Jesus in Jerusalem (ii)
The Parable of the Wedding Banquet - Matthew 22 : 1 – 14 and Luke 14 : 15 - 24
Jewish marriage in the time of Jesus had a great degree of formalism involving numerous steps: first, betrothal, which involved the prospective groom travelling from his father’s house to the home of the prospective bride, paying the purchase price, and thus establishing the marriage covenant; second, the groom’s returning to his father’s house which meant remaining separate from his bride for 12 months, during which time he prepared the living accommodation for his wife in his father’s house; third, the groom’s coming for his bride at a time not known exactly to her; fourth, his return with her to the groom’s father’s house to consummate the marriage and to celebrate the wedding feast for the next seven days during which the bride remained closeted in her bridal chamber.
The father of the groom made the arrangements for the marriage and paid the bride price. The timing of the arrangement varied. Sometimes it occurred when both children were small, and at other times it was a year before the marriage itself. Often the bride and groom did not even meet until their wedding day. The second step, which occurred a year or more after the first step, was the fetching of the bride. The bridegroom would go to the home of the bride in order to bring her to his home. In connection with this step, two other things should be noted. First, it was the father of the groom who determined the timing. Second, prior to the groom’s leaving to fetch the bride, he must already have a place prepared for her as their home. This was followed by the third step, the wedding ceremony, to which a few would be invited. Prior to the wedding ceremony, the bride underwent a ritual immersion for ritual cleansing. The fourth step, the marriage feast, would follow and could last for as many as seven days. Many more people would be invited to the feast than were to the marriage ceremony. In the Marriage Feast of the Lamb all four of these steps of the Jewish wedding ceremony are evident.
In those days they didn’t have hen nights and stag nights. They didn’t go down to Jericho – the holiday equivalent of Blackpool and get sozzled. They didn’t dress up in T-shirts with bride’s or the groom’s name emblazoned. They didn’t go to Majorca or Prague for a wild week-end as they do these days.
The Parable of the Great Banquet is found in Luke 14:15-24 also. It is similar to the Parable of the Wedding Feast (Matthew 22:1-14), but with some significant differences. The story in Luke’s Gospel was told at a dinner that Jesus attended. Jesus had just healed a man with oedema - swelling due to water retention perhaps caused by heart failure, and taught a brief lesson on serving others. Jesus then says that those who serve others “will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:14). At the mention of the resurrection, someone at the table with Jesus said, “Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God” (verse 15). In reply, Jesus tells the Parable of the Great Banquet.
In Matthew’s version, Jesus tells the parable in Jerusalem after his triumphant entry. There need not be a contradiction here. It is possible that Jesus told this parable more than once. It would be surprising if he had not done so. Here it is a king who planned a large wedding banquet and sent out invitations. He then was the father of the groom. It was his son’s wedding. When the banquet was ready, he sent his servants to contact each of the invited guests, telling them that all was ready and the meal was about to start (verses 3 and 4). One after another, the guests made excuses for not coming. One had just bought a piece of land and wanted to see it. In Luke’s version, another had purchased some oxen and said he was on the way to yoke them up and try them out (verse 19). Another gave the excuse that he was newly married and therefore could not come (verse 20). In Matthew’s version one who was invited was more concerned with his business and couldn’t be bothered to attend. And in Matthew’s version, the servants sent out with the wedding invitations got a beating for their trouble and some were even killed. This does not make much sense to us. Luke’s version is more credible and humane. But it is possible that Jesus upped the anti since he was confronting the authorities in Jerusalem and he wanted to make a clear connection between Israel’s historical treatment of its prophets and the servants sent out with the wedding invitations in the parable. Any preacher will adapt the core message to those listening, to different audiences.
In Luke’s version when the man heard about these excuses and this behaviour, he was angry. He told his servants to forget the guest list and go into the back streets and alleyways of the town and invite “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame”. The servant had already brought in the down-and-out townspeople, and still there was room in the banquet hall. So the master sent his servant on a broader search: “Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full” (verses 22-23).
In Matthew’s version there is less detail at this point. The servants are bidden by the king to go and find anyone who wants to come “the bad as well as the good” (verse 10). However there is then a significant development. The hall is full but the king notices one person not dressed for the occasion. He asks him “How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?”. This is problematic. If those attending had been brought from the streets how could they be expected to be dressed for a wedding? It is possible however that wedding clothes had been supplied just as at weddings in our culture guests are given favours and tokens or are asked to wear certain clothes and colours. This man, perhaps an interloper had no answer. Maybe he had not actually been invited but had just joined the crowd. He is thrown out to where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. And for those without teeth, they will be provided. There is a bitter end to Matthew’s version. “For many are invited but few are chosen”.
This is a parable – but what is it all about? What does it mean? Jesus is talking about the Jews’ rejection of their own Messiah.
Jesus ended the parable in Luke by relating the master’s determination that “not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet” (verse 24). The statement that prompted the parable is key. The man who, in verse 15, looks forward to dining in the Messianic kingdom probably subscribed to the popular notion that only Jews would be part of that kingdom. The parable Jesus tells is aimed at debunking that notion, as the following explanation makes clear:
The master of the house is God, and the great banquet is the kingdom, a metaphor that was suggested by the speaker at the table. The invited guests picture the Jewish nation. The kingdom was prepared for them, but when Jesus came preaching that “the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17), He was rejected. “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (John 1:11). The excuses for skipping the banquet are laughably bad. No one buys land without seeing it first, and the same can be said for buying oxen. And what, exactly, would keep a newly married couple from attending a social event? All three excuses in the parable reveal insincerity on the part of those invited. The interpretation is that the Jews of Jesus’ day had no valid excuse for spurning Jesus’ message; in fact, they had every reason to accept Him as their Messiah. It was a kind and generous invitation.
The detail that the invitation is opened up to society’s maimed and downtrodden and to the good and the bad is important. These were the types of people that the Pharisees considered “unclean” and under God’s curse (cf. John 9:1-2, 34). Jesus, however, taught that the kingdom was available even to those considered “ritually unclean” (cf. Acts 10). His involvement with tax collectors and sinners brought condemnation from the Pharisees, yet it showed the extent of God’s grace (Matthew 9:10-11). The fact that the master in the parable sends the servant far afield to persuade everyone to come indicates that the offer of salvation would be extended to the Gentiles and “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people” (Romans 15:10). The master is not satisfied with a partially full banquet hall; he wants every place at the table to be filled. “God is more willing to save sinners than sinners are to be saved.” Those who ignored the invitation to the banquet chose their own punishment—they missed out. The master respects their choice by making it permanent: they would not “taste of my banquet.” So it will be with God’s judgement on those who choose to reject Christ: they will have their choice confirmed, and they will never taste the joys of heaven. The basic message of the Parable of the Wedding Banquet could be stated this way: “The tragedy of the Jewish rejection of Christ has opened the door of salvation to the Gentiles. The blessings of the kingdom are available to all who will come to Christ by faith.” The inclusion of the Gentiles is a fulfilment of Hosea 2:23, “I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God.’” God is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9), and “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13).