Expanding the Juridical Parable

The last three Sundays, we've had three parables told against the senior priests and councillors of the Judean people from Matthew 21 and 22. Mark only gives us the middle one, and when they're spread out like this in the lectionary, we don't get the full thrust of what Matthew does here. So let's have a look at what is really going on in these texts.

As in Mark, we have the Davidic entry into Jerusalem, followed by Jesus clearing out the Temple courts of the merchant apparatus. Very Maccabean, including the Sukkot references in the procession. And with slightly more awareness of these events in Matthew than in Mark, the Judean authorities are more than slightly bothered by the whole arrangement. And they should be -- this series of events implies (and with a certain justice) that they have become as complicit in the Roman occupation as the Temple apparatus had been in the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes, two centuries earlier. And so they come to Jesus the next day and ask, "With what kind of authorization do you do these things, and who gave you that license?" And the implicit answer is that the same eschatological truth present in John's baptism of repentance is present here.

And now come the parables, fleshing out the answer. The core of Matthew's answer remains the same as in Mark: the juridical parable of the vineyard from Isaiah 5. But here it's flanked by two other parables: the simple question about filial obedience, and today's parable about the marriage feast. Let's see how they interact.

First, Matthew follows the question about John's baptism with a second question:
"How does it seem to you? A person had two children, and approaching the first, she said, "Child, go now and work in the vineyard." And answering, the child said, "I don't want to," but went after having repented of that answer. And approaching the other, she said the same thing. And answering, the child said, "Indeed, ma'am," and did not go. Which of the two did what the Father wanted?"

They said, "The first one."

Jesus said to them, "Surely, I tell you, the revenue agents and the prostitutes precede you into the kingdom of God. For John approached you on the just path, and you did not trust him -- but the revenue agents and the prostitutes trusted him, and seeing this, you did not repent afterward and trust him."
Now, this isn't quite as good a juridical parable as the next one will be -- it doesn't naturally evoke the Nathan-and-David "Thou'rt the man!" moment. And it doesn't evoke that kind of moment because the answer to the question is obvious. Jesus has asked them for the simple answer to a simple question: which child actually does what is asked of them? Not which was more agreeable, or which gave a better answer -- the only answer that counts is action.

Now, you'll probably have noticed gender issues in my translation -- this is a fun passage. You see, there are no biological genders indicated in the parable itself. Anthropos is "person"; teknon is "child," and a blood relative, or the word would be pais or paidion, but still neutral; and kyrie is really "boss," and has no gender. The children are simply defined as offspring under the authority of the person who commands them to go out into the vineyard. The first gendered person we get is "the Father" -- which is why you might naturally assume that the commanding person in the parable is male. But why should they be the same? Why not use aner or pater in the first place? Why not use huios to refer to the children as "sons"?

For exactly the same reason that I have capitalized "Father" in its sole appearance here: this parable and its response have been crafted to lead into the next one. Who notices that the children are instructed to work in the vineyard? These are not the blood-relatives of the Father, though they belong to Him; and surely their obedient work is what the Father wants, but someone else gives the command. Israel is always female where God is male in a parable. If God is Father, she is mother, instructing her children. And yet the prophets come to her, as well. John comes, commanding -- and some children, who have always said yes, disobey. But many children, who have long said no, can be seen obeying the command. It comes from the Father, but a person issues it. Jesus comes, and gets more of the same -- and we know that the reactions are greater in both directions.

And so we have the central parable, with its echoes of Isaiah 5:
"A person was steward of a house, and this same person planted a vineyard, placed hedges about it, dug a wine-press in it, constructed facilities, leased it to gardeners, and absented himself. Now, when the harvest season approached, he sent his servants to the gardeners to receive his harvest. And the gardeners, receiving his servants, flogged one, killed another, and stoned another. Once more he sent other servants, more than the first time, and they did the same things to them. Afterward, he sent his son to them, saying, "They will turn, feel shame, and respect my son." But the gardeners, seeing the son, said among themselves, "This is the inheritor; come, let us kill him and possess his inheritance!" And receiving him, they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. Now, when the Lord of the vineyard shall come, what will he do to those gardeners?"

