Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned:
A King Gave a Banquet
First Baptist Richmond, October 15, 2023 The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 25:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
Today’s Old Testament lesson includes some of the most beautiful language and imagery in the Bible, and with your permission, I’d like to read it again, so you can sink down into it like a warm bath. Speaking of Mount Zion in Jerusalem Isaiah writes:
On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
That’s Isaiah 25:6-9: a vision of a bountiful feast, prepared for all the people of the earth, a kind of heavenly banquet where death is swallowed up forever and the tears are wiped from every face. Notice how generous it is: “the Lord will make for all peoples a feast of rich food…he will destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.” It would have been nice if Isaiah had left it right there, or if the lectionary committee that selected today’s Old Testament reading had left it right there. But they didn’t. Today’s reading actually begins with Isaiah 25:1, which says, “O LORD, you are my
God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.” And then there’s the shock of the next verse: “For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt.” In other words, “I will praise your name, O Lord, for you are getting ready to prepare a feast for us, your people, but only after you destroy the lives of our enemies, and reduce their capital city to a pile of rubble.”
I can’t read those verses today without thinking of what is happening in the Middle East, in the war between Israel and Hamas, knowing that there are people on both sides who would love to see their enemies’ cities reduced to rubble. But the people who read these verses originally also read them in historical context, and in that context I’m sure they would have made even more sense. Old Testament scholar Gene M. Tucker says that although most of the first part of the Book of Isaiah was written in the Eighth Century, BC, when Israel was being threatened by the Assyrian Empire, these four chapters—24-27—appear to have been written sometime after Israel’s return from exile, in the Sixth Century, BC. In that context it might have been understood that God would prepare a great homecoming feast for his people on Mount Zion, but only after Babylon had been destroyed by the Persian Empire. So the prophet can say, “You have done wonderful things, O Lord! You have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt! Hooray!”
Context is everything.
I learned that lesson from New Testament scholar Gail O’Day years ago. She was speaking at Wingate University in North Carolina and I was the pastor of Wingate Baptist Church, just at the edge of the campus. So, I walked over to hear
what she had to say. She spoke in the theatre, and when she stepped out on stage she said, “Context is everything.” She explained that she had just been backstage, waiting to come out, and noticed that someone had spray-painted on the back wall the words, “Break many legs.” Dr. O’Day said, “When I see those words in a theatre I know what they mean, because that’s what you say to someone when they’re going onstage: you say, ‘Break a leg.’ It means, ‘Good luck.’ I can only assume that ‘Break many legs’ means even more good luck. But when you see those words spray painted in some back alley in New York City they mean something else entirely, and that’s why I say, ‘Context is everything.’”
Jesus taught what Jesus learned, and in today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew 22 he tells a parable that seems to be inspired by Isaiah 25. Let me see if I can put it in context. Jesus is teaching in the Temple the day after he has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the day after he has turned over the tables of the moneychangers. The chief priests and elders have confronted him, asking him by whose authority he has done these things. Jesus responds by asking them a question about the authority of John the Baptist: did it come from heaven or earth? They refuse to answer the question, knowing it will incriminate them. And so Jesus refuses to answer their question. Instead he begins to pepper them with parables: one about a son who said he would work for his father, but didn’t; one about some wicked tenants who wouldn’t give the owner of the vineyard the fruit that was rightfully his; and a third one, today’s Gospel lesson, about some people who refused to attend a royal wedding banquet.
If context really is everything, then we need to be aware that Jesus is face-to-face with the very people who are plotting to have him arrested and crucified, and he knows it. As early as chapter 16 in this Gospel he has been predicting his
passion, telling his disciples that, “[The Son of Man] must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt. 16:21). So, there’s no innocence here. The chief priests and elders are not innocent people, hearing an innocent story. These parables have a point, as sharp as the point of any spear, and Jesus is hoping that the crowd of people standing around him will get it. He’s hoping that we will get it. So, what does he say?
