Historical Cultural Context
Ancient Table Manners
Some background knowledge of meals in antiquity sheds light on today’s parable. Meals reproduce in miniature the everyday social relations of a society. Who eats with whom at a given table reflects who can associate with whom in the larger society.
The Insults of the First Group
In today’s story, a king is arranging a wedding banquet for his son. In any society, commoners will not likely be invited. Royalty associate almost exclusively with royalty or at least with VIPs. Among the king’s invited guests are a landowner and a business person (Mt 22:5), definitely members of the elite class.
Notice also the double invitation: “The king sent his slaves to call those who had been invited. ... Again he sent other slaves, saying ... ‘Come!’” (Mt 22:3-5).
This was a common practice in antiquity. After the first invitation, the guests checked out who was invited or not invited, what kind of preparations were being made or not being made, and who was planning to attend as well as who was planning to stay away. This last point was particularly important. If key people decided to stay away, so would others.
The refusal of the invited guests to attend the king’s wedding party shames him. For some reason the guests disapproved of the arrangements the king was making. They offer flimsy and insulting excuses, implying that tending the farm or the business is much more important than the wedding of the king’s son. This is the traditional and indirect or face-saving method of turning down an invitation.
Other invited guests challenge the king’s honor in a more direct fashion. They seize his slaves who bring the invitation, beat, and kill them. Clearly this action demands redress, and the king obliges (see Mt 22:7).
First, he sends troops to kill the murderers and burn their city. This evens the score and solidifies the king’s honor according to the rules of the honor and shame game. But then the king does something that breaks the rules. He invites non-elites to the wedding feast. Going to the palace, these people will enter a section of the city where they are rarely, if ever, seen.
The word in Mt 22:9 translated as “main roads, main streets, or thoroughfares” actually describes the squares or plazas into which the streets run. These open spaces are common in Mediterranean cities. They are the normal places where the elite might meet and communicate with the non-elite. It is the place to see and be seen.
The king’s guest list now is very unusual to say the least. In antiquity, meals were an exclusive affair. Inclusive table fellowship in the early Christian community caused problems, as Paul noted in his letters to Corinth (e.g., 1 Cor 11:17-34). People in a status-conscious culture such as this would feel more than uneasy with the royal banquet.
Jesus’ parable was directed against his elite opponents from Jerusalem, the chief priests and elders. He contrasts their rigid observance of exclusivity with the open-hearted inclusivity expressed by the king: “Invite everyone you find” in the city square. Remember, parables tell how God relates to his clients (“the reign of God is like ... ”). The implication is that God’s people ought to relate to each other in the same way. Do we?
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University