They said, "Treat the wicked wickedly: he will destroy them, and lease the vineyard to other gardeners, the kind who will deliver to him the harvests in their seasons."

Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the scriptures, "The stone that the construction workers rejected, this one was turned into the pinnacle of the corner; this happened because of the Lord, and it is miraculous in our eyes"? Because of this, I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and will be given to a people who produce its harvests."
Now that's a juridical parable. Give the audience a third-party case, have them render a verdict, and deliver to them their own judgment. Or is it? The priests and councillors deliver the classic lex talionis, the dictates of fairness: let the punishment fit the crime. Kakous kakws -- treat the wicked wickedly. Flog, stone, kill, and eject -- and then restore justice by making sure that the owner of the vineyard receives what belongs to him. But what verdict is rendered upon the priests and councillors? Certainly the last part -- the kingdom of God is taken out of their charge, and placed under just stewards. But there is no retribution here -- except, perhaps, the destruction of the Temple. Matthew's audience certainly sees itself as the recipients of responsibility for the kingdom. But where's the death?

Ah, but there's a third piece, a conclusion to the argument. And it's a very typical Matthean parable:
"The kingdom of the heavens has been compared to a human king, who made a marriage for his son. And he sent his servants to call the invited to the wedding, and they did not want to come. Once more he sent other servants, saying "Say to the invited, "My best has been prepared: my oxen and my fatlings have been slaughtered, and all is prepared. Come to the wedding!"" But those uncaring ones went away, one to his own farm, another to his store; and the rest seized his servants, abused them, and killed them. Now, the king was enraged, and sending his troops, he destroyed those murderers and set their city on fire.

Then he said to his servants, "The wedding is prepared, but the invited were not worthy. Proceed, therefore, along the frontage roads and invite whosoever you shall find there to the wedding." And having gone out into the streets, those servants assembled all of those whom they found, wicked as well as good, and the wedding hall was filled with reclining guests. And having arrived to inspect the reclining guests, he saw there a person who was not clad in wedding garb; so he said to him, "Fellow, how did you get in here without wedding garb?" But he was silent. Then the king said to the attendants, "After binding his feet and hands, throw him out into the darkness outside; there, there will be lamentation and grinding of the teeth." Indeed, many are invited, and few are singled out."
Aha! Here is the other half of the verdict. Here is the judgment of the priests and councillors delivered upon their own heads. Here is death, and the destruction of a city -- here is 70CE, the judgment upon the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to help her. (Well, that's Luke, but you get the idea.) The gardeners are now the original invited guests -- and the people who will deliver God's harvests justly are a completely random and rag-tag synagogue of people. The kingdom of God as found art. For them, festivities. Unless, of course, you're not wearing the right clothes, in which case you get kicked out of the party room, to hang out with Jeremiah and Baruch, apparently. What is that?

"Many are called but few are chosen" makes very little sense of the parable it concludes -- because some were invited (called), and they refused, and received an extreme punishment. And then the numberless, category-less many were invited (called), and they came. And yet only one is chosen for special, in fact negative, consideration. It isn't as though only a few were approved. Everybody else, good and bad, is approved because they respond appropriately to the invitation. They do what is asked of them.

Here it remains a matter of recognition -- of understanding the relationship and doing what God asks. And it remains a matter of divine sovereignty -- God has every right to invite, to make the scope of grace as large as may be conceivable, and yet God retains every right to reject, to judge between people on the basis of their actions, and their recognition of the appropriate response to the situation. It isn't as though God has gotten sloppy and simply opened the gates and left the inmates running the asylum. But the inmates do tend to try and run the asylum as though God were an absentee landlord. And we do tend to resent God's intrusion into God's own affairs -- which we are. And sometimes we even shoot the messenger. At least, until we're at absolute rock bottom, at which point we are desperate for God's intervention. At which point we are primed to accept the offer and return to the Lord our God, who is gracious and merciful: slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Who relents from punishing. Who elevates what the world rejects, and grants it pride of place in miraculous glory. In the face of which actions we can only stand in amazement: God did it. Couldn't have happened any other way.

But thank God, it does happen -- that the miracle comes again, and again, and again, for us and for the whole world.