Below is a rough translation and some preliminary comments regarding Matthew 22:1-14, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel text for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost.
This is a difficult parable to read, difficult to understand, and difficult to hear as a meaningful expression of the gospel. This parable is usually represented as a parable that explains what the kingdom of God is like, with a certain queasiness over the degree of violence and retribution in the story. In some lections, the pericope ends with v.10. In others, vv. 11-14 are included, which makes the parable even more uncomfortable, with some poor schmuck from the byways being invited to a wedding feast, then cast into outer darkness because he isn’t dressed appropriately. It is a difficult parable-and-a-half, to be sure.
One tendency – as Stan Saunders points out – is to allegorize this parable into a supercessionist expression of how the church is called to replace Israel. Even if one rejects supercessionism itself, one has to admit that this parable and last week’s parable of the vineyard lend themselves to it, particularly if every reference to an authoritative male figure in parables is supposed to be God and any reference to that figure’s son is supposed to be Jesus. Of course, one question about this whole approach to these parables is whether the interpreter is supposed to allegorize parables in that way.
Apart from the particular question of how to interpret the parable, the story itself is jarring and alien to modern readers. What does it mean for the servants to invite those who have been invited and who did not choose to come? Why do Matthew’s parables seem to take for granted that people find it advisable to kill the servants of their landowner/king/homeowner? Is burning down an entire city the way that the Reign of God models responding to insult and violence? And what is up with the guy in the wrong clothing? He’s not merely asked to leave. IN typical Matthean fashion, he’s bound hand and foot and thrown into outer darkness, with weeping and gnashing of teeth.
People shaped by the Sermon on the Mount find this depiction of the Reign of God not just jarring but entirely inordinate. So, at the end of the rough translation I will offer some ways that I think this parable fits within Matthew’s gospel as we whole.
Throughout the translation, I want to explore the possibility that this parable is not a representation of what the kingdom of the heavens is like. Quite the contrary, I believe it is a critical description of how the kingdom of heaven is often depicted, perhaps with an eye glancing toward the Chief Priests and Elders/Pharisees, with whom Jesus is contending in this part of Matthew’s gospel. So, this is a warning. Anything that could be read as supporting this interpretation is what I will be pointing out. I’m sure there are plenty of other resources that will put the onus directly on the unworthy invitees and make the man king out to be a God figure, however dissonant that image may be with other ways that God is depicted in Matthew and the rest of the New Testament.
1 Καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ Ἰησοῦς πάλιν εἶπεν ἐν παραβολαῖς αὐτοῖς λέγων,
And having answered Jesus again spoke in parables to them saying,
ἀποκριθεὶς: AAPart nsm, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
1. The "them" may refer directly to the chief priests and Pharisees or to the crowd to whom Jesus is speaking about the chief priests and Pharisees. See 21:45-46.
2. This story is the 3rd of 3 parables that Jesus tells in the temple after the chief priests and Pharisees question his authority to do what he is doing. The first is the parable of the two sons who answer their father’s command one way and respond to it another (21:28-32). The second is the parable of the vineyard (21:33-46).
2 Ὡμοιώθηἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν ἀνθρώπῳ βασιλεῖ, ὅστις ἐποίησεν
γάμους τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ.
“The kingdom of the heavens has been likened to a man king, who made a wedding for his son.
Ὡμοιώθηἡ: API 3s, ὁμοιόω, 1) to be made like 2) to liken, compare 2a) illustrate by comparisons
ἐποίησεν: AAI 3s, ποιέω, 1) to make 1a) with the names of things made, to produce, construct, form, fashion, etc
1. I think it is important to notice the passive form of Ὡμοιώθηἡ (was likened). (It is also in the aorist or simple past tense.) Perhaps this is an idiomatic way of saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like,” where it takes the force of an active voice. But, to keep the passive force would render this “The kingdom of the heavens has been likened to…” which could be a set-up for a wrong way of thinking about God’s reign that needs correction. In contrast, the parable in 20:1 of the laborers in the field begins Ὁμοία γάρ ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν, “For the kingdom of the heavens is like,” where the verb is the active verb “is” and the adjective is the predicate nominative ‘like.’ That is quite different from how this parable begins. The parable that begins in 22:18 – of a king who forgives an enormous debt to a man who does not forgive a paltry debt so the king takes back his original forgiveness – also begins with the passive voice (ὡμοιώθη).
