Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Too Close to Home

Robert Barron comments on the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew:

“Many devout believers find the brutality and violence of the story hard to take. In a very secularized society where people have lost the sense of God, you have to shake them into awareness with a shocking story with very exaggeratedly-drawn characters, with macabre and violent shocking action.”

Barron goes on to tell his listeners not to interpret the parable in a straightforward, literal way, or to compare this “crazy king” directly to God in every respect. He suggests the Lord was just using strong language to get our attention, to “grab us by the shoulders and shake us awake”.

The Parable of the Wedding Feast

If you are unfamiliar with the story, the parable to which Barron is referring reads as follows:
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.” ’ But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.

“But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Now, if you are coming to the parable for the first time — as many people listening to Barron’s podcasts likely are — there are certainly elements to the Lord’s story that are shocking to modern sensibilities. There is the reaction of the wedding invitees, who seize the king’s servants, mistreat and kill them. There is the king’s response, which is to send in the troops to burn a city to the ground and kill its inhabitants. And there is the king’s reaction to the man who shows up at the wedding dressed improperly: he has him bound and hurled into the “outer darkness”. All of these surely seem like overkill to “a secularized society where people have lost the sense of God”.

To be sure, much like prophecies, parables may sometimes operate at more than one intended level of meaning. But was the Lord really addressing thick-skinned, secularized modern societies when he told this story? Did Jesus deliberately ramp up the brutality and violence in the parable to “stir us up with its exaggeration”, as Barron puts it?

Rejecting Barron’s Explanation

A moment’s consideration of the passage should prompt us to reject Barron’s explanation of the emotions and violence of the parable as merely provocative and non-literal. It should be obvious that while there are certain lessons modern readers can learn from it, the parable was actually told to a very different audience at a very different time in Bible history under very different circumstances, and its primary audience was not the least bit secular. That audience had no need of exaggeration or shock treatment. Their refusal to hear the parable’s message was not the product of the dullness of secular ennui; rather, it was a product of well-informed religious pride and jealousy.

This is the last in a series of three parables directed to the chief priests and elders of the Jews the day after Jesus had cleansed the temple, in response to their question “By what authority are you doing these things?” (The implicit answer in this parable is “By the authority of your king”, but there are plenty of other lessons in it for the religious experts of the first century as well.) It is not a “Christian” parable; it is a Jewish one. The invitation offered is not to salvation by way of the good news of Christ’s resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God, but rather the invitation to a much-to-be-coveted place in a long-awaited and very ethnocentric earthly Messianic kingdom promised to David.

My father used to caution his audiences against trying to parse the Lord’s parables down to the most granular level. There are aspects of each parable that are necessary to propel the narrative, but are simply not useful to scrutinize too intently, and will take us down rabbit trails and away from the main message of the parable if we insist on trying to interpret them. Mr. Barron’s attempt to explain the invitation’s message with the words “Jesus wants to marry the world” is one of these overly-granular analyses. It misses the mark, not least because it casts the Lord’s listeners simultaneously in the role of bride and wedding guest. In this case, stopping to ask “Who does the bride in this parable symbolize?” is about as useful as asking who the pigs symbolize in the parable of the prodigal son. The parable is not about Jesus “marrying” the world, whatever that might mean (it sounds awfully ecumenical to me).

From Abel to Zechariah

So then, if we resist our natural impulse to find ourselves everywhere in the Lord’s parables and instead slip quietly into the sandals of the first century Jewish religious establishment to whom it was addressed, what we find in it is not a bunch of “exaggeratedly drawn” characters blasting away at each other hyperbolically to increase the parable’s emotional impact on modern secular readers, but rather a series of reactions and responses within the narrative that seem quite proportionate and reasonable given its historical context.

If, for example, instead of making gospel preachers out of the servants who are treated shamefully and killed for extending the king’s invitation, we make them the Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles calling Israel into a repentant spiritual state that would make them fit subjects for Messiah’s kingdom, then the apparent strangeness and extremity of the invitees’ response disappears entirely. As odd as murdering the messengers seems to a modern reader, historically it is almost too on the nose. What did the forefathers of the Jewish religious establishment do to the prophets and apostles? Precisely that. Only a chapter later in Matthew, the Lord will tell these same Jews, “On you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.” We modern readers may not fully understand the motives of the Israelite murderers, but murderers they were, and very literally indeed.

