In my last article on the events of “Passion Tuesday,” I began to discuss the parable of “The Son’s Wedding Feast” and its connection with a parable Jesus taught a year earlier, which He now applied to the unbelief and rebellion of the Jews. In this article, I want to look at how Jesus drew on (and corrected) Jewish rabbinical fables in this parable.
The Greatest Teacher
Those who deny Christ’s deity and the true meaning of His death on the Cross call Him a great teacher. That is faint praise for the Lord of creation, far short of His due — but it is true, as far as it goes. We who believe He is God the Son, the Saviour and Messiah, focus on His death and resurrection and so may de-emphasise His teaching. Yet, we should not forget that Jesus was the greatest Teacher the world has ever seen.
Jesus often used familiar things to illustrate truth. We see this in His many references to the Old Testament, when teaching Jews who had known the Scriptures from childhood. We see it also in His parables — stories which drew on the life experience or knowledge of the people to whom He spoke.
In this parable, Jesus used yet another teaching technique. He used two stories from the Jewish rabbis, adapting familiar stories to gain the attention of His hearers (some of them may have even told these stories). Yet, He combined the two into one and changed enough details so His parable, rather than teaching Jewish error, actually refuted it.
The Jewish Fables
Alfred Edersheim (Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah) cited two passages from the Talmud (one right after the other) in connection to this parable.
The Royal Robes
The first story is of a king who gave royal robes to his servants. The wise kept them carefully, while the foolish wore them when working, and soiled them. When the king asked for the robes back, the wise returned them to his treasury, and were sent home in peace. The foolish were thrown into prison, their robes sent to be cleaned.
The meaning of this rabbinical parable was that man must preserve the soul God gives, keeping it pure. (The Bible, by contrast, says we go astray from the womb — no one preserves his soul pure and righteous.)
The Surprise Feast
In the second story, a king invites his servants to a banquet, without setting a time. The wise dress for it and sit outside the palace waiting, while the fools go about their work. When the king calls them, the wise are ready, but the fools are in dirty work clothes. The wise enjoy the feast, while the fools have to stand and watch.
Self-Righteousness and Religiosity
These stories show the self-righteousness of rabbinical teaching. They taught that if you please God, it is because you are inherently good and have preserved yourself. You don’t do work that could get your clothes dirty, you keep yourself clean. Those who please God are good because they’ve worked to stay pure, because they are righteous and wise.
The rabbis ignored the undeniable reality of human sin nature. The introduction to the Royal Robes story reads thus:
And the dust return to the earth as it was, and the spirit return unto God who gave it’: Render it back to him as He gave it to thee, [viz.,] in purity, so do thou [return it] in purity. This may be compared to a mortal king who distributed royal apparel to his servants….
There is so little of grace, of forgiveness for sin, in their teaching, and so much of works righteousness, which is self-righteousness.
These fables also show rabbinic religiosity. For them, pleasing God is often primarily a matter of religious observances. This was reflected, interestingly enough, in “Fiddler on the Roof,” when Tevye sang:
If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack
To sit in the synagogue and pray.
And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall.
And I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men, seven hours every day.
That would be the sweetest thing of all.
Biblical Christians emphasise a daily life which honours the Lord. It is not for us to sit outside a palace, or along a synagogue’s Eastern wall, making sure we keep our robes clean. We must honour the Lord >as< we work. After all, we serve the Saviour who allowed an unclean woman to touch Him, who washed His disciples’ feet.
How Jesus Changed the Story
When our Lord’s hearers heard Him begin this parable, they must have been relieved. He’d been saying hard things, things they didn’t want to hear, but they knew this story. It was good, safe, better than what He had been saying before — and then, He changed it.
Instead of an arbitrary time, the feast is for a set purpose, and people have plenty of opportunity to respond. The problem is not that they were surprised, but rather that they were simply rebellious, violently so, with devastating consequences for themselves. Their fate is not embarrassment (having to watch the feast) or prison, but absolute destruction. The application to rebellious Israel is obvious.
Even more striking is how Jesus used and changed the “royal robes” story. The robes were given to both “bad and good.” The “bad” were welcome — if they would wear the king’s royal wedding garments. In the Jewish fable, the royal robes symbolised holiness or purity which you must maintain yourself. In Jesus’ parable, the symbolism is also holiness, but it is a gift of God, and having that righteousness is a matter of life or death.
The message was clear. The response to God’s invitation is vital, rebellion is fatal. Any who come can match the qualifications, because the only thing required is to accept what God gives. Your righteousness won’t do it — only the King can give a royal robe, and it will be good enough for even the Gentiles. The city of the Jews will be burned because of their unbelief and violence, and God will find other guests. God will give His royal robes of purity to whoever He wills, Jew or Gentile, and they will be accepted.
The Fables Weren’t Needed
Did Jesus need these Jewish fables to communicate truth? Of course not. The truth is right there in Scripture, the Scriptures they already knew.
But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels.
Nor do we need to know about the Jewish fables to understand this parable. Not only do we have these (and other) Old Testament Scriptures, we also have this:
7 Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready.
8 And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints.
Why, then, did Jesus use these stories of the rabbis?
Perhaps there are two reasons. First, by changing the stories, He refuted the errors in the original stories in a way His hearers could not miss. A story teaching self-righteousness became a story of God-given righteousness. The contrast was stark.
But perhaps also we see our Lord’s compassion. The greatest Teacher knew human weakness, and made it easy for His people to hear and understand the message. Using familiar stories, He helped bridge the gap between Himself and any who were willing to hear. The same God who came in familiar human form, so we could understand His message and His love, spoke to His people with familiar forms of communication as well. A compassionate God finds terms we can comprehend. That’s just the kind of God He is.
Companion post: The Son’s Wedding Feast — a Year Before
Series Summary with links to further articles: “Passion Tuesday” / Crucifixion Tuesday