‘We need to pray the Bible, not merely study it.’ (Gerard W. Hughes, in God of Compassion.) These notes are designed to make the texts more understandable, put them in context, and solve some puzzles over the meaning. But they will have failed if they do not lead to a deeper relationship with God and others – through reflection, prayer and a growing openness to God’s guidance on the way we live.
This reading is from the first of several prophets whose words are collected in the book named for him. ‘Isaiah of Jerusalem’ towards the end of his life had a vision of the last days, with God coming in judgement to reward all those faithful to him. In this picture of a great feast, the concrete earthly images of rich food, fine wine, and tears wiped away represent the deepest longings of the heart and soul. He expresses a strong sense of God’s loving care, one of the basic revelations of the Bible.
‘This mountain’: there were two mountains important to the Hebrews, Zion near Jerusalem and Sinai/Horeb where Moses received the Law. Either one would be symbolic of God’s presence among his people but Jerusalem is more likely meant as God’s dwelling place among His people at Isaiah’s time. This joyful poem was background for the idea in later times of the ‘messianic banquet’ as an image of the happiness to come in the days of the Messiah. Its note of God’s love is good to keep in mind as we hear the gospel parable, where is it present but more muted, as Jesus adapts the banquet image for a more sombre purpose.
The second part of the psalm picks up the theme of a banquet prepared by the LORD. The first verses though give us the symbol of God as a shepherd. Shepherds were important in the pastoral and so became images of a caring leadership in both the Old and New Testaments. (Jesus in the Gospel of John says he is the ‘good shepherd’.) The details of the care for the sheep are vivid symbols of what the psalmist sees in his/her own life. This is a popular psalm, for people today still take the leap in imagination to see shepherding and banquets as standing for the full gifts of body and spirit that God gives us, and the peace and joy this brings. It is a poem of complete trust in that loving care, no matter what life brings.
Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20
This last selection from this Letter of St Paul in this series shows Paul in a place where there are no feasts. While Paul was in prison, the Philippians sent money to help him, and he wrote to express his gratitude. He also takes the opportunity to let them know how he has learned to live contentedly in the present no matter how difficult it may be – even in prison. He reminds them of God’s promises for the future, confident that the generous Philippians will experience them ‘lavishly’. Perhaps it has a special meaning in a year when many were shut in from the pandemic.
Matthew 22:1-14 – shorter form 22:1-10
Like many of Jesus’ stories, this begins with a situation that draws the audience into the story, waiting to see where it would lead. The Pharisees would have known the Old Testament background of Isaiah when Jesus speaks of a king preparing a feast, and also might have in mind the parable in Proverbs 9:1ff of Wisdom preparing a feast and calling all to attend. In Jesus’ story, servants are sent out to announce that the celebration is ready. The invited guests refuse to come and some even attack and kill the servants – an echo of last week’s gospel. With this, the parable has moved out of the normal world and some startling message has broken through, intensified with the shock of the troops destroying the city.
A number of commentators see the destruction of the parable city meaning the attack on Jerusalem by the Romans – this occurred after Jesus’ death and if that is what is meant, either he foresaw the event, or Matthew writing later put in the note that would be recognized by the readers of his time. It is, however, a general historic pattern familiar from the times of the prophets when the destruction of a city was blamed on the evildoers living in it. It was often spoken about nations opposed to Israel, and then there had been the terrible shock for the Jews when Jerusalem was sacked by Nebuchadnezzar. Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah warned of this beforehand and protested that the people had turned from God and were oppressing the poor and helpless.
Jesus has been sent as the Son (as also in the parable last week) but was rejected by the Jewish leaders who should have been the first to receive his message, and therefore they will in turn be rejected by God. Again, Jesus points out that it is the unexpected – the poor, the marginalised – who will come and fill the places in the Kingdom of Heaven.
We may not feel as comfortable with the idea of a punishing God as with the good shepherd, but it is made clear in the gospels that God continually is open to those who return to him. With all warnings and threats in the Bible, there is a ‘But if…’ The warning is meant to lead to repentance and change of life, to accepting God’s gifts of love and joy as symbolized here by the banquet.
The last optional part of the reading is probably a different parable, which Matthew has placed here because of the wedding theme. It would be odd in this context, for if the man had been brought in from the roads, why would he be expected to have had a chance to change into suitable clothing? This time the unrealistic aspect of the parable comes immediately and there is a need to look beyond what seems like normal life. The image of not wearing a festive garment is a symbol of responding in obedience to God’s loving invitation. Notice that the king does offer a chance to the scruffy guest; some apology or explanation could be given in the context of the wedding story. More important taken at the spiritual level, God asks for repentance and the condemnation comes not so much from God but from those who do not even answer and so condemn themselves. The words of ‘binding, casting out, weeping and grinding of teeth’ were standard phrases in the literature of the time for the last day of judgment.
Commentators suggest that some of the early readers of Matthew may have been complacent in their own position into the community and the warning is, for them if, like the Jewish leaders, they are not living as Jesus has called his disciples to live. Then they too will not belong in the ‘banquet’ that God has offered in his love. Matthew here, as so often in his gospel, balances the generosity of God with the challenge this brings to respond.