The Bewildering, Blessed Banquet

Speaker: Caleb Schrock-Hurst

Main Bible Passage: Matthew 22:1-14

From worship on 2023/10/29

This is the second sermon in a row I’m giving on a “difficult” parable — last time was on the unforgiving servant, this time on the wedding banquet; both are parables that end with people being tossed into hell — not the most comfortable topics for the first two sermons at a church I’m still getting to know!

Like with the last parable, though, I think there is, at the heart of this parable, a really wonderful nugget of acceptance and diversity paired with the reassurance of God’s justice and righteousness — we just have to dig a little to get this message. This idea of wrestling with scripture to find God is also right in line with the very fun and informative book we’ll be discussing at book club after the service. Thanks in advance to Morgan for leading that discussion.

 

So, today, I want to start by taking a step back and looking at what we do when we encounter difficult texts, and in particular the importance of researching context; to do this, we’ll look at Matthew’s gospel — it’s audience, and the context of this story, because I think it really impacts our understanding of the parable. Then, we’ll dwell on the parable itself, and in particular why the man invited off the street didn’t receive the King’s approval, the ‘bewildering’ piece of the story. Then, I want to tie these two threads together and think a bit about communion — our great blessed banquet at King Jesus’s table.

 

So, first — Biblical Interpretation and Matthew.

As part of my other job — Church Relations and Racial Justice for Virginia Mennonite Conference — I’ve recently put a lot of time into restarting a weekly Men’s Bible Study that meets in Harrisonburg. When I was growing up, my Dad would often try to get me out of bed at 6.30 AM to attend, but what teenager wants to get up early for breakfast and bible study, primarily with a group of stuffy retirees, who don’t find 6.30 AM early? 

He only succeeded in getting me to go once, actually when I was in college — and in hindsight, I wish I’d gone more. It was a pillar of our community, a time when men from many churches gathered together — and as many things that we counted on, it was there until it wasn’t when Covid hit. 

When we gathered again for the first time this past Tuesday, it was a bittersweet time — about 20 of 60 or so regular attendees of the study passed away in the last three years. 

I share this for two reasons — 1. I’m in charge of live streaming this study, so if you want to start your Tuesdays bright and early with a streamed bible study, the info is in the bulletin!, but also, 2. We restarted the study by looking at some principles of biblical interpretation.

Ervin Stutzman, former Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA and now a mentor of mine, led us in our first study by highlighting the nine principles of biblical interpretation affirmed by delegates at a Mennonite Church at a gathering in Colorado in 1977 — though this was 45 years ago, this list is one that still speaks life. 

These guidelines are: 

  1. Observe carefully what the text says. 
  2. Be sensitive to different literary forms. Today, we’re looking at a parable within a gospel.
  1. Study the historical and cultural contexts of the passage. We’ll spend a lot of time here today. Just going to run through the rest.
  1. Make use of various translations. 
  2. Consider how the text has been interpreted by others. 
  3. Consider the message of the Bible as a whole. 
  4. Meditate on the Word in a spirit of prayer. 
  5. Listen for the guidance of the Spirit, individually and as a congregation. 
  6. Respond obediently to the Bible’s message. 

Ervin followed up these points by sharing an assumption that should have been included in the list — a very Anabaptist-Mennonite assumption — that bears adding: We interpret the bible Christo-centrically, with Jesus’s words and themes as the ultimate authority above any other. A more memorable — or perhaps just rhyming way of saying this — is: ‘When the bible disagrees, Jesus is the referee.’ 

So, what do these principles mean for the parable of the great banquet?

This parable, as I mentioned earlier, is one that can seem to make little sense — why would the king invite someone to the banquet in haste, and then reject them for being unprepared? When we run into stories like this it should humble us and spark curiosity. We should turn to principles two and three above — there may be some piece of historical and cultural context that we are lacking. 

We can look at context both generally — say, what book of the bible it’s in — and specifically — in this case, what were weddings like at this time? I’ll turn to the specific context key I think we need to understand this passage later, but I want to briefly highlight the context of the book in which we read this Parable — Matthew.

As we know, the four gospels were all written some time after Jesus’s death and resurrection. Each of the gospel writers, while inspired and empowered by the spirit to portray Jesus faithfully, nevertheless portrayed Jesus in specific ways and contexts. Matthew’s focus is on Jesus as a teacher and law-giver squarely within the Jewish tradition. Though we aren’t completely certain, we believe Matthew lived in Antioch, modern day Antakya, Turkey, in Turkey’s far SouthEast; and, through context clues, we believe the author was a Jewish believer writing to an ethnically-mixed congregation.

