Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us your gift of faith that, forsaking what lies behind and reaching out to that which is before, we may run the way of your commandments and win the crown of everlasting joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
MATTHEW’s narrative gives the impression that, shortly after angering the chief priests and the Pharisees with the parable of the wicked tenants, Jesus returned to the fray and told them another story, this time about a wedding banquet.
It is impossible to know how far apart the two episodes may have occurred. The Gospel-writer’s intention is that they should be seen in close proximity, and that the hard message drawn from the tenants’ behaviour should be heard again, even more forcefully.
In both parables, a message sent by a figure of authority is treated with scorn. Messengers are killed, the authority figure becomes enraged, and the outcome that would have resulted from obedience is radically overturned. Yet where there might have been a motive for murder in the case of the tenants, it is hard to see why receiving an invitation to a banquet should cause such an extreme reaction.
Even more difficult to fathom is why the king should punish someone who came at short notice when other guests defaulted, for not being properly dressed. We have to agree with Brendan Byrne that the allegory of the second parable is too far removed from plausibility to be treated in realistic terms (Lifting the Burden, Liturgical Press, 2004).
Walter Brueggemann points to a way of reading the parable that does justice to it on its own terms. He begins where the parable begins, in Isaiah’s song of praise to the Lord who promises deliverance (Isaiah 25.1-9). The Gospel-writer has found the image of banquet here (Isaiah 25.6), but has not neglected other features of the song.
Brueggemann identifies in it five very different images of God: a powerful destroyer; a place of refuge for the poor and needy; the “giver of the biggest dinner party you ever heard of”; a monster who devours death; and the gentle nurse who wipes away tears (Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, Volume 1, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
He observes that no single image can be adequate to characterise God. At the same time, he points out how the different images work together to tell a story of deliverance. Oppression is banished, freedom follows in its wake, fear ends in a safe haven, hunger ends in feasting, death is conquered, and God’s people are nursed back into well-being.
And so, from this description of the future, God longs to give his people to Matthew’s wedding banquet. Brueggemann moves quickly to the wedding garment, which is not mentioned in the Lucan version of the parable (Luke 14.16-24). “This is a very odd turn to a lovely metaphor,” he comments. “I take it to mean, when you get invited to a new metaphor, you have to respond and define your life in terms of it.”
He goes on to insist that, with this God, no one can be a bystander, because the character of God will affect individuals directly and inevitably. What God is doing, Brueggemann explains, is putting an end to an order that is “old and tired and crippling and damaging”, and making a new beginning.
The improperly dressed wedding guest has accepted the invitation, but not the responsibility of making a new start (clean clothes were all that would have been expected, John Fenton notes, not anything elaborate: The Gospel of Saint Matthew, Penguin, 1963).
Brueggemann’s ironic comment on what happens next is that “both Isaiah and Matthew are offers of a God who is not bland and not domesticated and not safe”.
This does not dispose of an uneasy sense that the God communicated through the parable has been capricious, like the gods imagined by King Lear, who treat human beings as naughty boys treat flies, and “kill us for their sport”. Fenton reminds us that there is a logic, and that the king’s second set of invitations gathered “both good and bad” (Matthew 22.10). The parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13.24-30) has already suggested that good and bad will be allowed to live side by side until the final judgement; in the parable of the wedding banquet, judgement has come closer.
A different interest in living side by side informs Paul’s exhortation to the Christians at Philippi, as he comes to the end of his letter. He is exercised by the evident friction between Euodia and Syntyche, especially as they have worked hard with him to advance the gospel (Philippians 4.2-4). Disharmony is a scar on the face of this beloved community: the only people who contributed to Paul’s appeal on behalf of Macedonia (Philippians 4.15).
Without unity of mind, the flourishing of the whole Church suffers. Paul urges them once more to persist in virtue, and, by implication, to put self aside and allow God to continue the work of transformation that has been a dominant theme in this letter.