Wednesday Bible Study by Pastor Tim

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Read Matthew 22:1-14

The lectionary serves up another tough text this week! The last few weeks have given us some “landmines” from the Gospel of Matthew, and today’s parable of the wedding feast is no different. But here we are! So let’s walk into the story, wrestle with it, and see if it gives us a word of truth and grace.

This is the third parable Jesus tells to religious leaders in the temple, two days before the celebration of Passover and Jesus’ arrest and betrayal. The conflict between Jesus and the “chief priests and Pharisees” has boiled over to a point where temple authorities want to arrest him, but are afraid of the crowds (21:45-46). The story Jesus tells in this polarized context is striking and disturbing.

The first question we need to wrestle with is what to do with the extreme violence in this story. A king sends slaves to remind honored guests to come to his son’s wedding banquet. Some people make excuses for why they can’t come, but others abuse and kill the king’s messengers. The king angrily puts the wedding banquet on hold to wage war against the city, razing it and its inhabitants to the ground. After inviting new people to the banquet, the king sees a man at the party not dressed appropriately and has him thrown into the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (22:13) The violence depicted here by the honored guests and by the king’s unhinged response is outrageous.

Yet throughout Matthew’s narrative, there are surprising outbursts of bloodshed. King Herod massacres infants in and around Bethlehem (2:16-18). Herod’s son beheads John the Baptizer (14:1-12). Matthew frequently uses a favorite expression—“weeping and gnashing of teeth”—to describe horrific punishment. (Besides our text today, other examples are 8:11-12 and 25:30). Even as Jesus rejects the response of violence when he is arrested (26:52), he himself undergoes brutal suffering and execution on a cross.

Author Debie Thomas writes that Matthew uses this device of exaggerated violence, or hyperbole, to force us to see how we project onto God our own human tendencies. “We don’t generally go around professing belief in a God who turns cities into ashes. But do we—consciously or not—present to the world a God who is easily offended, easily displeased, easily dishonored? A God whose holiness rests on the foundation of a righteous and even violent anger?” (Christian Century, “Living by the Word,” Sept. 14, 2017) The outrageous nature of this parable serves as a mirror, forcing us to name and see violent impulses within ourselves and the world.

Another question to wrestle with is Matthew’s tendency to divide humankind into two camps: righteous or wicked, sheep or goat, good or bad, wheat or weed. In this parable, when the king issues a final invitation, it is a mixed crowd of “good and bad” people who fill the wedding hall (22:10). Richard Swanson notes that even though Matthew tends to divide people and judge them accordingly, he ends his narrative with a “mixed” group of disciples, with some worshipping Jesus and some doubting (28:16-17). “For the first time (and in this last scene) Jesus does not send anyone off to the outer darkness.” (Richard Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew, p. 242-43) In the end, the risen Christ does not send the disciples into punishment, but includes them in his mission of new life.

It is interesting, too, to note that the words in the parable, “Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet” (22:9), find an echo in the risen Christ calling his “mixed” disciples in the Great Commission. Perhaps God is relentless in inviting us to the wedding banquet, and making sure we have the resources and gifts to keep inviting others—the good, the bad, and everyone in between.

Reflection Questions

1) What do you find troubling about this parable of the wedding banquet? How do its troubling aspects relate to our world today?

2) How can the church embody and share an image of God that is full of grace and welcome, rather than hatred and anger?

3) In what ways are we called to invite others to know God’s steadfast love? How do we invite others even as we acknowledge our own mistakes and failures? How do we invite people to see a church not full of perfect people, but “mixed,” simultaneously believing and doubting, saint and sinner?

Extinguish the candle