Young’s Literal Translation retains both the passive force of this word and the strict aorist tense with “The reign of the heavens was likened.” The NRSV tries to reflect the passive voice, but ends up making it something like a subjunctive mood, “The kingdom of God may be compared to …”
2. The words “man” and “king” (ἀνθρώπῳ βασιλεῖ) are both dative singular nouns without a definite article. It could read “man king” or “a man a king.” That is similar to the way the parable of the laborers begins in 20:1 ἀνθρώπῳ οἰκοδεσπότῃ, “A man a landowner …” and exactly the wording that begins the parable of the man king who settles accounts with his slaves in Mt. 18:23ff. It is different from how the parable of the parable from last week began in 21:33, Ἄνθρωπος ἦν οἰκοδεσπότης, “A man who was a landowner …”
3. I typically translate βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν as “the reign of the heavens,” but I wanted to use “kingdom” here in order to keep the connection between the root of βασιλεία (kingdom) and βασιλεῖ (king).
4. The fact that a king is inviting people to the wedding feast of his son seems to automatically make this a story about God inviting people to the wedding feast of Jesus. One doesn’t have to push that metaphor too far to reach a breaking point. I suggest that when we put together the passive voice of “likened” and the double noun of man king, we could say that Jesus begins this parable with, “People often describe the kingdom of heaven as if God were like Herod.”
5. I’ll just leave these here:
Isaiah 40:18 To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?
Isaiah 46:5:To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, as though we were alike?
3 καὶ ἀπέστειλεν τοὺς δούλους αὐτοῦ καλέσαι τοὺς κεκλημένους εἰς τοὺς γάμους, καὶ οὐκ ἤθελον ἐλθεῖν.
And he sent his slaves to invite the ones who have been invited to the wedding, and they were not willing to come.
ἀπέστειλεν: AAI 3s, ἀποστέλλω, 1) to order (one) to go to a place appointed, 2) to send away, dismiss
καλέσαι: AAInf, καλέω, 1) to call 1a) to call aloud, utter in a loud voice 1b) to invite
κεκλημένους: PerfPPart apm, καλέω, 1) to call 1a) to call aloud, utter in a loud voice 1b) to invite
ἤθελον: IAI 3p, 1) to will, have in mind, intend
ἐλθεῖν: AAInf, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come
1. While the verb καλέσαι and participle κεκλημένους are the same word, many translations will make them “call” and “invited,” possibly because the practice of sending an invitation without a definite starting time is odd to modern western ears. I wonder how many of the “keep awake” and “be ready” teachings are based on this practice, which seems to be that an invitation to a wedding/event will go out, but in place of a precise date and time there would be the promise of ‘we will call you when its ready.’ The kind of response an invitation like that needs is different from a time-dated invitation. It means keeping the options open, remembering the promise of being called, giving the invitation first priority of choice when making plans, etc., rather than dressing up and showing up at a precise moment.
2. Jesus doesn’t say why the people were not willing to come, but the language is specifically about their will, not of unforeseen circumstances having arisen. If this is a king issuing the invitation, if the king’s heir is the one getting married, this is not a social event as much as a political one. To refuse is not a faux pas as much as a rebellion. I would argue that the gentry doing the refusing/rebelling are not like the good-and-bad folks who are rounded up later in the story. Those folks seem to have no say in the matter, or perhaps are desperate enough for a banquet to know better than to say anything. These are, one assumes, wealthy and powerful enough people to risk defying a king that they despise.
4 πάλιν ἀπέστειλεν ἄλλους δούλους λέγων, Εἴπατε τοῖς κεκλημένοις, Ἰδοὺ
τὸ ἄριστόν μου ἡτοίμακα, οἱ ταῦροί μου καὶ τὰσιτιστὰ τεθυμένα, καὶ πάντα
ἕτοιμα: δεῦτε εἰς τοὺς γάμους.
Again he sent other slaves saying, ‘Say to the ones who have been invited, “Behold my dinner I have prepared, my oxen and the fatlings having been killed, and all things [are] ready. Come to the wedding.”’
ἀπέστειλεν: AAI 3s, ἀποστέλλω, 1) to order (one) to go to a place appointed 2) to send away, dismiss
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
Εἴπατε: AAImpv 2p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
κεκλημένους: PerfPPart apm, καλέω, 1) to call 1a) to call aloud, utter in a loud voice 1b) to invite
ἡτοίμακα: PerfAI 1s, ἑτοιμάζω, 1) to make ready, prepare
τεθυμένα: PPPart npm, θύω, 1) to sacrifice, immolate 2) to slay, kill
1. With all of these arrangements it is no wonder that a practice of that time might have been, “Be ready and we’ll call you when it is time to come.” Perhaps that is why the last “Come” is not an imperative and not even a verb, but an interjection, more like, “hey!” or “behold!” that “Move it!”
