses four through nine. And if the first reading is from Isaiah 25, then verses six through eight are also right on target.
Why don’t the leaders get it? After all, they are supposed to be the “brightest and best” Jerusalem has to offer. But soon Jesus will describe them as blind guides. He has already declared that the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom ahead of them. Privilege, power, and possessions are the cataracts of the soul. This is the message of the conversation with the rich young ruler. The more we have, the more our vision is clouded by the need to justify and protect what we have. Jesus offers a critical analysis of the Jerusalem religio-political system and urges them to change before it is too late.
In his great little book, The Stewardship of Life in the Kingdom of Death, Douglas John Hall describes it this way.
The greatest critics of Jesus, like the greatest critics of the prophets of Israel before Jesus, were those reputed to be the most scrupulous in their devotion to the Deity. In the name of their religion, i.e., in the name of their established systems of belief, ritual, and morality, they rejected the invitation to open their lives to the wider, uncharted regions of the world to which Gold’s unconditioned love willed to manifest itself. (page 17)
The invitation is renewed. This time it is for the riffraff on the far edges of the kingdom. It is without qualification—for the evil and noble alike! So, we have the parable of the underdressed guest. This a failure to party from the “inside.” This guest seems to have accepted the invitation but has no intention to participate in the party. “The great, deep mystery of God’s forgiveness,” notes Wright in Matthew for Everyone 2, “isn’t the same as saying that whatever we do isn’t really important because it’ll all work out somehow” (page 82).
Grace is always free but never cheap. Sharon Ringe’s 2011 commentary on workingpreacher.org captures this well. But grace doesn’t “require” a response. Grace creates the response. If it is not forthcoming, then the grace itself has been rejected. Again, we can turn to the second lesson. Committing ourselves to God in Christ produces the peace that makes it possible to set our minds on the “whatevers” in verse 8.
First Reading – Isaiah 25:1-9
Chapters twenty-four through twenty-seven are often thought to have been written by a member of Isaiah’s school during or immediately after the Babylonian exile and are often referred to as the Isaiah Apocalypse. The chapters leading up to this Apocalypse have been oracles of judgment on the nations. That judgment comes to a climax in Isaiah 25:1-5. The imperial capital is a ruined heap, and the palace of the emperor has been erased from the pages of history. The nations will know now who is in charge of the cosmos. In this process, the LORD has cared for the poor and needy.
Verses six through nine describe the feast of victory on Mount Zion. Death will not only be destroyed, but in fact God will feast on death and swallow it forever. “The period of oppression and scarcity — along with the implicit threat that it might continue despite the removal of the Assyrians — is symbolized by death itself,” Christopher Hays writes on workingpreacher.org (2017). “For an ancient Near Eastern audience, the image of death being swallowed up would have been a delightful reversal, because Death was commonly deified in the Levantine world as a Great Swallower.” In verses quoted in the Book of Revelation, we see that tears will be expunged, and shame will be removed from all the earth.
This passage “does not yet reflect belief in the resurrection of the dead, which will come many centuries later,” notes Patricia Tull on workingpreacher.org (2015). “However, Paul employs it in his description of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:54. It is also paraphrased in Revelation 21:3-4. The grateful hymn that follows in verses 9-10a echoes the vocabulary of numerous Psalms (see for instance Psalms 35:9; 130:5; and especially 118:24).”
Second Reading – Philippians 4:1-9
Where does this text fit into Paul’s argument? We have another “therefore,” so we know a transition is happening. Is verse one the conclusion to the preceding exhortation, or is it an introduction to the following words of encouragement? I think it’s the conclusion of the preceding, so we should focus the reading on verses 2-3, 4-7, and 8-9.
There is debate about the address to Euodia and Syntyche. It may be that they are having a dispute. Or it may be that we have imported that notion into the letter based on some sexist assumptions. I have been guilty of that possibility in my own interpretations. David Frederickson suggests that this letter is both a thank you note for financial support and a letter of endorsement for the ministry of the two women who have struggled beside Paul in the work of the gospel. It may be that the real target of this letter is the congregation, (or more specifically a local leader named Syzygus) who may be resisting their leadership.
In verse two Paul urges the women “to be of the same mind in the Lord,” This is the same phrasing as we met in the Christ hymn in chapter two. This continues to be Paul’s focus.
As noted above, verses four through seven probably offer the best homiletical support for the gospel reading. The Holy Spirit creates this way of engaging with life. It’s not clear if verse seven is a promise or an exhortation (“may the peace of God”). I lean toward the NRSV translation which makes the gift of peace the outcome of rejoicing in the Lord always. Paul is describing the way of life for which we are made.
Verses eight and nine would make a fine agenda statement for this time when we focus almost entirely on whatever is fake, whatever is ignoble, whatever is irritating, whatever is blameworthy, every lack of excellence, and anything worthy of criticism. Paul knows we can choose where to put our focus. It is a focus on the goodness of God’s love and salvation that will open us to God’s peaceful presence.
Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus.
Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels
Pavlovitz, John. A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community. Presbyterian Publishing.
Wright, N. T. Matthew for Everyone, volume 2.
“Harry Potter freed Dobby” — https://youtu.be/EHPSY3QrgnI.
Welcome clip from Antwone Fisher — https://youtu.be/jTQMR1lsiGw.
Hall, Douglas John, The Stewardship of Life in the Kingdom of Death (revised edition). Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1988.