Jesus Verse by Verse

an expanded commentary on the Gospel of Matthew

Jesus Verse by Verse...

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Digression 20: Two Invitations- Matthew 22:4

Most commentators make the point that Middle Eastern banquets feature two invitations. If a person responds to the first one, then animals are killed in accordance with the number of expected guests, and then at banquet time, a servant is sent to collect the guest and bring them to the feast (1). It is this second invitation which is rejected in the story. The people have all said 'yes' initially. The meaning is clear. Christ our lamb has been slain- and now, we are invited to actually sit down at the banquet, to partake in the breaking of bread feast, typical as it is of the final 'supper' of God's Kingdom. "Come, for all is now ready" is a present imperative implying 'continue coming'. To refuse the second invitation is therefore unreal in its rudeness and in the sense of hurt and shock to the host. What is also unreal is that all the guests refuse it. What's also unreal is the evidently untrue and irrelevant nature of the excuses given. Banquets were in the afternoon / evening- which was not when work was done. Lk. 17:8 refers to the meal happening after the day's work has been done. One man said he had bought a field and had to go check it out. But purchase of property in the East takes a huge amount of time, every tree and wall is inspected with the utmost care before the field is bought. It would be like saying 'I just bought a house online which I've never seen in another country, tonight I have to go and see it'. Moreover, time constraints in Middle Eastern culture simply aren't what they are elsewhere. All the things people said they just had to do there and then could easily have been done another day. After all, they had agreed to come to a banquet. The man who claimed to have bought five yoke of oxen and had to rush to test them was likewise telling an obvious untruth. Kenneth Bailey comments on how teams of oxen are sold in Eastern villages: "The team is taken to the market place. At the edge of the market there will be a small field where prospective buyers may test the oxen... [or] the farmer owning a pair for sale announces to his friends that he has a team available and that he will be ploughing with them on a given day... prospective buyers make their way to the seller's field to watch the animals working and... to drive them back and forth across the field to be assured of their strength and evenness of pull. All of this obviously takes place before the buyer even begins to negotiate a price" (2). Further, this farmer claims to have bought five yoke of oxen. This was a huge investment for a peasant farmer. He surely wouldn't buy them without testing them first, particularly given the long drawn out process of buying and negotiating prices which is part of Palestinian culture. Another point to note is that animals were all seen as rather unclean; to make an excuse for absence on the basis of animals is effectively saying that the animals are more important to the invited guest than the host. Likewise the excuse to have just married a bride holds no water- because weddings were planned well in advance, it was obvious that there would be a conflict between the banquet and the wedding. Why, therefore, accept the initial invitation?
The host's reaction as we've noted earlier is also unusual. Instead of giving up, he allows himself to be even further humiliated in the eyes of the village by inviting yet more people- the beggars, the despised ones. He had invited people from his town- but now he invites people unknown to him, and finally, people from outside his immediate area, living under hedges. This desperate appeal, with all the mocking and shame which it would've brought with it, is surely Luke's preparation for announcing to us at the end of the Gospel our duty to now go out into all the world and invite all to God's Banquet. What we can easily fail to understand is that for those beggars, there would be a huge cultural barrier to refusing the invitation. The beggar would be amazed that he as an unknown person, from out of the host's area, was being invited to this great banquet. He'd have figured that something ain't right here, that this person can't be for real. 'What have I ever done for him? What does he expect of me? I can't pay him back in any form...'. And of course, they wouldn't have received the first invitation. They were being invited to immediately go into a great banquet with no prior invitation. And in all this, in this unreality, we have the strangeness and difficulty of acceptance of pure grace. Hence the host commanded the servants to grab them by the arm and pull them in to the banquet.
"None of those men who were invited shall taste of my banquet" may seem an obvious and even redundant thing to say- until we realize the practice of sending portions of the banquet food to those who were 'unavoidably absent' (3). They thought they could participate at a distance, not be serious about the actual feast. They thought just saying yes to the invitation and making dumb excuses was OK... that the host was so insensitive he wouldn't notice the obvious contradictions. They didn't stop to think of his pain at their rejection. But the point is, they had accepted the initial invitation, they wanted some part in all this, and the implication is that they expected to be sent their share in the banquet. Now all this becomes of biting relevance to us who have accepted the invitation to God's Kingdom. We all have a tendency to think that God somehow doesn't notice, doesn't feel, can put up with our dumb excuses for our lack of serious response. In a sense, 'All you gotta do is say yes'. I read a few sentences of T.W.Manson which just summed up my own conclusions from studying the parables, especially those in Lk. 15 which speak of the 'repentant' person as someone who is 'found' rather than does anything much: "The two essential points in [Christ's] teaching are that no man can enter the Kingdom without the invitation of God, and that no man can remain outside it but by his own deliberate choice. Man cannot save himself, but he can damn himself... Jesus sees the deepest tragedy of human life, not in the many wrong and foolish things that men do, or the many good and wise things that they fail to accomplish, but in their rejection of God's greatest gift" (4).
We're not only the invited guests, we're also symbolized by the servants. Notice how the guests address the servant as the master, and ask him directly to be excused. As we've pointed out elsewhere, in our preaching of the Gospel we are the face of Christ to this world. We should be urging those who have accepted the invitation to enter in to the Master's supper, appealing to them, feeling His hurt at their rejection. To reject those who have accepted the invitation on our initiative, i.e. to ban this one and that one from the memorial feast because of our personal politics with them, is therefore so awful. The parable ends with the house not yet full- begging the question, will it ever fill up? Will the beggars believe in grace enough? How persuasive will the servants be? All of which questions we have to answer.
(1) The many references to this are listed in I.H.Marshall The Gospel Of Luke (Exeter: Paternoster, 1978) p. 587.
(2) Kenneth Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980) p. 97.
(3) J.D.M. Derrett, Law In The New Testament (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1970) p. 141.
(4) T.W. Manson, The Sayings Of Jesus (London: S.C.M., 1937) p. 130.