Reading the Scriptures, whether the Hebrew Scriptures (“Old Testament”) or the New Testament, it is absolutely essential that one have an “historical-critical” understanding of biblical texts. This is especially important when one is confronted with a disturbing biblical text, as happened on Sunday, October 15th when the Gospel reading, Matthew 22:1-14, presented a disturbing presentation of God as cruel and vindictive. Hardly the “God is love” understanding.
First of all, the historical-critical method helps a person understand the author’s perspective: the author’s frame of mind and cultural and religious background. Secondly, the historical-critical method helps one understand the problems created by faulty translations of biblical texts. Today we are still dealing faulty translations. In previous posts, I have written about some of these. The Greek word ekklēsia, for example, means “an assembly” or a “gathering.” It is often mistranslated, however, as “church” which has a strong institutional connotation. Actually, I prefer to translate it as “community” as, for example, the “Christian community in Corinth.” Another mistranslation problem which I have touched on is the Greek word ioudaios which means “Judaean.” But it is still very problematically mistranslated as “Jew.” There were no “Jews” in the days of Jesus. There were Hebrews and the Judaeans, people from Judaea, a mountainous region of the Levant. Traditionally dominated by the city of Jerusalem, it is now part of Palestine and Israel. The word “Jew” began to appear in ancient English around the year 1000.
Let’s now return to Matthew 22:1-14 — The Parable of the Wedding Banquet
Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying:“The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.
“Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’
“But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So, the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.
“Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
“For many are invited, but few are chosen.”
The final version of the Gospel of Matthew is the work of an unknown Hebrew Christian author and was written after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE and written around 80 CE. Historians and biblical scholars know that there was a conflict between Matthew’s Hebrew Christian group and other Hebrew groups. But as we see in the Matthew 22:1-14, the author of Matthew’s Gospel seems to have relished violent-God imagery. Far short of the vision of Jesus.
If we see the king, in this Matthew 22:1-14 parable, as a representation of God, then we see Matthew’s picture of God exercising violent retributive judgment, both for the “city” — here most likely a reference to Jerusalem — “The king was furious… put those murderers to death and set their city on fire” and for the one without “wedding clothes” ‘Tie him up hand and foot and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!’.
Now it is very important and worth noting that in the Gospel of Luke this very SAME parable appears. BUT the God violence is completely absent:
But Jesus said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time for the banquet, he sent his slave to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, because everything is now ready.’ But one after another they all began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yokes of oxen, and I am going out to examine them. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I just got married, and I cannot come.’
So, the slave came back and reported this to his master. Then the master of the household was furious and said to his slave, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and alleys of the city, and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ Then the slave said, ‘Sir, what you instructed has been done, and there is still room.’ So, the master said to his slave, ‘Go out to the highways and country roads and urge people to come in, so that my house will be filled. For I tell you, not one of those individuals who were invited will taste my banquet!’” (Luke 14:16-24)
The phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” in Matthew’s telling of the parable is a phrase often found in Matthew’s Gospel. See, for example, Mt 8: 12; 13:42; 22:13; 24:51; and 25:30. The phrase is not found in Mark or John, and only once in Luke.
In the Gospel of Matthew, we are not dealing with anything like a direct quote from Jesus. In the text of Matthew 22:1-14 we see Jesus as he was presented by this particular Gospel writer who had his own violent-God perspective found in some Hebrew scriptures.
Right now, considering the Hebrew Scriptures, I am thinking about God’s massive flood that wiped out nearly every living thing on the planet, as described in Genesis 6-7. In Genesis 19:1-28, God rained fire and brimstone upon the people of Sodom and Gomorrah as punishment for their flagrant and wanton sins. Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned frequently in the prophets and the New Testament as symbols of human wickedness and divine retribution, and even the Quran contains a version of the story about the two cities.Then in Exodus 12:29, God blanketed Egypt with widespread plagues, including the killing of all firstborn children. The Book of Nahum, written between 626–612 BCE was very explicit about a vengeful God. In Nahum 1:2-3, for example, we read “The Lord is a jealous and vengeful God. The Lord is vengeful and strong in wrath. The Lord is vengeful against his foes. He rages against his enemies. The Lord is very patient but great in power. But the Lord punishes. His way is in whirlwind and storm.”
Genesis 1:27 says we are made in the image and likeness of God. Over the centuries, however, some acrimonius biblical writers and theologians have fallen into the error of making God in their own image and likeness.
Well, the violent perspective of Matthew 22:1-14 does indeed resonate with some earlier biblical texts. But Matthew’s perspective here is diametrically opposite to the non-violence of Jesus and totally out of sync with the Gospels of Mark, Luke, and John.
Nowhere in Sacred Scripture, in fact, is the loving nature of God more apparent than in the story told by Jesus, the historical Yeshua, about the compassionate and joyous father, usually titled The Parable of the Lost Son which we find in Luke 15:11-32.
The son had run away from home and ended up losing everything. Then as we read, starting in verse 18, the lost son says:
“I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So, he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So, they began to celebrate.
An historical-critical perspective stresses that one needs to evaluate biblical texts in the total context of the scriptures. There is no doubt that the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament strongly affirm a loving and supportive God. Indeed, that “God is love.” The author who wrote the final version of Matthew had a few theological hang-ups – just like St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033 – 1109) and his “satisfaction” theory of atonement, anchored in a very distorted understanding of a God who could only be made happy with the crucifixion and death of his very own Son.
We can and we must move beyond distorted theological hang ups. Certainly, the historical Jesus did not have them. And, thinking about the entire Gospel of Matthew, one should not ignore the positive elements like the memorable Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5–7). There we find a strong affirmation of love, compassion, and selflessness. Jesus encourages his listeners to love their enemies, to forgive others, and to care for the poor and marginalized. Nothing cruel or vindictive about Jesus. May we live and move forward in his spirit.