20th Week in Ordinary Time, Thursday (Year II)
In Jesus Christ, the walls of division have crumbled to the ground.
A primary concern of Matthew’s Gospel was to present Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Covenant, and to widen the vision of Jews and Jewish Christians to the universal scope of the mission entrusted to Abraham and the patriarchs.
In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), a generous landowner bestowed the same blessings to last and first alike, meaning the Gentiles as well as the Jews. The first sons of Abraham had every reason to rejoice rather than envy the bounteous goodness of the Lord extended to the latecomers.
The parable of the marriage feast followed upon the heels of the parable of the two sons, the wicked tenants, and the reference to the stone which the builders rejected. The Pharisees and the chief priests were the audience for these speeches. Rejection of Christ by the religious authorities dominated these passages.
Jesus again in reply spoke to the chief priests and the elders of the people in parables saying, “The Kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast, but they refused to come. A second time he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those invited: “Behold, I have prepared my banquet, my calves and fattened cattle are killed, and everything is ready; come to the feast.”’ Some ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business. The rest laid hold of his servants, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.
The image of a wedding banquet symbolizing the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant was a cultural icon in the Hebrew canon (Isaiah 25:6; Matthew 8:11). Scholarly consensus holds that the city burned in the story alluded to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70. If the parable is read through its historical lens, the religious authorities were being brought to task for their rejection of Christ. Apart from that context, the behavior of the murdering invitees and the enraged king would be “bizarre,” as one commentary puts it.1 In Old Testament theology, surrounding nations often became instruments of divine justice to the chosen people.
Then the king said to his servants, ‘The feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come. Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’ The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to meet the guests he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. He said to him, ‘My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?’ But he was reduced to silence. Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’ Many are invited, but few are chosen.”
In the second half of the parable, the king’s banquet became an open invitation to all without discrimination. As in the parable of the net (Matthew 13:47), “bad” and “good” alike were gathered. St. Gregory the Great, among others, interpreted this scenario as the pilgrim Church. Those who entered the wedding hall were the baptized faithful, but the improperly dressed lacked the garment of charity.2
The image of “wailing and grinding of teeth” was peculiar to the author of Matthew, who was likely not the apostle himself but a well-educated Jewish Christian.3 Zeal for divine justice characterized these images of judgment.
In the world of biblical scholarship, concerns about anti-Semitism in Matthew frequently arise, as the portrayal of the Jews as murderers provided kindling for antagonists throughout history. A Trinitarian metanoia is necessary when approaching the bare text of Scripture lest we fall into an “us” versus “them” mentality. No group constitutes a “them” severed from ourselves when we stand in the Body of Christ. Through the eyes of Christ in the Trinity, the murderer and the murdered are one. From the Cross, the love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit radiated to all persons in all time: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
One of the greatest achievements of Byzantine iconography is the visual expression of the fundamental unity of all persons in Christ. “To the pure all things are pure” (Titus 1:15) inspired many of the desert ascetics, especially the Syrians, and the iconographers. The pure in heart see the face of Christ in the depths of every person without exception. This vision led St. Isaac the Syrian to conceive Gehenna as a fire of love. (See the last paragraphs of this reflection on the Parable of the Weeds.)
Thus, in an icon of the beheading of St. John the Baptist, both the executioner and the executed bear the same serene expression. The icon does not deny the suffering and anguish of the present time, but allows the transfiguring light of the Trinity to shine into our world. The eye of the spirit penetrates beyond the exterior to the interior light of Christ shining within every person. The icon is a window onto heaven.
The divine law written in the human heart to “Love your neighbor as yourself” and even to “Love your enemies” yearns to become first, not second nature in a humanity transformed by the love of the Trinity.
1 New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, edited by G.J. Wenham, et. al., Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000, p. 932.
2 St. Gregory the Great, Forty Gospel Homilies 38.9.
3 See Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., The Gospel of Matthew, Sacra Pagina Series,Volume 1, Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 8.