The Wedding Banquet

When the king’s son gets married, it should be the biggest event in town. Everybody who’s anybody should be there, just think of the royal weddings that have happened in your own lifetime. Obviously, it’s not exactly the same now as it was then, but a royal wedding was and is a political event with an exclusive guest list. If you’re important enough to be invited, you show up. It’s an honor to have the invitation because of what it says about your status and standing with the royal family. Food, music, and drinks aside – weddings are a networking event for high society. The groom is a potential future king, and even if you didn’t like him, you would want the opportunity to be seen as his loyal subject.

But that’s not what happens in today’s parable. In the upside-down world of this parable, literally nobody wants to go to the king’s party. The socialites invited to the wedding banquet either ignore the invitation, or worse, hurt the slaves whose job it was to deliver the invitation. At least some of these nobles make an unmistakable choice to offend the king. Violence begets violence, and the King reacts to their snubbing by sending in troops to get his revenge. He has them all destroyed, and the soldiers set not just those people’s homes, but the city on fire. And so, a celebration turns into widespread destruction.

The fact that everyone refuses this imaginary king does not speak well of their allegiance to him or his son. I mean, how unpopular would a king have to be for no one at all to show up to such a significant event? Can you imagine the impact of the nobility collectively turning down the opportunity to go to a royal wedding? When I think about it that way, it makes me wonder if there’s some sort of organized revolt going on here. And if that’s the political backdrop for the parable, should we really assume that everyone else was super excited to go in their place?

Imagine the absolute chaos – soldiers in the streets, buildings still burning, and the dead and injured needing tended to – when the king decides the wedding banquet must go on and he needs people to attend. While the feast is still warm, more slaves are sent out, but this time to gather literally whoever they can find. How do you think the second round of invitees were really feeling?  Not even the well-off wanted to dine with this guy, so what makes us think that everyone else DID? This king just demonstrated that he is not the kind of ruler you can say “no” to, and if even the well-to-do were not safe from his wrath, how safe do you think everyone else would feel?

Sure, some might be excited to dine at the kings table, but others would be terrified to be there. They would go to make sure their loved ones and homes were spared, but some would be stewing in hatred as they sat as his table, thinking of loved ones and livelihoods lost to the abuse of the king’s power. It seems charitable of him to welcome anyone, even the poor, to this banquet, but if he really cared about them then why not invite them all in the first place instead of using them to soothe his bruised ego?

I would strongly caution us against assuming that this wrathful king represents God. Matthew was no stranger to cruel rulers, his gospel records the visit of the magi to King Herod, whose murderous fury about another potential king resulted in the death of a whole generation of children, which Jesus and his family flee to Egypt to survive. Jesus taught that God’s kingdom is not like earthly kingdoms. We are often quick to align God with male authority figures when they show up in the Bible, but not all kings are God. If we equate God with a ruler who is above reproach and allowed to use excessive violence and power at will, then we are in dangerous territory. If God is a violent tyrant, then humans can justify their own uses of violence. If God is obsessed with controlling people and punishing any disobedience, then humans will justify their control over others as well.

Christians have often interpreted this parable as a story about our own invitation to the kingdom of heaven, with gentiles being the second round of guests after God’s people reject the invitation of Jesus and his messengers the disciples. But that reading concerns me too. It too easily discards all the stories of Judaism and God’s frequently proclaimed steadfast love for the people of Israel. Besides, where is the challenge for us in that interpretation? I don’t think we should settle for a pat on the back for being smarter than everyone else, and I refuse to believe that the infinitely good God I serve is as hot-headed and petty as this king here. Much like the exaggerated characters in other parables, the king in this parable is an exaggeratedly bad king. Unliked by a concerning number of his populace, and quick to become violent when angry. He has a lot more in common with Herod and Caesar than he does with God.

This story should hit us as disturbing. To those living under Roman rule, who had experienced events like the destruction of Jerusalem before the book of Matthew was written, the cruelty of kings was a real danger to the lives they were living.  I think that if we sit with the violence in this parable instead of spiritualizing it, we will see that the second group is coerced into accepting the King’s invitation. And if that invitation really represents God’s invitation, then the invitation is no more than a thinly veiled threat from a God who is distant and ruthless. But if God is not like the cruel king described here, and the kingdom of God is not just a divine version of the violence that is found in the kingdoms of the world, how else can we find meaning in this parable?