5 οἱ δὲ ἀμελήσαντες ἀπῆλθον, ὃς μὲν εἰς τὸν ἴδιον ἀγρόν, ὃς δὲ ἐπὶ τὴν
But the ones having neglected went away, one to his own field, and another to his market.
ἀμελήσαντες: AAPart npm, ἀμελέω, 1) to be careless of, to neglect
ἀπῆλθον: AAI 3p, ἀπέρχομαι, 1) to go away, depart
1. The verb ἀ-μελέω, is to disregard or neglect. This is the only instance of the verb in the gospels and it seems to reinforce that the lack of response to the invitation was a matter of will, not circumstance or misunderstanding.
6 οἱ δὲ λοιποὶ κρατήσαντες τοὺς δούλους αὐτοῦ ὕβρισαν καὶ ἀπέκτειναν.
Yet the rest having overpowered his servants mistreated and killed [them].
κρατήσαντες: AAPart npm, κρατέω, 1) to have power, be powerful 1a) to be chief, be master of, to rule
ὕβρισαν: AAI 3p, ὑβρίζω, 1) to be insolent, to behave insolently, wantonly, outrageously
ἀπέκτειναν: AAI 3p, ἀποκτείνω, 1) to kill in any way whatever
1. This verse seems to introduce a fairly abrupt and violent turn. I think we would do the Scriptures a disservice to interpret this story through the lens of a modern wedding invitation, even one that we might be inclined to reject. This invitation is a political statement and the refusal is a political rebellion. That puts the whole story in less of a ‘church wedding’ kind of setting and more of a politically combustible setting.
2. The pattern of mistreating then killing slaves of a man/king or man/landowner is familiar in Matthew’s parables.
3. What is curious here is what Matthew means by “the rest” (λοιποὶ). The ones who were invited were not willing (v.3). The ones who neglected went elsewhere (v.5). Now, “the rest” abuse and kill the messengers. Who are “the rest”?
7 ὁ δὲ βασιλεὺς ὠργίσθη, καὶ πέμψας τὰ στρατεύματα αὐτοῦ ἀπώλεσεν
τοὺς φονεῖς ἐκείνους καὶ τὴν πόλιν αὐτῶν ἐνέπρησεν.
Then the king was angered, and having sent his troops he destroyed those murderers and burned down their city.
ὠργίσθη: API 3s, ὀργίζω, to provoke, arouse to anger; pass. to be provoked to anger, be angry, be wroth,
πέμψας: AAPart, nsm, πέμπω, 1) to send 1a) to bid a thing to be carried to one
ἀπώλεσεν: AAI 3s, ἀπόλλυμι, 1) to destroy 1a) to put out of the way entirely, abolish, put an end to ruin
ἐνέπρησεν: AAI 3s, ἐμπιπράω to burn, set on fire;
1. When is a wedding not a wedding? When is an invitation not an invitation? It strikes me that – even within the parameters of the parable itself – we are to take the “wedding” as an event where patrons are “invited” to come an honor the man king’s display of generous hospitality. Or else. I’ve often read that the words ‘hospitality’ and ‘hostile’ are connected etymologically. Now, I see it.
2. Honestly, the man king’s response reminds me of a generous man on a date who realizes that he’s not going to score and suddenly turns violent.
3. What the man king’s response does not do is remind me of God. Herod, perhaps, but not God. Rome, for sure, but not God.
8τότε λέγει τοῖς δούλοις αὐτοῦ, Ὁ μὲν γάμος ἕτοιμός ἐστιν, οἱ δὲ κεκλημένοι
οὐκ ἦσαν ἄξιοι:
Then he says to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those who were called were not worthy;
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
κεκλημένοi: PerfPPart npm, καλέω, 1) to call 1a) to call aloud, utter in a loud voice 1b) to invite
ἦσαν: IAI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. “Those who were called were not worthy”? This seems to be a conclusion that the man king only comes to after seeing how they do not respond to his invitation, rather than having been his assumption in offering the invitation.
2. (PREACHERS: Do not, by any means, make a parallel between the man king’s statement of worthiness here and the recent event when a President invited a championship basketball team to the White House and they refused because of their dislike for the President and then the President tweeting that they were not invited and weren’t worthy of coming anyway. Do not do it. Don’t even think about it. Where would you even get such an idea?)
9 πορεύεσθε οὖν ἐπὶ τὰς διεξόδους τῶν ὁδῶν, καὶ ὅσους ἐὰν εὕρητε
καλέσατε εἰς τοὺς γάμους.
