Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, allowing space for God’s voice to be heard.
Read: Matthew 22:1-14
Today’s reading brings to us another difficult parable which traditionally has been read as an allegory—the king is God who is inviting humanity—some humanity—to share in the banquet of the kingdom of heaven. But such a reading (you must be getting used to this by now!) is deeply problematic. Are we to understand God as vindictive, violent and exclusive? Perhaps this is not the only way, however, to understand the parable. In fact, if we read the parable with some understanding of the context, our picture might begin to change.
William Herzog, in his study of the parables of Jesus alongside the work of Paulo Freire, came to the conclusion that “[t]he parable, then, was not primarily a vehicle to communicate theology or ethics but a codification designed to stimulate social analysis and to expose the contradictions between the actual situation of its hearers and the Torah of God’s justice.”1 That is, parables picture everyday situations and they invite people to think critically about them—to ask: is the way things are, the way things should be?
The parable in today’s reading presents a situation familiar to people in antiquity—they may never have been to royal banquet, but they had surely heard about them. The kind of banquet described was one hosted by an powerful ruler, whose banquets were displays of honour and wealth, as well as ways to oblige the guests to give loyalty to the host. But they could also be brutal affairs—we only need to think of Herod’s banquet in which John was murdered. Moreover, spies would often be dotted amongst the guests, reporting back to the king on the conversation of guests.2 A wrong word could be disastrous.
When the king throws a wedding banquet, Jesus’ hearers know it is this kind of event. The first twist of the parable, however, is in the response of those first invited. The surprise is not that they would want to reject the king’s offer. The surprise is that they do. Their rejection of the king’s offer voices the “hidden transcript” of the less powerful toward the powerful. They don’t want to be in the king’s company, and some openly rebel. This affront to the king’s honour brings out into the open the true nature of the powerful—the king is not benevolent but is ready to respond with “shock and awe” far beyond the scale of the invitee’s rebellion.3
When the king offers a second round of invitations in the ruins of the main streets, we might imagine that the new invitees were more than a little nervous. Their nervousness proves to be for good reason when one of them is singled out for what is surely a minor infraction given that at least some of the invitees are from the “common” people and not used to such feasts. The king’s act toward the underdressed man is an action of terror designed to keep the people in fearful compliance.
Perhaps Jesus, in telling this parable to the chief priests and Pharisees, is giving a warning to them regarding their relationship with the ways of imperial power. It is a game of winner-takes-all into which many are “called”, but for those who are not “chosen” to continue the climb toward ultimate power, wealth and honour, the fallout is often dire. Jesus invites his hearers, including the temple elite, to think critically about the ways of kings and rulers, and warns them of participation in such a system. The kingdom of heaven can indeed be compared to the ways of power depicted in the parable, but far from being an allegorical picture of God’s reign the parable presents a contrast. The kingdom of heaven it is not a system of domination but one of collaboration and power-sharing into which the “common” people need have no nervousness about being invited.
- Take a moment to reflect on today’s reading. What questions come to mind as you read the parable of the Wedding Banquet?
- In what ways does the parable invite you to participate more fully in God’s reign?
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
1 William R. Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 28.
2 Luise Shottroff, The Parables of Jesus (Minneapolis: Augsberg Fortress, 2006), 40.
3The description of the king’s attack on the city would have been taken by Matthew’s community as a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome, aligning the king with Roman imperial powers.
Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, aware of God’s presence in a broken world.
Read: Matthew 22:15-22
The next episode in this series of conflictual debates with the ruling powers concerns a question over taxes and has commonly been used as justification for uncritical compliance with rulers and governments. Such an understanding, however, ignores the complexities of the text.
As we read this episode, we must keep in mind the context of Roman subjugation over Judea, which imposed exploitative taxes keeping much of the population on the brink of destitution. The Roman money economy, which sought taxes in cash rather than a percentage of crops, facilitated the takeover of rural farmland by urban elites at the expense of peasant families, and the extraction of wealth from the rural provinces in order to fund the urban centres. For those on the underside of economics in Palestine, the denarii was a symbol of such exploitation.