In addition to this locational context, though, we also need some more historical context. In particular, we have to know of one of the most traumatic events in the history of the Jewish people, which took place about forty years after Jesus’s life, and shortly before the book of Matthew was written — the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Rome had for several generations tolerated some amount of Jewish independence by allowing the people to continue their worship practices pretty much un-disturbed. The Jewish elders Jesus is talking to in this passage were serving as intermediaries to Rome — but after they led an armed uprising against Rome, in search of an earthly independent kingdom, Rome sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. Estimates vary wildly, but some go as high as a million Jewish people being displaced in that war. 

Some of those displaced, no doubt, fled north and ended up in Antioch.

It’s in this context — of fear, pain, and despair, that Matthew is written. Matthew is written to a community full of refugees, immigrants, and new believers, hearing again the stories of a Messiah of peace, who had promised a new kingdom and new future for his people — but all hopes of that kingdom being an earthly one in Jerusalem are now gone. Some of Matthew’s fellow church members may have grown up in completely-Jewish communities — where association with any Gentile — Gentile, of course, just meaning non-Jew — made them religiously unclean. Now, there was no possibility of living in only Jewish towns and cities, and there wasn’t even a temple to remain clean for — it was a bewildering new era, of new questions — questions of who is welcome to the banquet of God.

It is no wonder that Matthew, as he recounts the life of Jesus, is preoccupied with one of the core questions of the whole New Testament — how do we live as Jesus’ followers now? Is this new faith in Jesus a Jewish faith, or a Gentile one, or both? How Jewish do gentile converts need to become to follow Jesus? And how Jewish should Jewish followers of Jesus stay?  

 

To put this another way, Matthew is asking: who is invited to the blessed banquet?

This brings us to the Parable of the great banquet

Echoes of the fall of Jerusalem are evident in this story — the king, God, sends his servants to invite his subjects to a banquet for his son, Jesus. But rather than be excited about this celebration, the subjects who should be most honored to attend refuse to join the celebration — coming up with lame excuses: like needing to work. It’s an imperfect analogy, but imagine I received an invitation to dinner with president Biden, but instead of accepting, I say, sorry, I really need to check my email.  

God’s servant, Jesus, is sent to people who should be delighted to accept, but he is rejected, and God punishes the subjects who reject his invitation. The destruction language here, for Matthew’s audience, would clearly have inspired memories of the destruction of Jerusalem.

But the messages of rejection in this story and throughout the New Testament are not so deep that we need to follow them to the terrible places they sometimes have been in Christian history — to anti-Semitism, or deeply anti-Jewish understandings. 

We need to remember that fierce debate within the Jewish community was, and is, a norm — and that nearly every single author in the New Testament was Jewish and understood themselves to still be Jewish as they followed Jesus and critiqued their cousins. Additionally, criticisms throughout the new testament towards ‘the jews’ are often actually directed — as this parable is! — not to Jewish people as a whole, but to the Pharisees and Sadducees; specific religious and political leaders. It is a basic point, but it is worth making since many Christians have failed to make it throughout history — Jesus chastisement of specific leaders is nothing at all like condemning all Jewish people as somehow outside the love of God. 

Okay — aside on anti-Semitism over. With this parable, Jesus is warning his listeners that when God does a new thing, sometimes the people we would most expect to be ready for that new thing are in fact the ones who most easily miss the point, or dismiss the invitation. 

We should put ourselves in the shoes of these quests who were first invited. If you, like me, were raised in a Christian home, this parable may be directed at us — we might be the guests first invited who reject God’s invitation, due to hypocrisy, or fear, or simply being busy with work. All of us need to be on our guard for the times when God is at work in the world — we need to be ready to accept the invitations to the banquet that God will always bring. We must not reject the prophets and servants that God sends — we must keep awake to find God at work in the world; we must keep awake to the fact that our own traditions and beliefs and responsibilities may prevent us from going to the feast that God has prepared. 

Of course, eventually, the king decides to invite random people in from the street to the feast: a surprising, exciting choice. Can you imagine, today, being invited in off the street, directly to a wedding? It would be exciting, for sure…but definitely slightly confusing, or bewildering — and it would have been even more confusing a picture for Matthew’s audience. 

New Testament scholar Michael Joseph Brown, in True to our native land, an african american new testament commentary, describes the banquet this way: 

“The king’s slaves [bringing the invitations] are treated shamefully, an insult to the king’s honor. The king now invites others — anyone the slaves can find — to the feast. This would have been a remarkable scene; people of different social status rarely ate together in antiquity. The idea of a king eating with someone “off the street” would have been unthinkable. This parable serves to highlight the inclusiveness of the Christian community, where slaves ate with masters, and the rich and the poor sat at the same table.” 

To Jesus’s audience, the idea of a king dining with a seemingly random, unworthy group was bewildering — it just wasn’t done. But, by Matthew’s day, this mixed table wasn’t just metaphorical — it was what happened every time Christians ate together as a congregation.

This is the bewildering, blessed banquet. People from all backgrounds: Jews and Greeks, Slave and Free, Rich and Poor, brought together by the king and his son. Thanks be to God, we are still living as this surprising, diverse, beautiful family.

