(If you’re just joining us, you’ll need to start with Part One for the series to make sense. In fact, today’s post is really part two of yesterday’s, so make sure that’s fresh in your mind.)
Yesterday we looked at how one of Jesus’ parables (the Wicked Tenants) challenged and subverted Israel’s defining story. Today, we look at two more, asking the questions:
- What expectation of the return from exile and coming kingdom does this parable speak to?
- How does Jesus subvert or overturn this expectation?
The Wedding BanquetMatt 22:1-14 Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.
So far so good. This fits well with the Jewish expectation of a great banquet (symbolising abundance of food and wine) at the return from exile, when God acts to bring in his kingdom. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s “son” is used to refer to Israel. God’s getting ready to deliver on his promises to his people!
But look what happens:3 He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. 4 “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.’ 5 “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. 6 The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them.
This isn’t how the story’s supposed to go. (What about that promised new heart, that will stop Israel acting like that? We’ll get to that next week.) Israel, by and large, rejected the kingdom when it turned up. How does God feel about that?7 The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
Burning cities? Sounds like… the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Roman army in AD70. God judges unfaithful Israel for rejecting his anointed one. So what will he do now? There’s all this food, but no people of God to eat it! Like in yesterday’s parable, God has a solution:8 “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. 9 So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ 10 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.
What are we talking about, here? The “sinners” among Israel? Those not in power – the ones who did respond to Jesus’ message? Probably. But it could include the Gentiles as well. There was going to be the expected banquet still, but a very different guest list. The obvious candidates (the Scribes, Pharisees, and others in leadership) on the whole rejected their invitation. But others in Israel (and beyond) – those who knew they were sick and needed a doctor – were invited instead.
(The parable does go on to include a scene in which the king finds a man at the banquet without wedding clothes, and has him thrown out. This is different from rejecting the invitation outright, but still shows a refusal to embrace the values of the kingdom. How it would have been understood by Jesus’ audience, and to what “type” of person it refers is unclear.)
The Lost Son(s)
We come now to Jesus’ most famous parable, and it occurs in this context:Luke 15:1-3a Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 Then Jesus told them this parable:
What follows are two short parables about “lostness.” One sheep out of 99 is lost, but the owner still cares for it. Then one coin out of 10 is lost, and again, the owner still cares for it. Both times they throw a party when they find it. The final parable is also about lostness: and the drama is heightened, as it’s one lost son out of two. (And sons are more important than coins or even sheep!)15:11-16 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
The younger son represents rebellious-Israel-in-exile:
- In first century culture, he’s basically saying to his father “I wish you were dead already – give me my money now.” (Israel rejects God as their father/ruler.)
- He goes to a distant country. (Israel is in exile, away from the promised land.)
- He indulges in wild living. (Indulging in Gentile immorality.)
- There’s a famine. (Israel is away from the place where they experience God’s providential care.)
- He’s feeding pigs. (Symbolic of being in Gentile territory.)
The question at the time of the exile is: has Israel rebelled to much for God to bring them back?15:17-24 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 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. 21 “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. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
We see God rejoicing in the repentance of his rebellious people, and he celebrates their return from exile with the by-now-expected banquet. (As we’ve noted many times, God’s people were back from exile in a physical sense, but were awaiting a “second return” when everything would be put right – involving repentance and a new heart. John the Baptist, then Jesus, brought about this repentance among many in Israel, ready for the people to truly come back from exile.)
But the parable doesn’t end there, however, as someone isn’t at the party:15:25-32 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ 28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ 31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'”
This section of the parable is the real message (and the subversion of Israel’s story). Remember the opening words of the chapter, where Jesus tells these parables in response to the Jewish leaders’ complaint that he was hanging out with sinners and tax-collectors?
In the parable, the leaders are the elder brother: they’ve stuck around and not rebelled, and are resentful that God has not only welcomed back the “unrighteous” in Israel, but is throwing a party for them! (But by his words, the elder brother shows that he’s misunderstood what a relationship with God involves: he has “been slaving” for the father and obeyed his father’s “orders.”) The parable is a rebuke to the leadership, telling them that they can still get on board what God is doing – but that they’ll miss out if they focus on their “superior” status in Jewish society, and try to stop the party that welcomes back repentant sinners. (They’re in danger of being old wineskins who burst when the new wine of the kingdom is revealed.)
In sum: the return from exile is on, and the party is just getting started. But it’s not the rule-focused, status-conscious, religious people who are at the forefront of it, but the outcasts and sinners who know their need of forgiveness and repent. The elder brother needs to join the party, or he’ll miss out altogether.
Jesus’ parables use familiar themes of Israel’s return from exile and the coming kingdom of God – but they upset the traditional expectations, showing that the return will be on God’s terms, not those of the religious establishment.