Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Quote of the Day (41)

In a week when the usual suspects have been howling for a “disproportionate response” to the downing of a U.S. navy spy drone, it’s refreshing to find a commentator who prefers violent provocations be met with no response at all.

Don’t worry, this is not about the Strait of Hormuz or what constitutes Iranian airspace. The provocation is storyline-only, and the response to it is disproportionate only if you fail to consider the circumstances in which it occurs.

Premiering to Poor Reviews ...

Janet Hunt comments unfavorably on the reaction of the king in the well-known parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22:
“The ‘king’ as described in the story before us now is not one that seems anything like the God I have been taught to worship, much less one I could give my allegiance to in this life. For this king rules with threat and violence and vengeance — even though at first it seems that violence is only in response to violence already perpetrated by his citizens.”
Okay, maybe “refreshing” is the wrong word. This is one of those special expressions of opinion that seems uniquely off track, finding its nadir in the speculation that:
“I cannot help but wonder if Jesus is not the one without the wedding robe — the one who could not, would not pretend to honor a tyrant king by putting on that wedding robe — who in behalf of all of us was thrown into the outer darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Oy vey.

A More Traditional Interpretation

Perhaps we should start with a more orthodox understanding of the passage. In his Believers Bible Commentary, the late William MacDonald succinctly explains his own view of Matthew 22:
“[Jesus] again pictured favored Israel as set aside and the despised Gentiles as guests at the table.”
MacDonald goes on:
“As to the meaning of the parable, the king is God and His Son is the Lord Jesus. The wedding feast is an appropriate description of the festive joy which characterizes the kingdom of heaven.

The first stage of the invitation pictures John the Baptist and the twelve disciples graciously inviting Israel to the wedding feast. But the nation refused to accept.

The second stage of the invitation suggests the proclamation of the gospel to the Jews in the book of Acts. Some treated the message with contempt. Some treated the messengers with violence; most of the apostles were martyred.

The King, justifiably angry with Israel, sent ‘his armies,’ that is, Titus and his Roman legions, to destroy Jerusalem and most of its people in A.D. 70. They were ‘his armies’ in the sense that He used them as His instruments to punish Israel. They were His officially even if they did not know Him personally.

Now Israel is set aside nationally and the gospel goes out to the Gentiles.”
Not One Stone Left

If we are going to be picky, we could point out that the sending out of the gospel to the Gentiles preceded the Roman destruction of Jerusalem by as much as 33 years, but after all this is a parable, not a detailed history or timeline. Many individual Jews were saved at Pentecost and afterward, but when their religious leadership officially and finally rejected the promised Messiah, the fate of their nation was sealed.

In fact, knowing their hard hearts would never be softened en masse by the preaching of the gospel, Jesus bluntly announced well before his death, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” So there is no question the setting aside of Israel nationally and the emphasis on preaching the gospel to the Gentiles was a fait accompli long before Titus brought his engines of war against the Jewish rebels.

And rebels they were, no doubt about that.

Too Good for the Best

In any case, MacDonald’s interpretation of the parable should be uncontroversial. If the king’s reaction to the rejection of his invitation appears at all jarring and extreme to us in the modern context (“he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city”), the problem is likely our own failure to think the parable through and place it in its appropriate historical context.

It should be evident from quality of the second batch of invitees, who were basically street rabble, that the original prospective guests were a far more prestigious and refined group. The first invitees were the nation’s elites, its landowners and businessmen. They were the privileged nobility, the sort of people you usually expect to see at a once-in-a-generation event.

We should note that a similar position of privilege had been enjoyed for centuries by the nation of Israel in the plans and purposes of God: “[S]alvation is from the Jews,” as the Lord Jesus put it. Or as the apostle Paul later comments, they were “entrusted with the oracles of God.”

A Passive-Aggressive Coup d’État

Returning to the parable, it would have been not just appropriate but obligatory for the nobles of a kingdom to make an appearance at such an event. It was not merely another chance for a night out on the town, but a great privilege and honor to be invited, a testimony to the importance of one’s stature among the “who’s who” of the kingdom.

A gracious monarch may well have tolerated the absence at his banquet of one or two nobles tendering appropriately servile apologies, but an across-the-board abject refusal to attend by all his kingdom’s elites? That was not merely rude, it was a de facto rebellion — a passive-aggressive coup d’état. It announced that the heir to the throne had been rejected by his own subjects; worse, that the king was no longer in charge and considered incapable of enforcing his will. Combine that with the humiliation of some of his emissaries and the murder of others, and almost no response on the king’s part could reasonably be considered disproportionate. So the king sent a message. Had he failed to do so, he may as well have slunk off into the sunset: his kingdom would have been over.

I note the complaints about the king’s “violence and vengeance” are from this century, not from the Lord’s contemporaries. To understand why the king’s storyline reaction to the murder of his servants and the rejection of his invitation appears to have inspired no objections at the time, consider the conduct of the powerful men with whom the Lord’s audience was familiar. Suppose the king in the parable had been Tiberius Caesar, for instance. How might that have played out for the rebels? Would he have sat them down for a cup of tea and a nice frank chat about their issues, perhaps? [Answer below.*]

Comparatively speaking, the king in the Lord’s parable is the epitome of gracious moderation and restraint. If his first century audience could hear Janet Hunt’s complaint that she could not possibly grant her allegiance to a king like the one in the parable, they would be rolling on the floor in hysterics. On the contrary, any king incapable of responding decisively to such a flagrant provocation would not be a man worth serving.

Invitations and Commands

We’re not first century Jews, of course. We’re not being offered history’s first chance to voluntarily and enthusiastically embrace the man God has chosen to judge the world in righteousness. All the same, perhaps there’s something for us in the parable, and that is this: We often present the gospel as an invitation, and that’s reasonable, since scripture often frames it that way.

However, the gospel invitation is no more optional than the wedding invitation of the king in the parable. The occasion of its offering to the world is of far greater grandeur and urgency, and the insult to both King and Heir from those who dismiss them is orders of magnitude greater.

For this reason we read formulations like, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,” and “the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” These verses frame the gospel as a life-and-death matter, not merely a gentle suggestion or the opportunity at a can’t-miss spiritual investment.

You cannot disobey an invitation, but you can certainly disobey a command. The gospel is both. The one who disobeys the gospel is a rebel, and a rebel has no place at a banquet or in a kingdom.

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* From the Infogalactic entry on Tiberius Caesar, a sweetheart compared to his adopted grandson, Caligula: “Executions were now a stimulus to his fury, and he ordered the death of all who were lying in prison under accusation of complicity with Sejanus. There lay, singly or in heaps, the unnumbered dead, of every age and sex, the illustrious with the obscure. Kinsfolk and friends were not allowed to be near them, to weep over them, or even to gaze on them too long. Spies were set round them, who noted the sorrow of each mourner and followed the rotting corpses, till they were dragged to the Tiber, where, floating or driven on the bank, no one dared to burn or to touch them.”

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