Just as the vineyard became, since the song in Isaiah 5, an accepted symbol for Israel as the people of God in salvation history, so our present reading made the great banquet a classic symbol of the consummation of God’s saving purpose in history.
But this idea of the eschatological banquet was not created by Isaiah. Its roots can be traced back to earlier Canaanite literature.
The Qumran community took up this symbolism in the institution of their daily meal, and Jesus also put it to various uses: in his conduct in eating with outcasts; in his parable of the great banquet that forms the gospel for today; and above all in the saying at the Last Supper that he would no longer feast with his disciples until he could do so in the consummated kingdom of God.
It is instructive to compare the use of this psalm here with its use on the sixteenth Sunday of the year in series B. There the emphasis is indicated by the refrain, which focuses on the image of the shepherd.
Here, since it is in response to the reading from Isaiah on the messianic banquet, the emphasis lies upon the Lord’s house or temple, where he prepares the banquet table and invites his people to share the blessings of his kingdom.
The third stanza marks a shift in imagery from God as shepherd to God as host at his banquet.
According to the partition theory, these excerpts from Philippians would be from Letter A, the thank-you note for the relief they had sent to Paul while he was in prison, probably at Ephesus (see the commentary on Reading II for the twenty-fifth Sunday of the year in series A).
Paul seems a trifle embarrassed to accept any gift at all. C. H. Dodd spoke of Paul’s “sturdy bourgeois independence,” which made him a little too proud to accept help readily in this way. Or was it just stoic detachment (Phil 4:12a)? Perhaps it is more theologically based than that.
Paul knows that the existence of an apostle is marked by the sign of the cross—in facing hunger and want as readily as plenty and abundance.
There is a slight undertone suggesting that the Philippians had inadvertently deprived Paul of boasting in his sufferings. But Paul is too gracious to say so, and although admitting that he could have gotten along very well without it, he nevertheless thanks them for their kindness.
It is a pity that Phil 4:18 has been omitted, for there Paul gives the Philippians’ charitable act a theological meaning: it was a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.
It is interesting to compare the long and short forms of this gospel. The long form really consists of two parables spliced together—the parable of the great banquet and the parable of the man without a wedding garment.
That the combination is secondary is shown by Luke (14:16-24) and by the Gospel of Thomas, where the great banquet occurs on its own, without the addition of the wedding garment.
The combination produces an unrealistic effect, for one inevitably asks, How could the poor man have been expected to have a wedding garment if he had been hauled in unexpectedly from the street? The answer is that in the original parable he had not just come in off the street. In its original form the (parable of the) wedding garment stood on its own. The original opening of it was then lost when it was joined to the parable of the great banquet.
Although it is difficult to be certain, it seems likely that the evangelist was responsible for combining the two parables. He interprets the gathering in of the ragtag and bobtail from the streets allegorically as Jesus’ prediction of the subsequent Gentile mission, and adds the second parable as a warning against their admission on too easy terms.
It is unlikely that the evangelist was requiring the circumcision of the Gentiles, since that issue had been settled long before at the apostolic conference (Gal 2; cf. Acts 15).
Matthew may be inserting a bit of propaganda in favor of the apostolic decrees which, according to Acts 15, were promulgated at the council, but which in all probability were enacted at a later conference while Paul was away (see Acts 21:25).
As an original parable of Jesus, the story of the man with the wedding garment, like many other parables, would be an exhortation to readiness in face of the coming kingdom of God. The invitation came sooner than the man expected, and it caught him unprepared. Woe to a person in such a case!
The shorter form, as we have noted, consists of the parable of the great banquet by itself. A study of the parallels in Luke and in the Gospel of Thomas shows that the version in Matthew is highly allegorized.
Again, the allegorization has produced some quite unrealistic features. It is most unlifelike—and Jesus’ parables are lifelike, even if they often end on a note of surprise. What invited guest would not only spurn the invitation but actually kill the servants who brought it? And what host would send out his troops not only to destroy those murderers but to burn down their city?
Clearly, these details reflect the events of 66-70 C.E., the Jewish war and the destruction of Jerusalem. With these accretions, the parable is used by the post-70 C.E. church as an interpretation of the debacle of those years—they were a punishment of Israel for rejecting the gospel, for persecuting the Christian messengers, and for putting them to death.
But this is not the end of the allegorization. Comparison again with Luke and the Gospel of Thomas shows that in Matthew the parable has been transformed in other ways.
In the other versions it is simply a great banquet given by a private individual; but in Matthew it is the story of a wedding feast given by a king for his son. The king is equated with God, and the son with Jesus, the Messiah.
This, of course, is an entirely natural post-Easter reinterpretation, but if we want to ask what Jesus meant when he told the parable, we have to disregard these later elements.
It is a judgment on Jesus’ contemporaries who rejected his invitation to the coming kingdom, and an assurance to the outcast, with whom Jesus celebrated the great banquet in advance.