Recently I watched “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” a film filled with the exuberant joy of the human condition. It culminates in a wedding feast with steaming plates of food, much to drink and enthusiastic dancing. Frequently in literature and drama weddings are the setting for a joyful denouement, when young lovers surmount numerous hurdles on the road to the altar, or the finale of an unfolding tragedy. So too in the Bible. Isaiah chooses the image of a feast of rich food and fine wine where God will destroy death and wipe away every tear as he invites all nations to the table. And Jesus, when he envisions how God’s reign will culminate at the end of history, tells of a king hosting a great wedding feast for his son.
The banquet is prepared, everything is ready and the king, perhaps somewhat satisfied, summons the guests. Shockingly, some simply ignored the invitation; others headed out of town. “The rest” beat up and killed the king’s messengers. The generous host becomes the spurned “godfather” and sends his armies to wipe out the invited guests. Instead of sulking, though, he orders other servants to go to the highways and byways and invite everyone they see, both the good and the bad.
Matthew, Luke and the second-century Gospel of Thomas recount this parable with very different applications. In Luke the substitute guests are “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame,” an epitome of the Lukan Jesus’ good news for the poor. In Thomas there is a simple dinner, and the guests refuse because the invitation conflicts with their business interests. Matthew is unique in allegorizing the punishment of the refusing guests into the destruction of Jerusalem (“burnt their city”) and adding the expulsion of the man without the wedding garment.
Matthew’s interpretation of this parable has unfortunately provided fuel for anti-Semitism. The guests who refuse to come are equated with the Jewish people who first heard the invitation of Jesus but failed to respond. The consequence of this rejection was the destruction of the Jewish Temple. The guests who came to the feast in their place are taken to represent converts to Matthew’s community, both Jews and Greeks.
Such a view was unfortunately part of the “blame game,” as it was played in the first century. Josephus, a historian who was himself a Jew and wrote the most vivid description of the fall of the Temple, blamed it on the fanaticism of the Zealots, who did not recognize the benefits of Roman rule. Throughout biblical literature and church history, the problem of reconciling horrible suffering and God’s providential care has often been dealt with by explaining suffering as divine punishment for human sinfulness.
Matthew’s addition to the parable of the character who lacks proper attire is a step toward rethinking the picture of a God who rejects one group to choose another. The story of the guest without the wedding garment shifts the meaning of the parable away from those who first refused the challenges to Matthew’s community.
Clothing can represent identification with Christ (see Rom. 13:14, Gal. 3:27; Col. 3:12). In that case, the wedding garment suggests the good deeds or quality of life that one must show at the time of the great eschatological banquet. Matthew’s Christians are not to bask in malicious joy over the destruction of Jerusalem, but should realize that even though they are recipients of an invitation, they must also be suitably garbed. This is in line with Matthew’s “Jewish” theology throughout his Gospel, which emphasizes that the gifts of God should bear fruit in works of loving kindness and justice.
Many reflections arise from today’s readings. Isaiah’s beautiful image of God throwing a banquet for people and wiping away every tear, along with the rhythmic cadences of Psalm 23— “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” and “only goodness and kindness follow me all the days of my life”—clashes with Matthew’s vindictive God, who consigns people to an outer darkness of “wailing and grinding of teeth.” This provides an eloquent counter to the old chestnut (still unfortunately heard) that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath, while Jesus proclaims a God of mercy.
All of us can thank God for the invitation to the eucharistic banquet given in baptism, which is an anticipation of the end-time feasting with God and the saints. Catholics today must also question their willingness to join all too gleefully in the “blame game.” The ongoing season of shame in the church has funded this game now vigorously played by all sides and often with a total lack of “goodness and kindness.” Unlike the sad man without a proper garment, we still have time, but you never know when the final invitation will come.