More Historical Fulfillment

Then, how about instead of making the destruction of the murderers and the burning of their city into some kind of forced allegory for the coming judgment of sinners who reject the Christian gospel, we simply observe that in AD70 the armies of Rome did precisely this to Jews and the city of Jerusalem. They destroyed the murderers (and the Lord had just called the Jewish religious establishment of his day “murderers”) and burned their city.

There are no false emotional notes in this more apt allegory; nothing is exaggerated or hyperbolic about bringing final judgment on “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” after centuries of unheeded warnings of judgment. As the Lord himself put it, “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” In the parable, the unwilling wedding guests get exactly what their behavior warrants, and no exaggeration required. Just as in the case of the other two parables the Lord told at this time, it is sure that the chief priests and Pharisees perceived he was speaking about them.

Not us. Them.

Finding Ourselves in the Parable

Again, when we come to the hurling of the underdressed wedding guest into the outer darkness, Mr. Barron would have his listeners see themselves somehow entering into the kingdom blessings under false pretenses, having failed to adorn themselves with “a developed moral and spiritual life without which one is no better than those who had refused the invitation in the first place”.

If we are going to find ourselves in the parable at all, this is where we will do it. Many commentators on the passage apply the portion concerning the underdressed wedding guest to people who make a false profession of faith in Christ during the Church Age. I have reservations about that interpretation, because it requires suddenly shifting the allegory from one already-established aspect of the kingdom of heaven to another, one which is not really the subject of the parable and which would have meant little or nothing to the religious leaders who were its original audience.

The banquet to which the Jews were invited and refused to come was a literal, earthly kingdom in which Israel would be the throne of Messiah and the transformed earth his footstool. That is the aspect of the kingdom with which this parable has concerned itself to date. But making the underdressed wedding guest a falsely-professing Christian requires that we change the aspect of the kingdom in view to the spiritual realm in which Christians currently make our home, and recast the “banquet” as the fellowship of the saints in this world. It’s the only way applying it to ourselves makes sense; there’s not really another way to bring ourselves into the story.

An Alternative Hypothesis

If we maintain the original, Jewish aspect of the kingdom for the sake of consistency, we run into theological problems when we hit the writings of the apostle Paul. The Christian enters the millennial kingdom of Jesus Christ in his resurrection body (“we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet”), as described by Paul vividly in 1 Corinthians 15, and clothed not in his own righteousness, but in the righteousness of God. Since this is the case, the underdressed guest in the parable cannot possibly represent a falsely-professing Christian: no pretend-believers from the church age will make it to the millennial kingdom. Those from this era that arrive there one day will all be properly attired.

So then, if we want to find ourselves in the parable, we must make the banquet into the enjoyment of the present-day fellowship of the saints. And yet we see little evidence in the church today of the “king” patrolling his wedding feast, rooting out the pretenders and carrying them off to judgment. In fact, in another parable, one which is concerned with the present-day spiritual aspect of the kingdom, the “weeds” and “wheat” are left to grow together until harvest. Thus the allegory simply doesn’t work very well if we try to apply it to present-day professing Christians in the spiritual kingdom of heaven.

No, the picture in Matthew 22 is of a man who has made his way into the blessings of the Messianic kingdom in inappropriate garb. He is not discovered in line at the door and rejected. He is already in, enjoying the benefits of the kingdom, and has to be identified and cast out. I think the Lord is talking here not about present-day professing Christians who are not genuine, but about Jews who survive into the millennial reign of Christ and the blessings of a transformed world without being clothed in the righteousness of God by virtue of having exercised saving faith. Those who come to the banquet dressed in their own righteousness are unfit guests, and must be rooted out. Perhaps it is this sort of winnowing process that is described two chapters later in Matthew 24, where “one will be taken” — quite literally to the “outer darkness” — “and one left” to enjoy the blessings of the Messianic kingdom with the rest of the Jewish remnant.

No Exaggeration Required

In any case, even for those interpreters who find Christians in the latter portion of the parable, it should be evident that the violent aspects of the parable are not exaggerations designed to shock the modern, secular reading into the recognition of the sinfulness of his indifference to the gospel in the eyes of God. Rather, they are literal descriptions of things which have since occurred to the rebellious earthly people of God, or of things which will occur to them in future days.

So then, while Christians may reasonably find the parable hard to connect with emotionally, for the believing Jew it is all too close to home.

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