Parable of the Wedding Banquet, from paintingvalley.com
We reach the last part of Matthew’s gospel as Jesus enters Jerusalem. (If you’re wondering whether you missed something, we didn’t read it – we reserve it, for the beginning of Holy Week in Lent.) The confrontation with the Pharisees and Scribes comes to a head even as the parables of Jesus take a dark turn. This could already be seen in the gospel readings we had from the last weeks, but the violence in this week’s gospel can make us quite uncomfortable.
Who is this King, who gets so angry that he would kill his invited guests and burn down their city? Or throw another guest into darkness, who is found without the proper attire! If this king stands for God, a surface reading of this parable makes him out to be completely capricious – and cruel. If that is unsettling, the behaviour of those invited is far more bizarre. No one turns down an invite from the king. It would be the equivalent of turning down an invite for tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. This being the wedding of the King’s son would make their action not just rude, but a statement of rebellion against their future king. The King invites them twice – which no king would do. The guests respond by mistreating and killing the messengers! The first thing to note is that this is not straight forward allegory. There can be more or less allegorical elements in any parable, though they usually don’t work completely in that way. The exaggerations in the narrative are meant to stir us, wake us up from any kind of spiritual lethargy. There is a tone of urgency and judgement which accompanies all of the parables towards this end of the gospel. It comes from the moment of judgment that was impending on Jerusalem at this time. It was a time of crisis for Jerusalem and a warning for the first Christians, even as it is for us today.
The word ‘judgement’ comes from a Greek word which means to ‘decide, separate, or judge’; it is also from which we get the word ‘crisis’. Each moment of judgment is also accompanied or preceded by a crisis of sorts. As this article notes, a crisis is normally ‘a parting of ways – a point of uncertainty before events move on’. This point of uncertainty or instability moves or forces one to a point of decision – or judgement. Depending on the severity of the crisis this judgment can have far-reaching effects, for the better or worse.
We are all confronted with a hundred or so judgments that we have to make each day. Some are quite small and mundane, like what to eat for lunch; others can be very big like which career to choose or whom to marry. An interesting study of how great leaders make consistently good judgments (see here), revealed that they tend to understand this judgment not as a single event but as part of a larger process. These processes are not completely removed from the spiritual life. It can be broadly broken into a preparation phase, the act of judgement and execution (following through with that judgement). The preparation requires consciously identifying the story or narrative which forms the basis of one’s life. A narrative which sees one’s goal in life solely along the lines of having a successful career or making money might lead to different decisions from a narrative which sees one’s life’s goal as becoming a saint (not that saints cannot be rich). The story line which frames our life, gives us our values and the context are what come into effect at the moment of decision. As the article notes, good leaders are those who “make a habit of sensing, framing, and aligning so that they are prepared for the call, which can arise at any moment.” Doctors and nurses in a trauma unit are always prepared for the ‘crisis’ that comes their way, every few minutes. Because they are expecting it and they use the time to prepare for it, they can act decisively as required. It no longer is a crisis. In some ways, making decisions at during calmer times are more difficult, but there is the also the luxury of time that accompanies it. This time, however is not something to be wasted. It will inevitably lead to the moment of decision, whichever way it comes.
Given that, we can take a closer look at some aspects of this parable. This parable, as the time for Jesus’ death draws near, sums up his own life, the call of Israel and its destiny. Israel was chosen by God and called his bride. This ‘marriage’ was the culmination of the whole purpose of Israel. It was to this wedding feast that the whole world was to be invited. Israel was meant, in her vocation to be the presence and rule of God in the world. This was what they were waiting for. Many a time, they forgot the purpose of their calling, always trying to be like the other nations (Deut 18:9-14, 1 Sam 8:5). The prophets – the messengers of the King – were repeatedly sent to woo them back and were mistreated. Their failure to bring about their call, was also their hope, as we heard in the first reading, that God himself will accomplish this purpose (Isa 25:9). Finally, comes Jesus, the Son. He is as true God and man, himself the wedding of heaven and earth. He embodies in himself the call and destiny of Israel. In his person, Israel was meant to recognise their own calling – to be united with God was the whole purpose of their existence. If they had somehow lived with this calling in mind, they would also have recognised this in the encounter with him. This was the storyline which framed Israel’s life. The religious leaders should have been the first to recognise Jesus. But while some people followed him, many religious leaders started to harden their hearts towards him. The parable itself gives a clue as to why they fail in their judgement. They are occupied with what is trivial – their business – like the other nations. Rather than waiting on the One who alone could give life, they had made their pursuits their life. Now, as Jesus comes to the last week of his life, fully aware of what is in store, the stakes become really high. It is a moment of intense crisis as everyone will have to turn one way or another. All through this time, they have constantly chosen – judged – against Jesus. Now, without intending to do so, they would automatically choose Caesar as their king over God at the moment of judgment in front of Pilate.<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">Finally, Jerusalem, in the year 70 A.D., will be destroyed by the Romans, the very ones the religious leaders will choose for, against God. The Romans would consign them to a terrible fate and destroy the city and the temple. The Church however, would be the bride, Christ marries on the Cross. We are the ones invited from the highways and byways. We are however, no different from Israel. We have been freely brought into the wedding feast. We already know the Bridegroom. We were given a wedding garment on entry – our baptismal garment. A garment is given – but that still requires us to wear it. But that is not a reason for laxity. Like Israel, our lives are framed by a story – we await the marriage feast of the Lamb, which will come about in great splendour at the end of time (<a rel="noreferrer noopener" href="https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Rev+19%3A7-10&version=NIV" target="_blank">Rev 19:7-10</a>). It means, like Israel, living our lives with the final wedding feast in heaven, in mind. If we do so, we will, by the grace of God, keep our garments on, and in so doing, produce abundant fruit. This fruit comes naturally, in a life which responds to grace. To those who chose, decide – judge for Christ – constantly during their life, the judgement need hold no fear. For God has called all – it is we who have to choose for him; in doing so we will be found among the chosen.