Therefore continue your journey to exits of the ways, and whoever you may see invite to the wedding.
πορεύεσθε: PMImp 2p, πορεύομαι, 1) to lead over, carry over, transfer 1a) to pursue the journey on which one has entered, to continue on one's journey
εὕρητε: AASubj 2p, εὑρίσκω, 1) to come upon, hit upon, to meet with 1a) after searching, to find a thing sought
καλέσατε: AAImpv 2p, καλέω, 1) to call 1a) to call aloud, utter in a loud voice 1b) to invite
1. The word διεξόδους [phonetically, dee-ex'-od-os] means 1) a way out through, and outlet, or an exit.
2. The reason that this parable is often embraced by Christian interpreters as a parable depicting the kingdom of God is because of this turn to the hinterlands, where those who were originally not invited to the feast are now invited, since the original invitees blew it. There is an unfortunate tone of anti-Semitism that often laces that interpretation, but I believe that tone can be separated from the interpretation itself.
3. Even in the best case, however, it stretches the imagination to see these new invitations to “whoever you may see” as expressions of God’s expansive love. They seem to be less about the man king wanting others to enjoy the feast than ensuring that the feast is well-attended. Is it grace or an egotistical photo op behind this expansive invitation?
10καὶ ἐξελθόντες οἱ δοῦλοι ἐκεῖνοι εἰς τὰς ὁδοὺς συνήγαγον πάντας οὓς
εὗρον, πονηρούς τε καὶ ἀγαθούς: καὶ ἐπλήσθη ὁ γάμος ἀνακειμένων.
And those slaves, having gone into the ways, gathered all whom they found, evil as well as good, and the wedding was filled with those who were seated.
ἐξελθόντες: AAPart npm, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of 1a) with mention of the place out of which one goes, or the point from which he departs
συνήγαγον: AAI 3p, συνάγω, 1) to gather together, to gather 1a) to draw together, collect
εὗρον: AAI 3p, εὑρίσκω, 1) to come upon, hit upon, to meet with 1a) after searching, to find a thing sought
ἐπλήσθη: API 3s, πίμπλημι 1) to fill, fill up. Passive to become full of, be satisfied, have enough of
ἀνακειμένων: PMPart gpm, ἀνάκειμαι, 1) to lie at a table, eat together, dine “seated” to reflect the middle voice.
1. The question of “worthy” v. “not worthy” seems to be simply a matter of who responds and who does not, since the gathering is of good and evil persons.
2. The verb for “gather” is συνάγω, the nominal form of which is “synagogue.”
3. Again, this could be a way of speaking to the generosity of the feast of God, where the only thing that matters is that one answers the invitation and comes to the feast. Or, it could be a way of showing that the only thing that matters to this human king is a full banquet and the display of popularity.
11 εἰσελθὼν δὲ ὁ βασιλεὺς θεάσασθαι τοὺς ἀνακειμένους εἶδεν ἐκεῖ
ἄνθρωπον οὐκ ἐνδεδυμένον ἔνδυμα γάμου:
Yet the king having come in to examine the ones who were seated at the tables, saw this man not dressed up in wedding garments.
εἰσελθὼν: AAPart nsm, εἰσέρχομαι, 1) to go out or come in: to enter 1a) of men or animals, as into a house or a city
θεάσασθαι: AMInf, θεάομαι, 1) to behold, look upon, view attentively, contemplate (often used of public shows)
ἀνακειμένους: PMPart apm, ἀνάκειμαι, 1) to lie at a table, eat together, dine
εἶδεν: AAI 3s, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes
ἐνδεδυμένον: PMPart asm, ἐνδύω, 1) to sink into (clothing), put on, clothe one's self. “dressed up” to reflect the middle voice.
12 καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ, Ἑταῖρε, πῶς εἰσῆλθες ὧδε μὴ ἔχων ἔνδυμα γάμου; ὁ
And says to him, ‘My dear fellow, how did you get in here without having wedding garments?’ But he was speechless/muzzled.
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
εἰσῆλθες: AAI 2s, εἰσέρχομαι, 1) to go out or come in: to enter 1a) of men or animals, as into a house or a city
ἔχων: PAPart nsm, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold 1a) to have (hold) in the hand, in the sense of wearing,
ἐφιμώθη: API 3s, φιμόω, 1) to close the mouth with a muzzle, to muzzle 2) metaph. 2a) to stop the
mouth, make speechless, reduce to silence 2b) to become speechless 3) to be kept in check
13 τότε ὁ βασιλεὺς εἶπεν τοῖς διακόνοις, Δήσαντες αὐτοῦ πόδας καὶ χεῖρας
ἐκβάλετε αὐτὸν εἰς τὸ σκότος τὸ ἐξώτερον: ἐκεῖ ἔσται ὁ κλαυθμὸς καὶ ὁ
βρυγμὸς τῶν ὀδόντων.
