Darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth: the scene of judgement (Matt 22)

Come to the banquet, there’s a place for you … sit you down, be fed and blessed … in your strength or in your weakness, you are welcome: come!

I always enjoyed singing that song, back in the days when we were able to sing when we gathered together for worship. It came to mind as I thought about the parable of the banquet that appears in the Lectionary, as the Gospel reading, this coming Sunday (Matt 22:1-14).

And the story that Jesus tells has wonderful moments of blessing–especially for those who didn’t receive an invitation to the banquet in the initial round of invitations. These people, “both good and bad”, invited in to the banquet hall direct from their business on the streets, were able to share in the largesse of the king (22:9-10). Is it a parable that points to the gracious welcome of God, as all manner of people come into the kingdom?

The very fact that there were, not one, not even two, but three rounds of invitations, underlines this point, surely? The king (presumably a symbol for God) really wants people to take part in this celebratory feast! And even the behaviour of those who decline the invitation might be explained in some reasonable way–the farm needs attending to, the business won’t look after itself (22:5), so their declining the invitation is understandable.

Although, it might be noted that declining the invitation was a breach of the honour-shame code which was dominant in the culture of the time. Reciprocity in relationships and dependence on a wealthy patron would surely have mandated accepting the invitation, one would have thought.

Indeed, the story that Jesus tells doesn’t necessarily lead to the result of blessing for all who come. Indeed, this parable is wracked by tragedy: as many in the first two rounds of people invited to the banquet decline the invitation, some of them mistreat and kill the messengers (22:6). This provokes a murderous retribution by the unhappy king, as he orders his troops to “destroy those murders and burn their city” (22:7). It sounds like yet another parable of judgement. (Matthew has quite a number of these parables–in case you hadn’t noticed!)

And, even when the guests are all present in the banquet hall, the king remains unhappy. Displeased at the lack of appropriate attire seen on one person, he gives the unfortunate guest a tongue lashing (22:12), and orders that a vicious punishment be enacted (22:13).

The parable and ancient customs

It had started off in the typical life-like setting of many of the parables: a scene known to the people to whom Jesus was speaking–or, at least, envisaged in realistic ways by them, even if they had not personally experienced such a scene. It sounded plausible, like it really could be happening.

There’s a wealthy king, a fine banquet, a hall filled with guests, tables laden with an abundance of food. A scene that the more wealthy would have experienced, and that the poorer would perhaps often have dreamed of. Jesus was a master at telling such tales; he knew how to draw people in and engage them fully in the scene.

In many ways, this parables reflects the code of behaviour ingrained in the culture. Meals were locations of intricate and complex rituals which set the patterns of behaviour required. There were expectations of rituals to be followed at the door, as guests arrive and wash their feet (see Gen 18:4, 19:1-2, 24:32; Luke 7:38).

There were rituals in greeting one another, following the prescribed sequence of blessing appropriate for the occasion and for the status of the people involved (amongst numerous examples in Hebrew Scripture, see Gen 18:2, 29:13, 43:27; Ruth 2:4).

There were rituals relating to the seating arrangements, which followed very strictly the hierarchy of status amongst those present (as Gen 43:33 and Prov 25:6-7 each indicate). Once seated, there were rituals relating to the food that was to be served and the order by which it was served to people, once again following the status hierarchy.

And, it would seem, there were rituals relating to the desired form of dress when attending a celebratory wedding banquet (perhaps Eccles. 9:8 is relevant; and maybe Rev 3:5 offers a glimpse of this?). Such rituals were expected to be kept with scrupulous care.

But one guest has breached protocol (22:11). It is precisely when the king pronounces the sentence on the guest who had not donned the prescribed wedding robe (22:12-14), that the parable blurs. The very end of the parable snaps out of the “realistic imaginary scene” that had been painted up to this point. The guest is not wearing his white robe. The guest is not “clothed with righteousness”.

The parable and aspects of judgement

The carnage from the aggressive interaction between the king, his messengers, the reluctant people of the town, and the murderous troops sent by the king (22:3-7), is bad enough. That might well be connected with the behaviour of arrogant, powerful men, who then (as now) ruled the world through the power of their armies; who even ordered the destruction of cities in enemy territory. That still has a ring of realism about it.

However, right at the end of the parable, the words of judgement and punishment that come from the mouth of the king plunges the story right into the midst of the hell-fire and brimstone, judgement and punishment rhetoric, that characterises the distinctive figure of Jesus who is centre-stage in the book of origins, the account of Jesus that we attribute to Matthew.

We have stepped out of the “parable scene”, and into the world of “eternal judgement”. We are no longer listening to Jesus the teller of enticing tales, but Jesus the fiery preacher of apocalyptic doom.

The instruction to “throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (22:14), recalls earlier pronouncements by Jesus in this book of origins: in his words of judgement spoken in Capernaum, where he encounters a distressed centurion (8:12), in his explanation of the parable of the weeds and the wheat (13:42), in the parable of the good and bad fish (13:50).

