[October 12, 2014] Let me try to be brief (I am tired and short on time this morning). The text we are considering is a continuation of Jesus’ response to the civic/religious leaders who came to question him with respect to his authority for acting the way he did when he came into the city on what we today celebrate as Palm Sunday. In Matthew’s gospel upon entering city gate he immediately created a scene on the grounds of the Temple, specifically in the Court of the Gentiles. “Who do you think you are?” in other words. He refused to answer them, referring them back to the message of John the Baptist and their own responsibility with respect to the people of Israel. All this is in Matthew 21:23-46. Jesus basically accuses them of robbery—stealing from God—by being only concerned for their own power, position and wealth when God made them responsible for the spiritual leadership of the people.
This accusation, which continues in chapter 22, was introduced by Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree. Jesus made the fig tree into a parable about Jerusalem. The fig tree was a standard symbol of God’s blessing of Israel in the Land of Promise. After the exile to Assyria and Babylon, only a remnant returned to the Land, the rest remained in Diaspora. Those who returned to the Land restored the city of Jerusalem, rebuilt the Temple, and restored the city wall. Jerusalem became a provisional symbol of God’s promise to the people, a promise that awaits the coming of the Messiah for its fulfillment. Not until the Messiah comes in glory and Israel repents (think of the prophetic significance of Yom Kippur) will the angels gather the elect from the four winds. Jesus reminded them of this in 24:29-31 and then said, “Take the fig tree as a parable.” Was he referring to the fig tree in chapter 21? In any case, his cursing of the fig tree in 21 was a parable of the destruction of the city and the desecration of the Temple that Jesus predicted in chapter 24. Everything in chapters 21—23 is leading us to their conclusion in 24.
So when we come to the parable in 22:1-14 we read the words: “The king was furious. He dispatched his troops, destroyed those murderers and burnt their town.” This is obviously an allusion to the destruction of the city in the past while at the same time alluding to what Jesus was predicting would happen again and that came true with the siege by Titus in 70 CE. Accordingly, we should interpret the first part of this parable, verses 2-7, as parallel to the parable of the wicked tenants in 21:33-43.
“The kingdom of the heavens may be compared to a king who gave a feast for his son’s wedding.” People have not come yet, only the feast has been prepared. What does Jesus have in mind here? Again we have a son. Here it is the king’s son; in 21:37 it was the landowner’s son. We would be right to assume that Jesus is here referring to himself. In 21:9 the people hailed him as the Son of David. He is the king’s son in this sense, the son of King David. Hidden from the people, however, was a mysterious sonship with which Jesus identified. Jesus’ Father in heaven revealed to Jesus’ disciple Peter that Jesus “is the Christ, the Son of the living God.” He was not only the “son of David,” and therefore like Solomon the heir to David’s kingdom, he was also the Son of the King of heaven and earth. In any case, as far as both parables go, the landowner is the Lord of heaven and earth who planted Israel as his vineyard, and the king who is throwing a wedding feast for his son is likewise the one whom Israel owns as God.
In chapter 9 Jesus refers to himself as a bridegroom and his disciples as his wedding attendants. In the Prophets, the bridegroom is YHWH and his bride Israel. By an extension of thought, the coming of the Messiah is spoken of in Isaiah and the Psalms as the coming of God (or the coming of YHWH) as the Bridegroom coming for his bride, as well as the Judge. The bridegroom, then, in Jesus’s allusion is the Messiah, whose bride is his people, the people of Israel. The attendants of the bridegroom then, for Jesus, are his disciples. Remember, however, that this motif of bridegroom and bride refers not only to the coming of Jesus onto the public stage at this late stage in history but go back—according to the Prophets—to YHWH wooing Israel when they were still in the wilderness before Joshua took them into the Promised Land.
We need to keep this perspective in mind when he hear Jesus say, the king “sent his servants to call those who had been invited, but they would not come. Next he sent some more servants with the words, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, my banquet is all prepared, my oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, everything is ready. Come to the wedding.’ But they were not interested: one went off to his farm, another to his business, and the rest seized his servants, maltreated them and killed them.” This is not a reference to the Incarnation but to the history of Israel. The servants, like the servants in 21:34-36, are the prophets whom God has sent to them, including John the Baptist (see 21:23-27).
We have then this dilemma. The bride is Israel, the elect people of God. Yet those who are invited to the wedding of the Messiah and his people are also Israel. According to most commentators the bride is the church and the people are Israel—it is another parable about God’s rejection of Israel, the people to whom God pledged faithfulness forever. Yet it is inconceivable that Jesus would have considered that the Messiah’s bride consisted only of his called disciples and not the people of Israel. Moreover, the obvious meaning of the servants in the parable are the prophets sent to Israel (meaning both the northern and southern kingdoms as a whole), for whom the bride was clearly the people of Israel—they did not envision the church as taking Israel’s place. The bride is both faithful and unfaithful in their depictions. In the end, however, when the Messiah comes in glory, the bride will at last be faithful to her groom.