He says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” And since we’ve heard this parable before we know that when Jesus talks about a king he’s talking about God, and when he talks about a son, he’s talking about himself. “[The king] sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet,” Jesus continues, “but they would not come.” Again, we know that those who have been invited to the wedding banquet are God’s chosen people, the nation of Israel, and the slaves who have been sent to them are the prophets. So far, so good. But now comes the hard part: why would they not come to the wedding banquet? Why would any of us not come to a wedding banquet? It’s a party! There’s plenty to eat and drink! And we don’t have to pay for any of it; the king is picking up the entire tab! The only reason I can imagine that they would not come to this party is that they do not believe the king’s son is who he says he is. They think he’s some pretender, some imposter. So, they scorn the invitation and go their own way. But the king is determined to honor his son.
So he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: ‘Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and
went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.” And now you have to skip ahead a few decades, realizing that Matthew is writing this Gospel some fifty years after the earthly ministry of Jesus. He has some historical perspective that seems to be influencing his telling of the story. He knows that those who were inviting God’s chosen people to the wedding banquet of his Son were seized, mistreated, and killed. And he also knows what happened next. “The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.”
Again, from Matthew’s perspective, this is something that actually happened. Fifteen years before he wrote his Gospel another empire—Rome—had conquered Israel, destroyed the people he called “those murderers,” and burned their city. Anyone who was hearing his Gospel read aloud would immediately think of the Fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. It doesn’t make sense in the context of the parable. You don’t put your dinner on hold while you send your soldiers off to destroy your enemies. But it does make sense in the context of history, and if you know just a little bit of Israel’s history this parable gets a whole lot easier. So, after this, “The King said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’” You can see this as the early church inviting not only Jews, but also Gentiles, to come to the banquet, and the next verse seems to support that. Jesus says, “Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
That would be a good place to end the parable. It may have been where Jesus ended it originally. It’s where we ended our reading of the parable today. But it is not where Matthew ends it. Matthew includes a brief paragraph that is
found nowhere else in the Gospels. He writes: “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” Ouch. That’s a brutal ending to the parable, and if you read it out of context it doesn’t make sense. How could Jesus say such a thing? But if you read it in context, if you read it in the context of the early church and perhaps especially Matthew’s church, it does make sense. Because Matthew seems to be talking about baptism.
I love it that we’ve had a baptism today, because Zane Frye may be the perfect example of what Matthew is talking about. He didn’t presume anything when he came asking for baptism. He didn’t say, “I’m one of God’s chosen people; you have to let me in!” No, he came humbly, knowing that he was just another sinner in need of God’s amazing grace. He stripped off his old clothes—his old life if you will—and put on a white robe as a symbol of his new life in Christ. You might call it his wedding robe. And then he entered the waters of baptism like someone who knew he hadn’t done anything to deserve this, and when we asked him for his credentials all he could say was, “Jesus is Lord.” And that was enough. Because that seems to be all God really wanted and all he really needed: for someone to acknowledge his son as Lord. But in Matthew’s day, apparently, there were people who were trying to crash God’s party, forcing their way into the church without being baptized, without acknowledging Jesus as Lord, without even putting on a wedding robe. And Matthew was having none of that.
I can sympathize.
Early in my ministry I was counseling with a couple that wanted to get married in the church, but the groom, in particular, seemed very flippant about it. He said, “Yeah, well, her parents wanted us to get married here so I guess we’ll do it, you know, to make them happy.” But he wasn’t making me happy. He wasn’t a Christian, and he didn’t seem to have any respect for Christian marriage. He kept asking if we could change the order of worship. “Do we have to read Scripture? Do we have to say prayers? Can’t we just light a unity candle?” I was biting my tongue. At the end of the session I was filling out some paperwork and asked him for his address. He gave it to me, but when I asked for hers he said, “Oh, it’s the same.” This was thirty years ago, mind you, back when some people still waited until they were married to move in with each other. So I asked, “Are you living together?” “Yeah,” he said. “Do you have a problem with that?” Well, yes. I did. Context is everything, and in that context I felt like this guy was crashing God’s party; like he wanted all the blessings of the church without any of the discipline. I finally said, “Friend, if I’m going to do this wedding your fiancée is going to have to move back in with her parents and live with them until I pronounce you husband and wife.” And here’s the amazing thing: she did.
“That’s all I want,” Matthew said, speaking not about marriage but about membership in the church. “I want people to respect my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I don’t want them presuming on God’s grace or crashing his party. I want them to show up in a proper wedding garment. I want to hear them say, ‘Jesus is Lord!’ just like Zane did. Because if they could do that, if they could only do that,
“It would be enough.”
—Jim Somerville © 2023