It is found also in subsequent pronouncements: to his disciples during his final apocalyptic teachings (24:51), and in the climactic parable of the sheep and the goats (25:30). In each case, darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth are threatened.

The vision that is depicted in this parable of Jesus is hardly an irenic, thoroughly enjoyable scenario. This is the way that “the heavenly banquet” is often depicted in Hebrew Scriptures–see Isaiah 25:6-7, 55:1-5, 65:17-25; Psalm 36:7-9; Proverbs 9:1-6. Not so, however, in this parable.

Along with those entering the kingdom in joy, there are those debarred from the kingdom, excluded with wrath, destined to endure severe punishment. The king who reigns in this realm exercises definitive judgement and imposes a decisive punishment (Matt 22:13). This is fear-inducing stuff.

Signs of Matthew’s hand in the parable

There are clear signs that Matthew’s hand has been at work throughout this parable, reshaping the story which Jesus told. The phrases found in the ending are one clear sign. Another sign comes from the kind of comparative analysis that we can do, when we compare this version of the parable with two other versions, known to us in literature of the time.

The Gospel of Luke reports that Jesus told this parable (Luke 14:15-24); this version is located in quite a different context, where the focus is on “seeking the lost” (Luke 14:12-14 and 15:1-32). In Matthew, the context is one of judgement and punishment, as is clear in the way the preceding parable ends (Matt 21:42-46). And the Gospel of Thomas also has a version of this parable, one of the teachings of Jesus found in that work (Gos. Thomas 64). Of course, in the Gospel of Thomas, there is no narrative context; the work is comprised of a long string of independent sayings of Jesus.

The host of the banquet in both those alternative versions (Luke and Thomas) was simply “a man”, not a king. That man had “a servant”, not a whole collection of slaves. The invitation was simply to “a dinner” (Thomas) or “a great dinner” (Luke), rather than to “a wedding banquet for his son”. Matthew has really ramped up the setting, placing the story in a very regal setting.

Whilst those unable to attend sent explanations (they are the same in Luke and Thomas), in Matthew’s version “they made light of it”. And the murderous rampage by the king is not found in either alternate version (Luke or Thomas). The whole scene has been ramped up to the highest possible level in Matthew’s version. Everything hangs on what transpires in the story. While the parable in Luke ends with a scene of inclusive celebration, in Matthew the parable ends with savage judgement.

Back to the theme of judgement in Matthew’s Gospel

This outcome of judgement is a recurring theme in the Gospel of Matthew. And this is the challenge for us, today, as we reflect on the version of the parable found in this Gospel. What do we make of a story that points to the inevitable judgement that God will exercise?

It is clear that the function of judgement belongs to God (7:1-2; 10:15; 11:21-24; 12:36). Jesus sets this into the eschatological framework of “the end of time”, when the Son of Man will implement this judgement (13:41; 16:27-28; 19:28; 24:29-31; 25:31).

This judgement is described in graphic terms in the final parable of Jesus in this Gospel (25:31-46). The division of people, at this moment of judgement, into “good and bad”, “sheep and goats”, is made abundantly clear. Those failing to show compassion to “the least” are clearly differentiated from those who are called “the righteous”.

That division has run through the Gospel. We see people distinguished as “evil and good” (5:45; 12:35; 22:10), we see “good trees” and “bad trees” (7:15-19; 12:33), “good seed” and “weeds” (13:24-25, 37-38), “good fish” and “bad fish” (13:47-48).

The Jesus who is presented in this Gospel is a fearful and demanding figure. In his capacity as God’s Messiah, he frequently promises (or threatens) judgement (5:21–26; 7:1–2; 10:15; 11:21–24; 12:36–37; 19:28–30; 21:33–44; 22:1–14; 24:29–31, 36-44, 45–51; 25:1–13, 14–30, 31–46; 26:64). Many of these declarations occur in eschatological contexts, where Jesus is warning about the punishment that is to come unless righteousness is followed in the present.

So the kingdom of heaven will be established “at the end of the age”, when the final judgement of righteous and unrighteous will take place (13:39–40, 49; 24:3). The key connection here must be with the demand for righteous-justice, which has been the central demand of the message preached by Jesus throughout this Gospel, from the early affirmations (3:15; 5:6, 10; 5:20; 6:33), through the parables in chapter 13 (see 13:17, 43, 49), through to the climactic final parable (25:37, 46). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

Judgement is linked to doing what makes for righteous-justice. Here is the key criteria for divine assessment. The man cast out of the wedding banquet was rejected because he was not “clothed in righteous-justice”.

Here is the central call for ethical living from the lips of Jesus, which strengthened and intensified throughout Matthew’s account. Here is the fundamental worldview of the fierce apocalyptic prophet, who comes from Nazareth onto the world stage, to effect judgement.

Now that is a challenge to preach today!!