We’re not on lectionary at our church this week, but I pulled up a sermon I preached a few years ago on Matthew 22:1-14.
And if you are interested in more sermons, I’ve posted some recently over on our church blog.
So here’s roughly what I said about the Great Banquet parable back in 2007:
We have listened this morning to a familiar parable, often called the parable of the great banquet. The traditional interpretation of this parable is pretty straight forward. God is the host. God is always the host, or the landowner, or whoever has power in the story. The first invited guests are the Jewish people. Since they refused God’s invitation to salvation—given through Jesus—God has invited the less desirables into the Kingdom. That would be most of us—the Gentiles.
I like this interpretation to the extent that it presents the Kingdom of God as inclusive of all types of people—and particularly inclusive of the poor and oppressed. But beyond that, there are some serious problems with the traditional view of the parable.
I read a story recently. I can’t vouch for it’s accuracy, but it seems true enough. One Sunday morning, all of the children were gathered around the pastor at the front of the sanctuary for children’s time. The paster, in an effort to creatively engage the children, said, “Imagine! On my way to church this morning I something amazing. A little brown thing with a bushy tail, very fast. It ran up a tree. Can you guess what it was?” One little boy piped up, “Well, normally I would say it was a squirrel. But the way things go around here, it must have been the Lord Jesus.”1
This child recognized that sometimes the church’s metaphors for the divine become ridiculous. And I would argue that presenting a squirrel as the Lord Jesus is not necessarily more ridiculous than equating God with the host in this parable.
Metaphors are utterly dependent on context, and in the context of our story, Jesus has just said to his dinner companions, “When you give a meal, don’t invite your friends and family, do not call your rich neighbors.”
And what does our host do? He invites his friends, his rich neighbors. We can tell by their excuses that the invited guests are of a relatively high social status just like the host.
Does it make sense that the character representing God would be doing something that Jesus just told people not to do?
In arguing against the idea of host as God, biblical scholar Luise Schottroff tells the story of the toll collector’s son from the Talmud: A poor man died and the proper honor was not given to him. Soon after, the son of the toll collector—a rich man—died and he received great honor. A friend of the poor man complained saying that the poor man had committed only one sin, and that involved a minor infraction of ceremony, which hardly counted as a sin. But the rich man, the one everyone honored, had only done one good thing. His good deed was that once he had prepared a meal for the city rulers, and when they did not come to eat, the man gave orders for the food to go to the poor so it would not be wasted. This, according to the Talmud, barely even counts as a good deed.
I would like to think that our God does not invite the poor to the banquet just to spite those wealthy who refuse to come. But that God invites the poor out of love and joy. That God does not shut the door to those who refuse the first invitation, but continually invites and re-invites us all to a banquet hall where the doors are always open.
But I think most of us have been trained to read the parables as allegories. Surely Jesus wasn’t just talking about regular folk. Someone has to be “the king”, and someone the “wicked people” and someone the “good people.”
What do we do with parables in general, if the power figure is not representative of God? What do we do with this parable in particular, if the host is not God? What message is Jesus trying to convey if this is just a story about a spiteful host and some lucky street people?
Maybe this one is a little too easy. Because I think Jesus tells people what he wants them to know before he tells the story. We often do this with our children. “You need to stop lying. Haven’t you ever heard the story of the boy who cried wolf? Well, once there was this boy . . .”
Jesus says, “When you have a nice meal (like the one we’re eating here together), be sure you don’t just invite people who can return the favor. You should invite the poor, the lame, the blind. Haven’t you ever heard the story of the host who only invited his rich friends? Well, once there was a man who gave a great banquet . . . ”
If the host represents anyone, he represents those of us with the means to host a banquet. And Jesus is not telling us to set up soup kitchens or food banks. Those are good things, but not what this story is about. In this story, Jesus is telling us that the poor, the lame, the outcasts, should be our friends. We should eat with them, not just give them food.
In the end, says Jesus, you’ll be eating with them anyway. You might as well start now.
The spiteful host is not God, but it might be us. And if the first-invited guests represent anyone, I don’t think it is the Jewish people, I think it is us again. Those of us who can afford farms and oxen and weddings.
New Testament scholar Fred Craddock points out that all of the excuses given in this story would have been considered legitimate reasons for canceling a dinner engagement. These are not “the dog ate my homework” kinds of excuses.
It was important for upper class people to acquire property, engage in commerce and solidify social ties through marriage. And it is precisely these obligations that prevented them from enjoying the meal their friend had prepared for them.
I am glad to say that our friends did not have give excuses last weekend when Grace had a birthday party. Almost everyone we invited came. That was a great feeling. It felt like we had friends, that we were loved. And we had a great time!
I know we would have felt really sad and rejected if nobody had come—if it had been just our family, some balloons, and two Elmo cakes.
There is a graciousness in giving the invitation, and there is also a graciousness in accepting the invitation.
In this passage, I don’t think Jesus is talking about God and heaven and the Jews and the Gentiles. I think Jesus is actually talking about what he’s talking about–giving invitations and accepting them. How our attempts at respectability can get in the way of both. As the first-invited demonstrate, being socially respectable takes a significant amount of time and energy. And sometimes we are tempted to prioritize social and economic obligations over opportunities for true relationship.
Now, I’m not saying that the meaning of this parable is to watch out for social obligations. Or that you should never refuse a dinner invitation. But I think those messages are there as part of the story; they are there for those who need to hear them.
The beauty of Jesus’ parables is that they meet us where we are. We might be the host. We might be the first-invited. We might be the poor off of the street. But wherever we find ourselves in the story, we can be sure of the good news: there is a party, and—one way or another—we’re all invited!