Well, I think that the story of Palm Sunday can help. When Jesus enters Jerusalem, being cheered by the masses and riding a donkey, he upsets the powerful. The people who ordinarily made a big deal of their arrival to Jerusalem were those with important titles and wealth to flaunt. Jesus has neither. He flaunts the power of his mere presence, and his boldness would have felt like a mockery of them. The ones who normally rode into town on high horses would have been furious and jealous that Jesus received such praise and worship from the people. Jesus was stirring up trouble, and he continues to do so in Matthew’s gospel after he enters Jerusalem. He flips over the tables of the money changers in the temple. He argues with the chief priests and the elders, saying “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” He was inflammatory and radical, opposed to the unjustly wealthy and the abuses of the powerful, which is the very thing that would get him arrested, and I think that’s really where God is in our parable.

Perhaps the kingdom of God is like the collective power of individuals who refuse to participate in an event hosted by a tyrant. Perhaps the kingdom of God is like the conundrum of the king’s subjects participating in a cycle of violence, each for their own survival, all that is except for one. You see the parable continues after the point where we stopped reading today, in Matthew 22:11. There is a single guest at the banquet who is not wearing the proper wedding attire. The ruler asks this person why they are not dressed appropriately, and the person says nothing. Not, “Sorry, I don’t have any wedding clothes” or even “Sorry, I didn’t have the chance to get dressed, my house was on fire.” Silence is his response, which feels like an act of defiance. The king demands obedience, but this one individual will not give it to him.

This is clearly not a “come as you are” kind of event, because that guest gets thrown out. Bound hand and foot and tossed into the darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. No one is safe in this king’s world, not the nobles who now watch their city burn, or the second round of guests who were brought to the party, and so no one dares to stand with the poorly dressed guest who gets thrown out. Amy-Jill Levine wrote this about our parable for today: The parable of the Wedding Banquet is disturbing in its violence. It ends with dead slaves, a burned city, dinner guests who are compelled to attend the party, and an expelled guest doomed to torture because he lacked the right outfit. That any of this speaks to what the “kingdom of heaven” is like should come as a surprise… It would be better if we perhaps started by seeing the parable not as about heaven or hell or final judgment, but about kings, politics, violence, and the absence of justice. If we do, we might be getting closer to Jesus.[1]

Jesus does not fit in with tyrannical kings like this, but he fits right in with the banquet reject.[2] So, the real challenge of this parable to us might be – when we are invited (or coerced) to align ourselves with the powerful, what should we do? When should we sit at the banquet table, and when should we risk it all by refusing to participate? If our city is on fire and we have been invited to celebrate the very influences that set it ablaze, how should we respond? When there are legitimate reasons to be afraid that stirring up trouble means our own peril, what does the salvation of God look like? Should we put our trust in our own status to protect us, or does Christ’s example challenge us to call out harm and demonstrate our dissent? Does Christ call us to salvation through solidarity?

These are not easy questions to wrestle with, and this parable has no satisfying conclusion. It is a story about the violence of the powerful and those who stand up to them, and it ends with Matthew’s interpretation that: “Many are called, but few are chosen.” If we question the traditional interpretation of this story, this becomes a parable that we can still be challenged by. We too are expected to go about our business while the world is on fire. We are also coerced by necessity into dressing up when there are still bodies in the streets. We have all seen horrible injustices unfold, and then moments later had to show up to one of life’s requirements as if nothing was out of place.

Maybe the coming of the kingdom of heaven is like what happens at a king’s banquet, where compliance means survival, and resistance means destruction. There are few who have the courage to display their defiance, especially when the blood of the last guy who stood up is still on the ground.[3] But in this Lenten season we remember how much Jesus is like that man, bound and rejected, condemned to the darkness of death by state violence. He stood silently before Pilate in much the same way that this one person in the parable stood silently before the ruler.

In him, in his defiance, and in his solidarity with the poor, we see the kingdom of God revealed. Jesus stirs up meaningful trouble when he will not pretend that things in Jerusalem are fine the way they are. Holy Week is a reminder to us that God stands alongside those who are persecuted, those who risk everything when they refuse to accept the way things are. The ones who will not forget that the city is on fire. Jesus is Lord not through coercion, but through his humble solidarity with defiant human beings. May we know them, stand with them, and be them. Amen.

[1] Amy Jill-Levine, Short Stories by Jesus.

[2] This sentence is inspired by the comparisons made by Stacey Nalean-Carlson which you can read here:

[3] Writer Debbie Thomas wrote a great piece on this which was published in Christian Century but can also be read here:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *