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!!

Parables: the craft of storytelling in the book of origins (Matt 13)

This week, the Gospel passage comes from the book of origins, whose account of Jesus we have been following for much of this current year. The chapter we are reading contains the first of seven parables that Jesus tells. The parable of the seeds and the sower is told in Matt 13:3-9 and an interpretation is then offered at 13:18-23. This interpretation shapes and orients our understanding of what “the seed” means; it directs us to interpret “the seed” as “the word of the kingdom” (13:19).

This is the first of seven parables in this chapter, and one of twenty-four parables in the book of origins. Many of those parables are explicitly identified as parables of the kingdom. After all, the kingdom was the focus of the preaching of Jesus, as is signalled in his opening public proclamation earlier in the book (4:17). (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/23/repentance-for-the-kingdom-matt-4/)

The kingdom features in the Beatitudes (5:3, 10), the Sermon on the Mount (5:19-20, 6:10, 33, 7:21), and then in many of the teachings of Jesus (such as 8:11-12, 18:3-4, 19:14, 23-24).

Preaching the kingdom was central to the activities of Jesus (9:35) and his followers (10:7) and will remain a key focus until the time when “the end will come” (24:14). And parables formed an important contribution to the ways that Jesus spoke about the kingdom in his teachings.

In this chapter, after the parable of the seeds and the sower, we find another six parables: the weeds among the wheat (13:24-30), the mustard seed (13:31-32), the yeast in the flour (13:33), hidden treasure (13:44), a pearl of great value (13:45-46), and the net that caught fish (13:47-48). Interestingly, every key item in these seven parables is a small, even seemingly insignificant, item: seeds, seeds, yeast, a pearl, and fish.

Later in the Gospel, there are further parables of the kingdom: the labourers in the vineyard (20:1-16), the two sons (21:28-32), the wicked tenants (21:33-44), and the wedding banquet (22:2-14). In the final section of Jesus’s teaching the disciples, he tells three further parables of the kingdom: the ten bridesmaids (25:1-13), the talents (25:14-30), and the sheep and the goats (25:31-46).

1 Understanding Parables

What are we to make of these many parables? Parables were quite widespread in the society of Jesus’ day. They were evocative and effective means for telling stories. The most common means of entertainment in the ancient world was telling stories. This was done by word of mouth, from one person to another, or in small groups gathered in market places, courtyards or houses. Education also relied on the voice.

Written materials were costly and only a small percentage of the population was literate. The natural tendency to tell stories was widely accepted, so that the most familiar pattern was that learning took place through the passing on of stories. So oral story telling was commonplace in the synagogues where Jews gathered for worship and instruction.

We can see the dominance of the oral medium most clearly in the literature which tells about the rabbis of Judaism. The story was the foundational building block for all the rabbis’ teaching activities. Beyond Judaism, we see it in the popularity of written biographies, romances, histories and adventure stories, throughout the ancient world. Indeed, a second century Christian (Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis) is reported as having stated that stories spoken by teachers are to be preferred as more reliable than written works (such as the Gospels)—an attitude that sounds incredible to our modern ears!

A parable is an important type of story-telling. A parable is a story told in a specific way to make a single clear point. Parables are found in Jewish literature; the most famous examples in the Hebrew Bible are Samuel’s parable comparing David with a callous rich herdsman in 2 Samuel 12 and the prophet’s parable comparing Israel with an unfruitful vineyard in Isaiah 5.

Rabbis at the time of Jesus, and later, have used parables to make their point in their teachings. The Hebrew word for this form was mashal, a word meaning “to be like” or “a comparison”. Parables were told to make a point about something that may not be easily understood, by drawing a comparison with something else that was well-known or easily understood.

The mashal also opens up the possibility of a more developed form of comparison, the similitude, of which the best example is Nathan’s parable to David concerning the stolen lamb (2 Sam 12:1–4). This form flourishes in later Judaism, both in rabbinic literature, and in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ parables (“the kingdom of heaven is like…”). In fact, the parables told by Jesus follow the patterns and customs of the rabbinic mashal.