Of course, however, this inspiring scene isn’t the end of the parable — we’re next treated to someone being tossed into hell! How does this fit with the vision of inclusive community we just saw? Interestingly, some commentaries I read actually divide this story into two distinct parables — one of the invitations to the guests, and one of the guest rejected by the king 

Without some historical context, it makes no sense that someone invited in off the street to a wedding would then be tossed out for being dressed inappropriately — it makes the king seem like some picky, shallow person. But if we search for a cultural clue, this story logically follows the previous one.

At this time in the ancient near east, part of hosting a wedding was buying each of your guests a new formal set of clothes — a massive and costly expense, but a wonderful, celebratory gift for the guests. We take cheap clothing for granted today; in Jesus’s day, clothing was hugely expensive — as an aside, this also should shift our understanding of Jesus’s command to give our shirt as well as our cloak when asked. 

Anyhow — the king of this parable — God — doesn’t single this fellow out for being poor and unprepared, but for coming into the feast and then rejecting a precious gift that God has offered him. This would be like, perhaps, being offered a 3,000-dollar suit, and also a meal — and then accepting the meal, but not the suit. 

Why would he do this, we may ask? Like the guests who rejected the invitation in the first story, he fails to take the king and the banquet seriously. To me, his old clothes that he refused to take off symbolize his responsibilities and old way of life — I think this guest wanted to go away unchanged, back to his old ways, rejecting the full gift of grace that God has offered him. 

So, even understanding this guest to be rejected not randomly but for ignoring the king’s main point of hospitality, what does any of this mean for how we should live today?

It goes back, I believe, to where we place ourselves in the parable. Though we correctly should check to see if we find ourselves among the subjects who reject God’s invitation, we should also ponder if we are acting like this guest. There are times when, as believers, we want some of the food that God offers, but we struggle to part with our old ways of being and our old, earthly, individual priorities. Are we ready to accept that the king loves us enough to give us new clothes — new family among God’s family, new lives of giftedness after brokenness, new robes of splendor after old work clothes? Do we come to God to be fully transformed, or are we holding back, unwilling to accept the king’s gifts? Can we take off our old clothes — of racial prejudice, preference for the rich, and fear of others — and enter God’s diverse family?

 

One of the ways we remain anchored as people of faith, asking these questions, is through rituals like communion. 

There are many, many sermons that have been and can be preached on communion — it is one of the most treasured and central elements of our Christian faith. Always at the center of communion, despite some variation among different Christian traditions, is the banquet table.

The meal table — the breaking, sharing, and eating of food together — is one of the most human symbols of community there is — and one of Jesus’s most routinely scandalous activities was whom he would eat with — people like the former prostitute and the demon posesee Mary Magdalene, and tax-collecting social outcasts like Zacheus.

More than these special cases, even, Jesus ate daily with his disciples; a rough crowd of ex-fishermen and wannabe revolutionaries! The Messiah was expected by devout Jews in Jesus’s day — but many didn’t expect him to break bread with day-laborers, tax assessors, beggars, and scandalous women — they expected the Messiah to eat, I suspect, with religious leaders, doctors, lawyers, and politicians. 

If Jesus lived today, he would eat with everyone — recent immigrants, the homeless, and fast-food workers — those who come to the banquet when invited. Truly, I think we’re all surprised to find ourselves together at God’s table — and yet it is a blessed thing. 

But at the same time we are compelled to change when we come to God’s feast. All are invited — and all are changed. We are no longer merely folks from the street surprised by God’s invitation — we are no longer merely fishermen and tax collectors; we are no longer only teachers and NGO workers, lawyers and business owners, dentists and handymen, fathers and mothers, daughters and sons living as we always have: Now, we are family members, celebrated guests of the king, bearers of the good news. We are offered a seat at God’s table, as one of his children.

Communion is a ritual that reminds us of this — we are now all connected as a family, God’s family. We are connected horizontally, one might say, to our siblings in faith we eat in person and with and those all around the world who take communion; we are connected down to the Earth, creation, through the wheat and grapes that have grown with God’s blessing, and we are connected upward, to God. We are connected in the shape of a cross as we celebrate communion together. 

 

So — we’ve talked biblical interpretation and Matthew; we’ve talked this parable as one of both welcome and caution; and we’ve talked communion as a glue that binds us all together. How should any of this make us live when we leave this place?

To quote Paul: We should live lives worthy of the calling we have received. We’re here, at God’s table, and when we go out, we now represent Jesus, our king. May we go out having taken off our old clothes — of ethnic hostility, of fear, of greed — and replaced them with the good news and right living. May we be people that come to the blessed banquet happily surprised by whom we’re seated beside, ready to accept God’s full call to new lives, to a table where all who have heard God’s call are welcome; and may we go from that table with true joy and praise. May it be so.