The Parable of the Banquet
Meditation August 21, 2011
by Karen L. Oberst
I'm going to talk this morning about a parable sometimes called the parable of the banquet. It has been understood by the church to refer to the fact that the Jews turned down the invitation to God's Kingdom when they rejected Christ, so we gentiles were invited in.
The parable is found in three gospels, Matthew, Luke, and Thomas. It's interesting to see how it changes as different gospel writers give it different emphases. I'm going to be doing something like a Bible study this morning as I compare and contrast these stories.
A little background. Matthew and Luke were written around 80 CE. The gospel of Thomas, which did not make it into the New Testament, is mainly a compilation of the sayings of Jesus, with the occasional story like this one thrown in. Because it is mainly sayings, it is hard to date. Scholars' guesses range from 60-120 CE. I mention this because judging by this story at least, Thomas has the earliest version. It is much simpler and actually makes more sense than in the canonical gospels. However, this may not mean that it was written earlier, but only that it was not as edited to get other points across.
You have the various versions in your bulletin, so follow along if you want as it is read. In the Gospel of Thomas, it goes like this.
The slave went to the first and said to that one, "My master invites you."
That one said, "Some merchants owe me money; they are coming to me tonight. I have to go and give them instructions. Please excuse me from dinner."
The slave went to another and said to that one, "My master has invited you."
That one said to the slave, "I have bought a house, and I have been called away for a day. I shall have no time."
The slave went to another and said to that one, "My master invites you."
That one said to the slave, "My friend is to be married, and I am to arrange the banquet. I shall not be able to come. Please excuse me from dinner."
The slave went to another and said to that one, "My master invites you."
That one said to the slave, "I have bought an estate, and I am going to collect the rent. I shall not be able to come. Please excuse me."
The slave returned and said to his master, "Those whom you invited to dinner have asked to be excused."
The master said to his slave, "Go out on the streets and bring back whomever you find to have dinner."
Notice in this version, there is no real indication that the guests have been previously invited. A modern day equivalent might be if you were to call up a friend and say, "I've made a big pot of soup. Why don't you come over for dinner?" Notice too, the guests all have legitimate reasons for not coming. They had previous commitments they needed to do. There's no rancor in the master of the house either. He has a big dinner, so he sends out his servant to bring back folks to help eat it. All very civilized, all very polite. When his friends can't come, the householder invites others so the food doesn't go to waste. I see him as a kind man, willing to share his bounty with others.
Now let's move on to Luke.
Then they all began to beg off, one after another making excuses. The first said, 'I bought a piece of property and need to look it over. Send my regrets.'
Another said, 'I just bought five teams of oxen, and I really need to check them out. Send my regrets.'
And yet another said, 'I just got married and need to get home to my wife.'
The servant reported back, 'Master, I did what you commanded- and there's still room.'
The master said, 'Then go to the country roads. Whoever you find, drag them in. I want my house full! Let me tell you, not one of those originally invited is going to get so much as a bite at my dinner party.'"
So the first difference we notice here is that the guests were already invited. When the servant goes out to tell them it's time to come, they give excuses. These excuses are feebler than in Thomas. "I bought a piece of property and must go look at it." Oh really? You couldn't go tomorrow? These guests are rude. Knowing they have been invited, and by extension, having accepted the invitation, they beg off when the time comes. So we've moved the tension up a notch.
There's another difference here which is more subtle. Luke is written by a gentile for gentiles - non-Jewish Christians. In Thomas, the servant simply went out in the town and invited people. In Luke, he is careful to say that the servant is sent out into the country. The town would be considered the Jewish nation, and the country, outside the town, where the gentiles live. So Luke is making it clear that he is talking about gentiles being invited to God's table. The writer has edited the story to reflect his understanding of Jesus' teaching. Notice too, the judgmentalism creeping in. The master says "Let me tell you, not one of those originally invited is going to get so much as a bite at my dinner party."
Let's move to Matthew.
He sent out another round of servants, instructing them to tell the guests, 'Look, everything is on the table, the prime rib is ready for carving. Come to the feast!'
They only shrugged their shoulders and went off, one to weed his garden, another to work in his shop. The rest, with nothing better to do, beat up on the messengers and then killed them. The king was outraged and sent his soldiers to destroy those thugs and level their city.
Then he told his servants, 'We have a wedding banquet all prepared but no guests. The ones I invited weren't up to it. Go out into the busiest intersections in town and invite anyone you find to the banquet.' The servants went out on the streets and rounded up everyone they laid eyes on, good and bad, regardless. And so the banquet was on-every place filled.
When the king entered and looked over the scene, he spotted a man who wasn't properly dressed. He said to him, 'Friend, how dare you come in here looking like that!' The man was speechless. Then the king told his servants, 'Get him out of here-fast. Tie him up and ship him to hell. And make sure he doesn't get back in.'
That's what I mean when I say, 'Many get invited; only a few make it.'"
Now Matthew is written from a Jewish perspective. One of Matthew's main goals is to show Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy, and as the Messiah of Israel. So we have the King - that is, God - holding a wedding feast for his son, that is, Jesus. This time the guests don't even bother to give any plausible excuses at all, but just find their usual business is enough to keep them away. Can you even imagine that any excuse would keep you away if you had been invited to a wedding feast for a prince? This makes the guests - the Jewish people - look pretty bad.
Notice also that the King has sent several servants, which the would-be guests have mistreated. These then would represent the prophets of the Old Testament, who were often mistreated when they gave people the messages that God had entrusted to them. Matthew wants to make sure we don't miss that fact that the invited guests represent the Jews. By the way, the mention of the destruction of the city of those who wouldn't come, may represent how the Romans virtually destroyed Israel in 70 CE.
Then we have the oddest part of this parable. After the servants call in people from the highways and byways, the King enters and sees one man not dressed properly and throws him out with extreme prejudice. This is a good indication that the parable was written by - or at least edited by - the early church. In fact, one of the good ways to tell that we are reading the words of the early church rather than those of Jesus is when we see judgmentalism like this. It doesn't sound much like the Jesus who welcomed the outcasts of his society, does it.
Notice too that the person was already at the banquet when he was shown the door. This man then represents someone who was a Christ follower but fell away, perhaps because of persecution. The church condemned those who recanted because of fear of martyrdom much more than the pagans of the surrounding country. By the time Matthew was written, Christians had been through some serious persecution, particularly under Nero, so this was not academic to them.
So, from a simple parable about a man inviting people over to dinner, this has become a story of the last judgment, very much like the parable of the wheat and the weeds that Faith talked about a few weeks ago.
As we look at how this story changed under different authors, we have a graphic demonstration of how different people see parables differently and also how they can be used to get a particular point across.
So - does this parable have anything to say to us today? Of course I would say yes! Here's what I see. In our culture, many Christians would see themselves as the chosen of God, much as the Jews of Jesus' time did. And who then would be those invited from the outside? In Jesus' day, gentiles were those who worshipped other gods, that is, who worshipped God differently. I see this as a story that tells me that Christians need to welcome those who worship God in a different way to God's table, to treat them as fellow children of God.
And I see the servant sent to seek out others as us, who should be inviting and welcoming any true seekers to join us at God's party.
So that's my view of the parable. I look forward to hearing your take on it during open worship. I've put a couple of queries in the bulletin to get you started. Let me read them.