2 Understanding the Parable of the Seeds and the Sower

The specific parable that we hear in worship this Sunday, the parable of the seeds and the sower, is a particularly provocative parable. It leaves us with various questions. Why was the sower so extravagant in broadcasting the seeds, casting them not only onto fertile ground but also onto rocky ground and into the midst of thorns? Why did the sower not adopt good agricultural practice, culling the thorny plants as they grew, to enable the seeds to grow into healthy plants?

Other questions arise, as well, if we read the parable (13:3-9) without including the interpretation that is offered (13:18-23). That interpretation guides us to see the seeds as representing “the word of the kingdom”, and that understanding seems reasonably evident from the parable in its own right. But what does the path represent? And what about the thorns? And the rocky ground? Or the sun—is it a symbol of something?

The interpretation included in Matthew 13 closes down these questions. Many scholars believe that the interpretation did not actually come from the lips of Jesus, but, rather, was added by the author of the Gospel, drawing on interpretations that had developed over the intervening decades after the lifetime of Jesus. (This assumes, quite reasonably, that the Gospel was written some 30-50 years after the death of Jesus; and also, more controversially, perhaps, that the author was somewhat creative in reporting the actions and words of Jesus.)

One of the reasons for this view is that the interpretation really treats the parable as an allegory, rather than as a mashal-like parable. In an allegory, each and every character and event in the story is regarded as being a symbol for something else beyond the story.

Allegory literally means, “to say something other”; it comes from two Greek words, the verb agoreuo (to speak in the assembly), and the prefix allos (other). Allegories are found in ancient literature; in Greek, from the earliest literature, that of Homer, through to Plato, and on into the writings of people centuries after the time of Jesus. They were commonplace across Greek and Latin literature.

But not so, in Hebrew Scriptures, the tradition from which Jesus regularly drew. Here, there are more often parables, only rarely any fully-developed allegory. And parables are not allegories. A parable is a mashal—a story told in a specific way to make a single clear point. And the single point of a parable is given in its punchline: which, in this case, is the enigmatic, “let anyone with ears, hear!” (13:9). If the seed is the word, the demand of this parable is clear: listen!

And yet, as the verses that follow make clear (13:10-17), understanding a parable is a tricky business. Its meaning is not self-evident. As Jesus speaks in parables, “seeing, they do not perceive, and hearing, they do not listen” (13:13, quoting directly from Isaiah 6:9-10). Parables are conundrums. They contain unresolved tensions. They invite multiple understandings. They press for exploration and investigation.

The technique of a parable is not to lay everything out in plain form, in straight-forward propositions—but rather to weave a story, to draw the listeners into the story, to invite wondering, to foster creative thinking and thoughtful grappling within the story. Nothing is set in stone. All sorts of possibilities arise, from the narrative of a story that is well-crafted and persuasively-presented. As we imagine that Jesus did in creating and telling his stories in parable form.

3 The Parable of the Seeds and the Sower in the Revised Common Lectionary

So the offering of the interpretation (13:18-23) immediately after the telling of the parable (13:1-9) that the Revised Common Lectionary offers (and that the author of the book of origins includes in this chapter) skews our approach to the parable. It closes off the possibilities of understanding. It limits the range of options for clearly comprehending what Jesus was offering. In my mind, it’s something of a menace.

So here’s the challenge: this Sunday, why not simply read the parable (13:1-9)—and then, STOP. Don’t read the interpretation (13:18-23). Let the parable stand in its own right. Invite your audience to imagine, explore, interpret. Encourage them with the sense that there is “no right answer”, or “no one interpretation”. Invite people to engage in the process that the very first followers of Jesus took part in: “let anyone with ears, listen!” And then invite them to respond. And rejoice in the richness and diversity of understandings that arise!

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This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012).

For a gentle, poetic retelling of the parable from Sarah Agnew, see https://praythestory.blogspot.com/2020/07/falling-seeds.html?m=1

Consideration of issues raised in this blog continues in https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/14/let-anyone-with-ears-hear-matt-13/