Lectionary: Matthew 22:1-14
The context of the story we call the Wedding Banquet is the struggle the early church had in its exclusion by the religious authorities of Israel. Matthew is using the early Christian traditions to show this has, in fact, been a victory for the Christians, and a vindication of God's plans.
In Chapter 21, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, and attacks the commerce in the temple. The authorities counter attack, challenging his authority. All through the chapter we see Jesus winning. This debate continues through Chapter 22, and by the end of this chapter it says no one dares ask him any more questions. Matthew's story will move on to the destruction of the temple, which is already foreshadowed in today's reading.
The keys to understanding this story of the wedding banquet rest in two areas. Firstly, the nature of weddings in Jesus' time. I currently have on my desk an invitation to Cate's wedding. I worked with her for a number of years. The date and time of the wedding and reception are clearly indicated. In the villages of Palestine in Jesus' time, the day was clear, but the time was not. When the feast was ready, messengers would be sent to alert people that the event was ready to begin. So the notion that the king would send out messengers in the way the story described was the norm, even though it may seem unreal or artificial to us.
The second thing about Jesus' society is that it was an "Honour-Shame" society. In our society Britney and Paris are celebrities simply because they are rich and outrageous. That means that going out without panties, and urinating in the back of taxis is somehow acceptable, even admirable in some people's eyes. These girls are far removed from the generation whose mothers said "always wear clean underwear in case you are in an accident and taken to hospital!" Those same mothers, rightly I suggest, would say the behaviour of these girls is shameful.
In Jesus society, honour was everything. Honour in Israel is to be righteous in the sight of God.
Thus, a Zacchaeus could be enormously wealthy (which would get him high status in our society), but that he gained that wealth as a tax collector shamed him before Israel and made him an outcast. Likewise, priests like Zechariah who might be very poor would be honored with service at the altar in the Jerusalem Temple, simply because he had been a faithful priest all of his life. Understanding that Israel was an "honor-shame" society throws Jesus' parable of the royal banquet into new relief.
Where families today disown a member because of their behaviour, we have a sense of the power that shaming can have.
Even in today's narcissistic and self focussed world, it creates a stir if someone refuses an invitation from the Queen to Buckingham Palace. "Shameful!" we say. How much more so in the time of Jesus' Israel, when kings and rulers were despotic, and held the power of life and death on a whim.
Accepting the invitation of the King to his son's wedding feast, and then refusing to come was about the worst thing a person could do. It shames the King. There is a huge loss of face for him. And so he retaliates. He destroys the city of these shameful people. Matthew's Christian readers, of course, have identified the King as God and Jesus as the son. They would see the story as a foretelling of the destruction of Jerusalem which occurred perhaps a decade before Matthew was written.
(Interestingly, we might see that in this case the people "merely" insult the king, and bring shame on their own family. Working in an honour shame society, I remember someone who had been, in my terms, insulted saying "He's shamed me, man." In the context of the story, saying the king was insulted, may well be an understatement.)
Matthew's readers would take great comfort in the image of the king inviting the people in from the streets. These are the people who would often be regarded as unsuitable by polite society. They are the outcasts, and the unclean. They are the people likely to be despised, as Christians were. In the story the Christians are able to say to the synagogues, "See, we are the ones invited to the feast. You shamed God in your refusal to come."
If Jesus told such a story in the temple precincts in Jerusalem, it would have been scandalous. The meaning is obvious. I imagine that "Matthew" has emended the story to his own purpose 50 years later, where it is still a shocking story. In his day, it contains a further twist or shock. For in the wedding there is a man wearing the wrong clothes. This was in the social setting where at such an important event, the King would actually supply a garment for each of the guests to wear! This man, given enormous privilege by the king, had not even the decency to wear the clothes he was given.
One of the commentators says the wedding garment is the death and resurrection of Jesus: i.e. he makes a directly allegorical connection. It is certainly the case to say that this "banquet" called the Kingdom of Heaven is a gift; however,it still has obligations. I may be given tickets to an exclusive restaurant that has a five year waiting period, but once there, I must act appropriately. That act is to do with following the gospel of Jesus. There is a sting in the tail of the tale. Matthew is telling his people; do not think we are here by right. We were the strangers and stragglers in the lanes; this is all gift, we have no right to be here. Let us live out the life of Jesus.
It is this twist that brings the story into our time. It is not a mere historical tool in the arguments of Christians bolstering and encouraging themselves in the arguments with the Pharisees and synagogues which had expelled them. It is a timeless story, for Jesus says constantly that "The kingdom of heaven IS like..." There is the sense of a current reality, not just the final feast in these little stories of the kingdom. He is pulling it back from the future into our experiential reality. The way we live now can affect our reality. Do we wish to be cast out? What does it mean to wear the wedding garment?
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