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Jesus & the Jewish Mardi Gras


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Much Christian commentary ink has been spilt over the parable Matthew records Jesus as telling in Greek in our reading for today (Mt. 22:1-14). And entire Christian theologies have been built around its conclusion:


πολλοὶ γάρ εἰσιν κλητοὶ /

ὀλίγοι δὲ ἐκλεκτοί


Surely Jesus is saying who's out / who's in. The binary is abundant here over and over. 


οὐκ ἤθελον ἐλθεῖν / 
τοὺς κεκλημένους εἰς τοὺς γάμους

οἱ δὲ ἀμελήσαντες ἀπῆλθον /
τοῖς κεκλημένοις

οἱ δὲ κεκλημένοι οὐκ ἦσαν ἄξιοι /
καὶ ὅσους ἐὰν εὕρητε καλέσατε εἰς τοὺς γάμους

συνήγαγον πάντας οὓς εὗρον, πονηρούς /
τε καὶ ἀγαθούς

ἄνθρωπον οὐκ ἐνδεδυμένον ἔνδυμα γάμου /

Before paying too much attention to what is in this comparison story it's interesting to see who's not. There's no bride in the story. No queen mother either. No siblings (and so maybe the prince-bridegroom is an only child). We see a king, his son, his slaves, his servants, his subject, his army, his choice cattle butchered, strangers, foreigners, the murdering of murderers, and in fact an entire city-state burned to the ground in rash retaliatory rage. There's the public embarrassment of an underdressed and silent man, a banishment, a torturing of the fellow. And it's not clear who really is among the "few who are choice guests chosen."

What a Christian God if that's what Jesus's comparison story is depicting for the theologians of the church through the reformation.

Or we might read this Greek gospel in light of epic Greek narratives. There's one story in the Odyssey in the poetry of Homer that makes us go Hmmmm. What is in Matthew's version of Jesus's parable is a setting that's similar to what's in Book 17:


To him then, swineherd Eumaeus, did you make answer, and say:

“Antinous, no fair words are these you speak, noble though you are. Who, pray, of himself ever seeks out and invites a stranger from abroad, unless it is one of those that are masters of some public craft, a prophet, or a healer of ills, or a carpenter, or perhaps a divine minstrel, who gives delight with his song? For these men are invited [κλητοί] all over the boundless earth. Yet a beggar would no man invite to be a burden to himself. But you are always harsh above all the suitors to the slaves of Odysseus, and most of all to me; yet I care not, so long as my lady, steadfast Penelope, lives in the hall, and godlike Telemachus.”

Then wise Telemachus answered him:

Be silent [σίγα]; do not, I bid you, spend many words in answering this man, for it is Antinous’ constant habit, using harsh words, to provoke men to anger with evil intent, and to encourage others to do the same.”


What seems to be in Matthew's Greek for this story told by Jesus is Homer's telling of what the swineherd Eumaeus is saying.

Eumaeus is talking about our hero Odysseus, whom we know as the readers and listeners in the audience. But nobody in the epic story knows who he is, since just before he says this, this happens:


Odysseus entered the palace in the likeness of a woeful and aged beggar, leaning on a staff, and miserable were the clothes that he wore about his body.

In other words, Odysseus looks like the one the King in the parable Jesus tells is casting out. He's inappropriately dressed, and he's not speaking up for himself.

And then we might look at the last word, the concluding word in our reading for today. We don't need to say much. It's in the LXX a number of times, in the Greek version of the dream of little brother Joseph where he's talking about the choice or chosen ones.

And then it's in King Xerxes's letter in a version of Greek Esther. Haman is dead. And God finally shows up in the Book of Esther (in Greek in the letter of a brutal Persian emperor -- watch the movie 300 to get a glimpse):


ταύτην γὰρ ὁ πάντα δυναστεύων θεὸς ἀντ ὀλεθρίας τοῦ ἐκλεκτοῦ γένους ἐποίησεν αὐτοῖς εὐφροσύνην.

καὶ ὑμεῖς οὖν ἐν ταῖς ἐπωνύμοις ὑμῶν ἑορταῖς ἐπίσημον ἡμέραν μετὰ πάσης εὐωχίας ἄγετε

ὅπως καὶ νῦν καὶ μετὰ ταῦτα σωτηρία ᾖ ἡμῖν καὶ τοῖς εὐνοοῦσιν Πέρσαις, τοῖς δὲ ἡμῖν ἐπιβουλεύουσιν μνημόσυνον τῆς ἀπωλείας.

πᾶσα δὲ πόλις ἢ χώρα τὸ σύνολον, ἥτις κατὰ ταῦτα μὴ ποιήσῃ, δόρατι καὶ πυρὶ καταναλωθήσεται μετ' ὀργῆς· οὐ μόνον ἀνθρώποις ἄβατος, ἀλλὰ καὶ θηρίοις καὶ πετεινοῖς εἰς τὸν ἅπαντα χρόνον ἔχθιστος κατασταθήσεται.

Here then is the beginning of the Jewish celebration of Purim, aka The Jewish Mardi Gras. It is established well before Jesus comes on the scene.

And so whatever Jesus is talking about with his story in Matthew here, it may be as much about epic reversals than about some narrow Christian soteriology of reformers.

Edited by jkgayle
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