Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Kingdom of the Heavens v. The Kingdom of a Human King

Below is a rough translation and some initial thoughts about Matthew 22:1-10, the revised common lectionary gospel reading for Sunday, October 11. 

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. Often, 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.

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 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, even if this is the side of God’s nature that we equate with Old Testament fury.

1 Καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ Ἰησοῦς πάλιν εἶπεν ἐν παραβολαῖς αὐτοῖς λέγων
And Jesus answered 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.
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.

2  Ὡμοιώθηἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν ἀνθρώπῳ βασιλεῖ, ὅστις ἐποίησεν 
γάμους τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ. 
“The kingdom of the heavens is likened to a human 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. The verb ὁμοιόω (like) is in the passive voice. Perhaps this is an idiomatic way of saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like,” where it takes the force of an active voice, as the KJV and NIV interpret it. But, I suspect it keeps the passive force and mean “this is what we hear the kingdom of heaven is like,” which could be a set-up for a correction. The ESV and NRSV use “is compared to,” leaving open (as Matthew does) who it is that actually does this comparing.
2. The beginning of our parable contrasts with the introduction of the parable in 20:1 of the laborers in the field:  Ὁμοία γάρ ἐστιν βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν, “For the kingdom of the heavens is like ….” In 20:1, the verb ‘to be’ is an active verb and ‘like’ is a predicate nominative.
3. 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” or, as I am putting it “a human king.” That is similar to the way the parable of the laborers begins in 20:1 ἀνθρώπῳ οἰκοδεσπότῃ, “A man a landowner …” but different from how the parable of the parable from last week began in 21:33, Ἄνθρωπος ἦν οἰκοδεσπότης, “A man who was a landowner …”
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, Jesus begins this parable by saying that people often describe the kingdom of heaven as if God is like Herod.

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 to the king’s wedding feast, but the language is specifically about their will, not of unforeseen circumstances having arisen. This is a people who do not will their king’s lordship.

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. 
And he sent other slaves saying, ‘Say to the one who had 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.”

5 οἱ δὲ ἀμελήσαντες ἀπῆλθον, ὃς μὲν εἰς τὸν ἴδιον ἀγρόν, ὃς δὲ ἐπὶ τὴν 
ἐμπορίαν αὐτοῦ: 
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 is an invitation, the command “come,” and people not willing to do what the man/king says to do. That puts the whole story in less of a ‘happy 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”?
One possibility: If this parable is Jesus’ depiction of how the chief priests and Pharisees typically depict the kingdom of the heavens, perhaps this is how they describe the exiles and the remnants, when the exiles were off in another place and the remnants continued to abuse God’s messengers. I think I’m on thin ice here, but I’m trying to understand ‘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, ἐμ-πιπράω  to burn, set on fire;
1. This uninhibited retribution is quite reminiscent of Herod’s mannerisms. I do admit, however, that it may also fairly sum up various ways that God is described in the Old Testament and other New Testament scriptures.
2. The human king’s response reminds me of a joyous generous man on a date who realizes that he’s not going to score and suddenly turns violent. There is often that abrupt moment when it becomes evident that the initial generosity was undergirded all along with potential violence.

8 τότε 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 
κεκλημένοι: PPPart 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. Being “worthy” or not is a matter of how one responds to the invitation.

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-exodos] means 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. 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 allowing others to the feast than ensuring that the feast is well-attended. Is it grace or ego 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. Now the question of “worthy” v. “not worthy” (v.8) seems to be purely a matter of who responds and who does not, since the gathering of the second wave of invitations is specifically a gathering of good and evil persons.
2. 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 and generosity.

I want to contrast the violence/retribution of this parable with the pivotal moment in the preceding parable, in order to argue that God is not, in fact, like this human king. At the conclusion of the parable of the landowner, Jesus asks what the landowner will do and the chief priests and Pharisees answer that he will kill the violent tenant farmers with retributive violence. That is how they have been describing the kingdom of the heavens. Jesus retorts that if they had been paying attention to their own Scriptures, they would see another means by which God acts – that the rejected stone becomes the chief cornerstone. My argument is that in the parable of the landowner, Jesus says God works, not through retributive violence, but by resurrection.

Addendum: 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.

Thomas 64
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

Luke 14
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.” ’


  1. That helps - thanks! This is a dreadful parable, and I appreciate your finding a positive spin to put on it.

  2. Your translation and exegesis enabled me to find the pony in the pile of manure that otherwise was this parable. Thank you.


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