I have to be quite honest. There is really nothing about this parable from Matthew that I like and is one of the reasons that I struggle with the Gospel of Matthew. “The weeping and gnashing of teeth” is one of my least favorite scriptural phrases and appears in Matthew a total of six times. It appears in Luke only once and not at all in Mark or John. But alas, this parable (along with other difficult parables from Matthew) appears in our lectionary, so we must not skip over it. We must take it seriously and spend some time with it. That is the discipline with which our lectionary provides us.
The Gospel of Luke has a similar parable, as does the non-canonical (non-Scriptural) Gospel of Thomas. Unlike the parable in Matthew, the similar parables in Luke and Thomas are not violent. The person holding the banquet is not a king and the occasion is not a wedding, but simply someone holding a great dinner. In all three parables the original invitees to the great dinner reject the invitation, but in Luke and Thomas, no one kills the messengers, and the host does not retaliate with violence. He simply goes out and invites those not normally invited to such great meals: the poor, crippled, blind and lame. Luke’s and Thomas’ versions are much more palatable for modern tastes.
So, what do we do with Matthew’s version then? Well, first I think we need to put Matthew’s version in its original context. Matthew added the details of king, wedding, and violence for a reason. Most scholars feel that Matthew changed the parable because Matthew was facing a very different context than Luke and Thomas faced. Matthew and his community were Jews. They were synagogue-attending Jews. And they were followers of the Jewish man, Jesus. Their continued insistence that Jesus was the Messiah that everyone was waiting for was putting them at odds with their fellow Jews who did not see Jesus in the same light, and conflict was breaking out between the two groups.
Now throughout the centuries, Christians have condemned the Jews who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah for their resistance. I am not so judgmental. Think for a moment if a group arose in our midst who began telling us that a new Messiah had come and that we were to follow this new Messiah. I suspect most of us would feel at the least irritated and at the most outraged. We would ask them on what basis they made this claim. And if they caused great disruption to our community, we might just ask them to leave. In other words, we probably wouldn’t like it either. Indeed, Mormonism is an example of such a rift within American Christianity. I personally respect Mormonism’s right to follow a new prophet and to seek God as and how they will, but I find it to be a different religion from Christianity. Mormons, however, would say that they are Christians. And, in the early days of the split, Mormons did meet with violence from Christians who did not believe that the Mormons were following Christianity. This is how they ended up in Utah.
So, we have most of the synagogue-attending Jewish people of Matthew’s time saying that Matthew and his followers are not really Jewish anymore and Matthew and his followers saying, “Yes we are and we have the true Judaism that you need to follow.” It is a recipe for conflict and violence. Remember that the Jewish community of Matthew’s day is also still struggling throught he trauma of the destruction of their Temple, their most holy place, by the Romans. This is the lens through which Matthew shares this parable. From his perspective, he and his group who follow Jesus are the true inheritors of Judaism and those who refuse to see Jesus as the Messiah are rejecting the truth and will never know the kingdom of God. God gave them a chance and they threw it away. And God punished them by allowing the Romans to destroy the Temple. Now the doors are open for everyone else and those who rejected Jesus will know only “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Does this mean we should just ignore Matthew’s version of this parable because we live in a different time and place? Well no. After all we say that Scripture, all of Scripture is the living Word of God. This means that we must wrestle with all of it. But putting it into context is important for two reasons. First it helps us understand why Matthew added the details he added and second it helps us avoid the hugely mistaken ways this parable has been used over the centuries. Unfortunately, far too many Christians have used this parable over the years to say that the Jewish people are going to hell for rejecting Jesus and therefore any violence we use against them is justified. It has been one of the many parts of Scripture that have been used to support anti-Semitism, and there is nothing godly about that. Understanding the context helps us to place ourselves in the shoes of those Jewish people who didn’t see Jesus as Messiah. And also helps us to see that Matthew’s conflict was not one between Jews and Christians but was between Jews and Jews.
So, now that we have understood the context, and refrained from using this parable an antisemitic way, what are we supposed to do with it? Well, first and foremost we are to understand that this is a parable and therefore is not meant to be interpreted literally. While many interpreters have seen this as simply an allegory with the king being God, the first guests the Jewish leaders who rejected Jesus, the second guests as the Jews and then later Gentiles who accepted Jesus, and the wedding guest not clothed properly as a follower of Jesus who failed to clothe himself properly in the Christian virtues, it is not quite as simple and obvious as all that.
God is not a violent king. While the king is like God, he is not God. Those Jewish people who did not see Jesus as the Messiah for whom they had been waiting were not all evil and unfaithful people. So, what is in this parable for us? Well, parables, while not meant to be interpreted literally, are meant to be subversive. They are meant to turn the world and its systems on its head. Setting our modern sensibilities about violence aside, the violence in this parable shakes us up and grabs our attention. It reminds us that we are not just living out our own personal stories, but are a part of a larger story, God’s story, and it is this story that is of the utmost importance. What we do as people of faith matters.
Like the first guests in the parable, we too get caught up in our own self-importance, our own sense that it is our own individual activity and life that matters most, and in so doing, we too ignore or even forcefully reject invitations from God to join in God’s redeeming work in the world. We value our own security over the good of others in our work, in our treatment of others, in our investments, in our life, in our everything. We forget that we are because God is, just as others are because God is. We forget that we are here by God’s grace, and we think that who and what we are is entirely of our own making and invention.
Other times we do show up to the banquet, but we think that it is the showing up that is all that matters. We are good church going people, what more do you want from us God? Well, this parable tells us that God’s wants all of us, not just the parts that we feel like giving. And God wants all of us not because God is jealous, or possessive, or an angry tyrant. God wants all of us because God’s work is that important. God’s kingdom is that important. And God will never stop working to make this kingdom, God’s dream for the world a reality. God will open new doors. God will break traditions into pieces if necessary, including our own beloved tradition. If we do not respond to the invitation, God will find others. That is how important this dream is. It can feel like bad news if you are not willing to give your all to God, but in fact it is good news. It means that God never gives up. No matter how many times we humans reject the invitation and choose not to love, God will not give up on us. And God’s dream for the world, God’s kingdom is worth this kind of commitment.
Now, I will probably never like this parable, even after all this reflection. It is not one I will ever turn to for comfort. And it is still important. When I truly and honestly engage and wrestle with it, it does remind me of the urgency and importance of God’s dream for us. A dream to which we often give lip service but not true commitment. Do we really believe that God loves everyone, absolutely everyone? Do we really believe that Jesus came to reconcile and heal all of God’s creation? Then we not only have to show up at God’s banquet, we also have to live in the way God would have us live, all the time. We have to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and we have to love our neighbor as ourselves. God wants us not only to come to the wedding. God also wants us to join in the party. The question this parable asks us is will we join the party? Amen.