On the one hand, the call to the wedding corresponds to God’s call for Israel’s love—as in the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-5—and the blessing of the Promised Land, Beulah Land (meaning, married). This is unmistakable for those who are familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. The call was always there, and still is—for example, on every door post where there is a Mezuzah. It is a call to the wedding feast. We need to also realized that the blessing of the Promised Land never came. As Stephen in Acts 7 points out but as is assumed everywhere in the Scriptures, the settlement in Canaan in the days of Joshua and the centuries that followed were not the fulfillment of the promise but only a provisional sign. We see this clearly in the Book of the Judges. The Ark of the Covenant even leaves the Tabernacle in Shiloh, the Holy of Holies of which remains empty, the Ark only finding a provisional home in the Tabernacle of David, and then in the Temple of Jerusalem. Yet even under Solomon the blessing is still only provisional. Solomon was wise but he was also a failure and his heart already turned to idols. After his death the nation fell into chaos, dividing into two kingdoms, both of which struggled with idolatry. The literary prophets made it clear to us that the real fulfillment of the promise of blessing pronounced by Moses in the Torah will only come when the Messiah himself comes. According to Jesus, it still awaits his coming in glory and the new messianic age to come (the age of the kingdom).
Nevertheless, throughout all of this history of faithfulness and unfaithfulness the bride remains the people of Israel. Those who are not interested in the invitation to the wedding feast are those who do not love YHWH. They persecuted the prophets and many of them turned to idolatry. In Jesus’ day, the people to whom he was speaking—they too did not love God. They did not turn to idolatry as such; instead they turned to self-interest, an interest which was bound up with their wealth and privilege. The bride at present is both the faithful and unfaithful of Israel; the bride-to-be will be the faithful of Israel, those who love God, for, as the apostle Paul says, the day will come when “all Israel will be saved. As scripture says: ‘From Zion will come the Redeemer, he will remove godlessness from Jacob. And this will be my covenant with them, when I take their sins away’” (Romans 11:26-27).
“The king was furious. He dispatched his troops, destroyed those murderers and burnt their town.” This actually has a double meaning. The first refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar II. If you were listening to Jesus at the time he said this you would have thought of this. The destruction of the city in 587 has never been forgotten by the Jews. It has always been prominent in their minds, for the return from captivity under Ezra did not end their exile. The exile has actually continued to this day. The second meaning of Jesus’ allusion is to the coming destruction of the holy city by the Romans under Titus in 70 CE. Jesus predicts this in chapter 24 and already anticipated it by his actions on Palm Sunday.
“Then [the king] said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready; but as those who were not invited proved to be unworthy, go to the main crossroads and invite everyone you can find to come to the wedding.’ So these servants went out onto the roads and collected together everyone they could find, bad and good alike; and the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
The blessing of the Promised Land is ready (see my interpretation of the beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-10). Who are the people on the main crossroads? Who are the “everyone they could find, bad and good alike”? These are the people whom Jesus had been calling since his ministry began. They are the ones whom the apostles (his servants)—and we may add, the apostolate of the Church—continued to call. Jesus called the poor and all the marginalized. At the time Matthew was compiling his gospel, they were in particular the gentiles, the whole world of pagans “out there.” We can say then that the wedding hall of the king’s son is the church, the Messiah’s qahal within Israel, the bride still being Israel itself (on the day of the Messiah’s coming; until then she is still veiled). Jesus referred to these street people in 21:31-32 as the tax collectors and prostitutes; they are representative of all the people whom Jesus calls to himself.
“When the king came to look at the guests he noticed one man who was not wearing a wedding garment, and said to him, ‘How did you get in here, my friend, without a wedding garment?’ And the man was silent.”
If the guests in the wedding hall are the disciples whom Jesus has called, namely his church, those who today call themselves Christians, then this guest is found among them. What else can we conclude? There is a judgment then not only of the gentiles, and not only of Israel, but also of the church. This corresponds to chapters 24—25 where Jesus first speaks of the judgment (and salvation) of Israel and then of the church and then in 25:31-46 of the gentiles. There is not one occasion of judgment but many, in various ways and with differing outcomes, though the judgment is one: it is the judgment of the holiness of God on human beings.
The wedding garment is the covering of discipleship. When Jesus calls us and we enter into a relationship of fidelity to him, we enter into the relationship that he has with the Father—we become the Father’s children. That being so, we also are now judged on this basis, or if you prefer, governed accordingly. The Father holds us accountable to the standard of his Son: we come under the rule of the kingdom of the heavens, which Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount.
We would be mistaken to imagine that we will be judged by some external standard of behavior or appearance; the judgment on that day measures the heart. Do we love the Lord Jesus? Do we live close to the Lord and therefore in kinship to the Father, loving and trusting his Father as our own? Do we show others the compassion we have been shown, or are we so insensitive to that that we judge others, putting ourselves in the place of God? Comparisons by outward (social) measures of appearance miss the point.
When we are unfaithful, when we deny our Lord, when we betray his trust, “then the king said to the attendant [an angel], ‘Bind him hand and foot and throw him into the darkness outside, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.” We can we excluded from the enjoyment of the kingdom, the wedding feast, even though God will never give up on us. We are on probation until we change, and suffer in the darkness outside, weeping and grinding our teeth with regret. The age of the kingdom is not eternal. It is an age of preparation for eternity, leading to it. The age of the kingdom is the time when Christ shall overcome all that opposes and resists God’s grace and love. That age is not now; it awaits the coming of Christ in glory. But it is nevertheless a transitional age.
“For many are invited but not all are chosen.” This speaks not of final salvation but of the kingdom.
The bride then is the people of Israel, invited to love God with all their heart, soul and might (and who one day shall do that fully) and also all the gentiles who turn to the God of Israel. These gentiles become part of the bride too, and insofar as they adhere to Jesus, and by him love the God of Israel now, may even precede the becoming of all Israel to be the bride. They, the riffraff of the world, are no less the bride than the children of Israel. It is not flesh and blood that makes one the bride but rather the grace and calling of the God who elects that one. It is God’s Messiah who makes the bride.