Hezekiah’s Passover in 2 Chronicles 30 provides a backdrop of Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22.
Sometimes, scholars are mystified by questions with simple answers. Parables should not be as hard to interpret as we make them. Rather than making up esoteric stories or pulling from his 1st century Israelite context completely, Jesus tells his parables based on Israel’s Scriptures. His parable of the wedding feast makes more sense when compared and contrasted to Israel’s history, as told in 2 Chronicles 30.
When Hezekiah becomes king, it is time for a change in Judah. He wants to celebrate Passover, as commanded in the Torah of Moses, but finds two problems: most of the kings were not sanctified for service, nor was all of Israel gathered together to celebrate. He had to do something about both problems.
For the second problem, he sends a letter to Manasseh and Ephraim, commanding them to come down to Jerusalem to celebrate (v12). Though he is not king of Israel, he is exercising his right as the king in the line of David to command all of Israel, divided or not¹. Hezekiah also sends couriers with letters to all of Israel and Judah, commanding them to come celebrate the Passover. The message they carry is one of hope: return to Yahweh, and he will return to you. He will have compassion on you, as will your captors, and you will all be safe in the land which he promised the forefathers, if you return to Yahweh and celebrate the Passover with us.
Unfortunately, the couriers are not met with complete acceptance. They were scorned and mocked (30:10). The hand of Yahweh was on the heart of Judah and some of Israel, so they came to Israel to partake in the feast. As they returned, the Levites became reconsecrated for temple service (vv 16-17) and the people were pardoned of their uncleanness by Yahweh (vv 17-20). They slaughtered the Passover Lamb for the feast and made sacrifices for everyone who was there to partake in the feast. The feast went on for seven days of unending praise and joy (vv 20-22). It was such a good time, in fact, that they continue to celebrate for another week (v 23).
Centuries later, Jesus would tell a parable with similar circumstances. A king wished to throw a feast in honor of his son. The table was set, and the servants were sent out to invite the population to come and celebrate. Unfortunately, a large number refused (Matthew 22:1-5a). Even worse: some killed the servants while others remained apathetic (22:5b-6). In retaliation, the king sent out his army to kill those who refused him (22:7). The places offered to his people were filled instead by the good and the bad, whoever they found on the road (22:8-10). As the party waged, one man was found to be out of dress code. The king was angry, and the man was tossed outside of the city gates (22:11-14).
Now, in terms of Christian interpretation, we know the actors. The king is God, who wants to celebrate his son, Jesus. The servants were the prophets. Those who refused the invitation were the Jews of the flesh, who refused the ministry of the Son. Those who came in to the feast were Jews of the Spirit and Gentiles.
It is important, then, to see how Jesus turns the story on its head. Most of the Jewish context should have been familiar with the Passover story. They would have expected some mocking and scorn, knowing that quite a few would respond positively. They would have also expected cleansing for the bad people. But Jesus turns a few details.
First, those who refuse are killed. 2 Chronicles makes no comment about what happens to those who refuse the message. This would have been a severe message to Jesus’ hearers: there was grace before, but the time of reckoning has come now. Second, those who are not prepared for the party will be killed. In 2 Chronicles, the unsanctified came in and were cleansed at the party. Not so at this new feast. This time, the good and the bad found on the street are expected to clean up before coming into the party. If they don’t, there will be dire consequences (again). There is a sort of finality to this feast. There is grace now, before the feast, rather than after.
The difference in the story was important to the first century Jews, and is vital for us to understand. By using 2 Chronicles 30 as the backdrop to his parable, Jesus was priming his audience for a certain message based on their history. As the listeners started to expect a certain ending, Jesus turns the story on its head. The surprise ending, and changes, would have been even more jarring to those who know the original story than it is for us, who hardly know our Old Testaments. Now, we have the original story to learn about the faithfulness and forgiveness of God. That helps us prepare to hear the warning of Matthew 22 without succumbing to despair. Yes, the marriage feast may be the last call, too late, so sorry, but that does not mean we can’t get changed now and prepare to meet the merciful God of the Passover.