Matthew 22:1-14, translation and thoughts

This is the reading in the ordinary form for this week’s Sunday Mass.  We had an interesting homily on its content which made me want to do my own translation and perhaps share a few comments with you.  The parable as Matthew leaves it to us is full of interesting elements which are worth delving into a little more closely.  I will try to do that following the translation.

Thus having answered, Jesus once more spoke in parables to them, saying:

The empire of the heavens may be likened to a man, a great ruler, who prepared a wedding for his son, and sent out his slaves to those invited to the wedding.  But they did not want to come.  Once more he sent out other slaves, and told them: ‘Say to those who have been invited Behold! my breakfast is prepared.  My bulls and fatted calves have been sacrificed and everything is ready.  Come hither to the wedding.

But they in their carelessness departed, the one to his own field, the other to his business.  The others laid hold of his slaves, maltreated and slew them.  So the great ruler was provoked to wroth and, sending his hosts, he utterly destroyed those bloodthirsty ones and their city he burned.  Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is at hand but those invited were not worthy.  Go therefore to the passings of the highways and whosoever you discover summon into the wedding.’  So having gone out, those slaves, to the journeyways, they gathered all whom they found, the bad together with the good; and reclining at table, they filled the wedding.

As the great ruler came in to see those reclining at table, he saw there a person not clothed in wedding garments.  And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here, not having wedding garments?’  But he was speechless.  Then the great ruler said to the deacons, ‘Once you bind him feet and hands, cast him out into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.’

For a great number are welcome, but few elect to purification.

The textual history of this parable is clouded in mystery.  Modern textual critics like to understand Matthew’s version of the parable as an elaboration of an earlier, simpler story more accurately reflected in the versions recorded by Luke and in the gospel of Thomas.  But there is not enough similarity between all the extant versions to say certainly that they are drawn from a single source (the many differences from Luke’s account I try to speak about a little below).  One of the arguments often used to advocate a Matthean embellishment theory is that the King sends his army to put the murderers to death and burn their city.  This is seen, then, as a prophecy of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD70, often alluded to by Matthew.  But, of course, it was the temple and not the whole city that was razed in the calamitous Jewish rebellion.    It is, therefore, too much to say with definiteness that Matthew has embellished a simpler story and it remains quite possible (I would say probable) that he is faithfully reporting another version of this parable preached by the Lord in the particular context of his dispute with the Jerusalem authorities (remember it follows two parables with a similar meaning, and precedes the great discourse of woe on the scribes and pharisees).

Let’s look at the text more closely and perhaps compare it a little with Luke.  The first thing to note is that the initiator of the event is for Luke simple “a certain man”, while Matthew he is a “basileus”.  This is usually translated “king”, however it has a big range of meaning.  It was, informally, the title of the Roman Emperor; but it could equally well be applied to a magistrate or a petty king.  In the New Testament we are pretty safe using the word “king”, but for my translation I have preferred “great ruler” just to suggest the variety of possible meanings and also because it seems to me the real person represented by this character is God the Father.  This ruler has prepared a “wedding” (gamous) for his son.  Matthew is quite specific: it is a wedding for the king’s son.  It may be that we can translate “gamous” as “wedding feast” but even then, Luke has simply a “big dinner” (deipnon mega).  The emphasis in Matthew is that the event is the son’s wedding.  Then the king sends out two lots of slaves (douloi): the first perhaps representing the Prophets and the second the Apostles.  That is, of course, conjecture, but it seems reasonable and has a good pedigree in the Church’s tradition.

In my translation I have called the feast “my breakfast”.  This is a quite literal rendering of “ariston mou”, but also I liked the possible theological connotations: the Holy Sacrifice is, truly speaking, a “break fast”: it takes place (traditionally) in the morning, it genuinely breaks the fast which we have kept from the night before, it also ends the spiritual hunger of those who participate in it; the Mass is truly the feast of the Great Ruler, at which we celebrate the sacrificial wedding of His Son.  (None of this is present in Luke’s version.)

For Matthew, the rejection of the slaves is “carelessness” (amelésantes): they neglect the message and therefore foolishly risk angering the king and bringing his vengeance down upon themselves.  The fact that they have two opportunities only increases the negligence of the act.  It is therefore unsurprising that Matthew (and the king in Jesus’ parable) have little time for these rude guests.  We might also add that for a vassal to reject his leal-lord’s invitation could easily be construed as treason.  Here Matthew means us to think of the Jews, or at least the Temple and synagogal authorities with whom Jesus and later Matthew’s own community were in dispute.  Luke adds a chilling extra to this: “not one of those who had been invited will taste my supper” (Lk. 14:24).

That both the “bad and good” are gathered into the wedding reminds us of the parable of the tares in the wheat field and that, in the Church, as anywhere, we will find, indeed it is the Lord’s will that there will be, bad and good together.  This now seems rarely to be understood in its really fullest sense and there is an unfortunately tendency to want to “purify” the Church on the one hand either by excluding the “bad” (abusive priests, homosexuals, those who in other ways do not live up to the ideal and so forth) or by pretending (and even, it must be said, believing) that the weeds are really wheat.  Both are pretty serious distortions of the truth: everyone inhabits the Church, God has opened the wedding of his son to all.  But still, everyone is need of purification, of having his garments washed in the blood of the Lamb so that they do indeed become fit to be worn at such a feast.

This brings us to the final scene of this parable.  The King himself enters the festal hall, to meet his guests, and sees one person (anthropos) not fittingly dressed.  We might ask ourselves, how could he expect him to be?  St Augustine answers this question in the most obvious way, and perhaps we will have thought of it without having to be told: the king himself provides the garments, just as in the same way the Lord provides the grace necessary for us to be received into his presence.  So, the one who does not cloth himself in the garments of grace cannot enter the feast, and indeed will find himself cast into the outer darkness, into hell.  The last line of the parable seems perplexing: only one guest among (presumably) a great many is cast out, and yet, “only few are chosen”.  I will leave that one for readers to consider!

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