28TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
Jesus again in reply spoke to the chief priests and elders of the people
in parables, saying,
"The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who gave a wedding feast for his son.
He dispatched his servants
to summon the invited guests to the feast,
but they refused to come.
A second time he sent other servants, saying,
'Tell those invited: "Behold, I have prepared my banquet,
my calves and fattened cattle are killed,
and everything is ready; come to the feast."'
Some ignored the invitation and went away,
one to his farm, another to his business.
The rest laid hold of his servants,
mistreated them, and killed them.
The king was enraged and sent his troops,
destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.
Then he said to his servants, 'The feast is ready,
but those who were invited were not worthy to come.
Go out, therefore, into the main roads
and invite to the feast whomever you find.'
The servants went out into the streets
and gathered all they found, bad and good alike,
and the hall was filled with guests.
But when the king came in to meet the guests,
he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment.
The king said to him, 'My friend, how is it
that you came in here without a wedding garment?'
But he was reduced to silence.
Then the king said to his attendants, 'Bind his hands and feet,
and cast him into the darkness outside,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.'
Many are invited, but few are chosen."
There is consistency between next Sunday’s Gospel and earlier passages from Matthew: the theme that people are called for a purpose, that they do not meet the desired goal, and they are replaced by others. This motif was certainly evident in the vineyard parables of the past two Sundays. But this parable adds a new twist: there are multiple layers of calls and rejections. The way this text is laid out, as R.T. France points out [p. 820ff], we have double invitations, double sets of expectations, and double sets of expulsions. [The Catholic Lectionary, alas, permits the proclamation of a shortened text, which does not include the expulsion of the man without a wedding garment, so some of you may hear a text where the literary balance is skewed. As my old Greek professor used to say, “Even Homer nods.”]
Matthew has more than sufficiently established the anger and heartbreak of God that his invitation to his chosen people as an entity has gone unheeded. In this narrative the king provides a wedding feast, most likely a reference to the “messianic banquet” image found frequently in the Bible. Psalm 23 is a very early example. Interestingly the son, for whom the wedding feast is held, makes only an early cameo appearance as the excuse for the occasion. The focus is clearly upon the king’s generosity and extravagance of the meal—multiple calves and choice cattle. One of the quirks of this tale is the illogical time line. The dinner is ready—hot and ready for serving; “everything is ready,” the king says—but a great deal takes place between the cooking and the actual sit-down.
In the first instance a round of servants is sent out into the region to alert the (pre-invited) guests that dinner is served. This first call to feast is marked by a simple refusal. There is no reason given for their rejection. The king thus sends a second round of servants, this time armed with menus to extend the same invitation. This second invitation itemizes the good things the king has already done, i.e., prepared the dinner, so the refusal here is more disrespectful to the king. Many scholars see a reference to Israel’s prophets, who extended the call to God’s mercy over a protracted time and were often beaten and even killed.
Matthew’s account states that the range of reactions to the second invitations is extreme. Some just ignored the invitation and went on to farms and businesses. But others beat the servants and then killed them. The king, enraged, sends his armies, who kill not only the murderers, but also burn their city. The destruction of their city is an important qualifier—did Matthew and the early Church see the ruined city as a symbol of Jerusalem, which was in fact destroyed by the Roman army in 70 A.D., at least a decade before the composition of this Gospel? Given the future direction of the narrative, this interpretation has merit. It is worthy to note that the destruction of invited guests and their homeland [i.e., city] gives a sense of completeness to the king’s efforts to win their favor and allegiance.
The king is now in the position of hosting a dinner with no diners. I note with some humor the king’s aside that “the feast is ready;” it has been ready for quite a while, having survived, among other things, a military excursion; why didn’t it burn up (asks the world’s worst grill master)? So, a new invitation goes out, and it is indiscriminate, to “bad and good alike.” Some have interpreted this new invitation as the Church’s outreach to Gentiles, which is possible. It is also true that earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, a few Sundays ago, Jesus tells the chief priests that [Jewish?] prostitutes and tax collectors are entering the kingdom of God ahead of them. The parallel may be that the outcast Jews were coming into the Christian assembly along with Gentiles.
St. Luke also records this extended metaphor to this point, but only Matthew contains what is next. Once the guests are all seated to enjoy some very durable steaks, the king works the room and discovers a man not dressed in a wedding garment. There is some internal textual inconsistency; how would the man have formal attire if he been brought in off the street? St. Augustine theorized that it was the king’s responsibility to provide wedding wear, and the man refused the king’s largesse, a gross sign of disrespect. France does not agree with Augustine, explaining that wedding garb consisted of “decent, clean, white clothes such as anyone would have had available…to turn up in ordinary dirty clothes was an insult to the host.” (p. 826)
France sees symbolism here in a man invited to a free feast who will not even trouble himself to prepare. As France puts it, “Entry to the kingdom of heaven may be free, but to continue in it carries conditions.” (p. 827) The improperly dressed dinner guest has produced no fruit, so to speak, and will be cast into the outer darkness. The text to describe his punishment, “'Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” comes from the non-Biblical source 1 Enoch, an apocalyptic work in circulation around this time. The language employed here conveys utter desolation.
It was a sobering thought then, as it is today, that Christians are just as vulnerable to rejection by the Father in judgment as the Jewish people they replaced. As this Gospel winds down to Good Friday, it will become clearer that the true children of the banquet will be those who stood faithful to the Messiah in his time of trial, and later in the persecutions facing the young Christian Church. Baptism will be no more a guarantee of salvation than circumcision. When Jesus’ Jewish enemies claimed priority as sons of Abraham in blood, Jesus replied that he could raise sons of Abraham from the very stones on the ground. In this respect, the New Testament will be no different from the Old. Perseverance and good works would separate the wheat from chaff, then and now.