Then the king said to the servants, ‘Binding him foot and hand throw him into the outer darkness; where the there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.’
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
Δήσαντες: AAPart npm, δέω, 1) to bind tie, fasten 1a) to bind, fasten with chains, to throw into chains 1b) metaph
ἐκβάλετε: AAImpv 2p, ἐκβάλλω 1) to cast out, drive out, to send out 1a) with notion of violence 1a1) to drive out (cast out)
ἔσται: FMI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. The “outer darkness” is a Matthean motif, also appearing in 8:12 and 25:30.
2. “Weeping and gnashing of teeth” is another Matthean motif, also appearing in 8.12, 13.42, 13.50, 24.51, and 25.30,
14 πολλοὶ γάρ εἰσιν κλητοὶ ὀλίγοι δὲ ἐκλεκτοί.
For many are called, but few chosen (called out/elected).”
εἰσιν: FAI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
I think it is imperative for the interpreter of this text – whether it is a teacher, preacher, or someone reading the text for their own edification – to ask this question: Is this a parable that demonstrates what God is like?
I think it is possible to make the case for “yes,” but I would make the case for “no.” Here are my thoughts on the matter.
1. From the very beginning, the phrase “chief priests and scribes” has not just depicted a religious group representing a theological perspective, such as the “law of Moses” or the “original covenant” or some other form of God’s actions that are now being replaced by what Jesus brings. Even in the birth narrative, the “chief priests and scribes” are representative of Herod’s imperial control over Jerusalem. When Herod hears that magi asking for “the child who has been born king of the Jews,” Matthew says that he was frightened “and all of Jerusalem with him.” Then, he calls “the chief priests and scribes” to inquire into where the child is to be born. From the very beginning these ‘religious’ leaders are not just religious leaders. They are identified with the Herodian dynasty, both Herod the father in the birth narrative and Herod the son in the adult stories of Jesus.
2. In a telling episode from Matthew 20, the mother of James and John tries to obtain chief seats for her sons in Jesus’ “kingdom.” The other disciples hear about it and are angry. Then this:
But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
3. The parallel between the form of this parable and the form of the preceding Parable of the Vineyard from last week’s lection is clear. The vineyard owner sends servants, who are mistreated, killed, and stoned. The man king sends servants who are ignored. The vineyard owner sends a second round of servants, who are treated again like the first. The man king sends a second round of servants who are mistreated and killed. Jesus asked the chief priests and Pharisees what the vineyard owner should do and they prescribe revenge. The man king executes revenge. One thing to bear in mind is that the answer “revenge” in the Parable of the Vineyard was a wrong answer. Vengeance is the answer of those who have not perceived in the Scriptures God’s way of taking the stone that was rejected and making it the chief cornerstone. In my own terms, the return of the cornerstone is a resurrection motif (which is all over the Scriptures, OT and NT). If you don’t believe in resurrection (understood in this larger sense), the only answer to violence is retributive violence.
There are parallels to this story in the Gospel of Thomas (saying 64) and in Luke 14:15-24. Those parables emphasize the openness of the feast after the initial invitees decline, without the violence or retribution.
Jesus said: A man had guests; and when he had prepared the dinner, he sent his servants to invite the guests. He went to the first, and said to him: My master invites you. He said: I have money with some merchants; they are coming to me this evening. I will go and give them my orders. I ask to be excused from the dinner. He went to another (and) said to him: My master invites you. He said to him: I have bought a house, and I am asked for a day. I shall not have time. He went to another (and) said to him: My master invites you. He said to him: My friend is about to be married, and I am to arrange the dinner. I shall not be able to come. I ask to be excused from dinner. He went to another, he said to him: My master invites you. He said to him: I have bought a farm; I am going to collect the rent. I shall not be able to come. I ask to be excused. The servant came back (and) said to his master: Those whom you have invited to dinner have asked to be excused. The master said to his servant: Go out to the roads, bring those whom you find, that they may dine. Traders and merchants [shall] not [enter] the places of my Father
15 One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, ‘Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’ 16Then Jesus said to him, ‘Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, “Come; for everything is ready now.” 18But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my apologies.” 19Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.” 20Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.” 21So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” 22And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” 23Then the master said to the slave, “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. 24For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.” ’