We know from the nature of the encounter of today’s reading—that the Pharisee’s disciples and the Herodians are trying to trap Jesus—that this exchange is not to be taken at face value. For Jesus, there are dangerous power arrangements to negotiate, and a word in the wrong direction could result in a quick demise. To stay alive, he must give an answer which will appear to be acceptable to his questioners, while at the same time conveying something else to his disciples and Matthew’s readers. We need to look below the surface, then, to understand Jesus’ response.
As the Pharisees and Herodians begin to address him, Jesus sees through his questioners’ two-faced flattery and exposes their hypocrisy by asking for a denarii—a coin bearing the image of Caesar and proclaiming him “son of the divine Augustus”. Moreover, such a coin violated the second commandment against graven images (Exodus: 20:2-6). By asking them for a denarii, Jesus makes it apparent that he doesn’t carry such a graven image, but apparently his questioners do. He has forced them into making a “statement of blasphemous idolatry”4 and both the questioners and the crowd know it.
In pointing out the emperor’s image on the denarii, Jesus highlights the fact that this is a symbol of the imperial economy—a system exploiting subject peoples and bleeding them dry, a system with fundamentally different priorities to Israel’s traditional economy rooted in sabbatical justice which protected against the removal of families from their land and the growing gap between rich and poor.
Jesus’ answer, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” does not exhort Jesus’ followers to simply comply with the demands of those in power. It is a purposefully ambiguous answer, recognising the danger the question posed. On one level, Jesus commands his followers to “give back to Caesar.”
Followers “give back” to Caesar a blasphemous coin that, contrary to God’s will, bears an image. Paying the tax is literally a way of removing this illicit coin from Judea. As far as Rome is concerned, the act of paying looks like compliance. But Jesus’ instruction reframes the act for his followers. “Giving back” to Caesar becomes a disguised, dignity-restoring act of resistance that recognizes God’s all-encompassing claim.5
On another level, those who knew Israel’s scriptures would hear in Jesus’ answer a subversion that Roman ears could not hear, for they would know that “the earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it” (Ps 24:1). For them there is truly nothing that belongs to Caesar. Whether or not Jesus was advocating tax resistance would be left to the ears of the hearer. But for those with ears to hear, they would recognise in Jesus’ answer a subversive truth: Allegiance to Caesar cannot co-exist with allegiance to God.
- Imagine you are part of the crowd listening to the exchange in today’s reading. what would you think or feel?
- In what ways do you think Jesus’ answer calls us to act?
- In what ways do you sense God’s Spirit inviting you to live out this story?
Pray for one another.
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
4 William R. Herzog II, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God: A Ministry of Liberation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 229.
5 Warren Carter, The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide (Nashville: Abingdon, 2006), 29.
Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of repentance together, aware of our inadequacy and God’s grace.
Read: Matthew 22:23-33
The Sadducees are the next in line to question Jesus. The Sadducees were associated with the priestly class, and were part of the Temple elite, losing their influence in the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.6 Being part of the elite in Jerusalem, their interests were bound up in maintaining the status quo which served them well. Accordingly, they held no belief in ongoing life after death since they did quite well in the power arrangements of the present life!
It is no surprise then, that their question to Jesus displays their complete inability to imagine that any world could exist beyond the current patriarchal status quo in which the identity of women was determined by whom she was married to.
Jesus, however, could imagine the possibility of a world in which women were not merely the possessions of men. He could imagine a world vastly different from the current power arrangements which served the interests of elite groups like the Sadducees. He joined dreamers like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in imagining a world which looked different to the one they knew.(Though, to be sure, they certainly wouldn’t have imagined that it didn’t involve the possession of women!). And no doubt it is a world imagined and longed for by women and all those on the underside of power arrangements down through the long struggle of history.
- What do you think Matthew’s community would have felt hearing todays’ story?
- In what ways are you challenged or inspired by today’s reading?
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
6 Tichelle Lee-Barnewall, “Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes,” in The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social and Historical Contexts, ed. Joel B. Green and Lee Martin MacDonald, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), Kindle loc. 5394ff.
Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of gratitude together, giving thanks for the ways you’ve experienced God’s loving kindness.
This week’s Common Value: Justice
Read: Isaiah 58:1-14
- How might we participate in God’s justicethis week?
Close with the Lord’s Prayer