Ugly Words, Scary Story

(sermon 10/15/17)

banquet

Exodus 32:1-14

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!< The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

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Matthew 22:1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

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Isn’t this an odd story? Really, when we hear this parable, isn’t it more than a little discomforting? Here’s a story about a king who flies into a fit of rage because people won’t come to a big, lavish party he’s invited them all to, and in his rage, he ends up causing harm, even death, to thousands, and who knows, we don’t know the size of the city, maybe millions of people who haven’t done anything wrong to the king, by obliterating their city, and all because his precious, tender ego had been bruised. Then he sends his people out to bring in other guests – a rental crowd, if you will – just to fill the empty seats and make sure that it looks like the king is great, and very popular, and to give the impression that his wedding party would be the best and biggest one ever. Finally, after bringing in all these new guests, telling them they’re invited and welcome to the party, and the guests all come in under those terms, the king comes in and changes the rules on them after the fact. He throws one of the guests out for not complying with his new rules, throwing him out of the palace and presumably out into the death and destruction of the burning city that the king had destroyed, even though the guest had really been abiding by the rules originally set out for him.

This is an ugly story. And yet, the way most of us have been taught about it over the years is that this parable is an allegorical depiction of what the kingdom of God is like, and that the king in the story represents God. Well, I’m sorry to say this, but I don’t think I buy that. To me, this all sounds a lot more like the pride and ego and capriciousness of the kingdom of this world, not the kingdom of heaven; and the king in the story sounds more like a madman, an egomaniac who wouldn’t deserve respect if he were a human leader in this world, let alone if he were the eternal God of the universe. He clearly doesn’t resemble the God of all love; the God who is portrayed in the scriptures as continually changing his mind in favor of offering mercy to people instead of lashing out in anger, just as we heard in today’s first reading. No, the king in this story doesn’t represent any God that I can comprehend through observing Jesus’ life, and the studying the totality of the scriptures.

Now I will say that I don’t have any doubt that whoever wrote Matthew’s gospel really did mean to portray God in just this way. I’m sure he was trying to portray a God who rejects an initial group of selected people and who will deal harshly with them, and who invites in replacements – but replacements who can’t get too cocky themselves, or they’ll suffer the same fate as the first group. I don’t have any doubt that the writer of this gospel framed this story in a way to denounce and discredit the Jewish religious leaders who rejected Jesus; and to explain, in hindsight, the reason for the Romans’ destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple, which had occurred shortly before this gospel was written. And it was intended to claim that Jesus’ followers – who by now were mostly Gentiles – were now God’s new favored ones. I’m sure that was the author’s intent.

But we need to understand a bit of history here. We need to know that this gospel was written at a time of terrible division and bitterness and hatred between the Jewish orthodoxy and Jesus’ followers, and telling the parable this way was the author’s equivalent of sending a letter or email out to someone when you’re the maddest at them and haven’t had time to take a breath and see things a bit more clearly. It was the equivalent of posting a snarky, hurtful meme on Facebook designed to make your own group look good by trashing and insulting the other side. It’s an ugly, and frankly, counterproductive thing when people do it now, and it was just as ugly and counterproductive when the author of this gospel did it in the first century. And back then, just as it is now, once hurtful, ugly words are spoken, they can’t be unspoken – they take on a life of their own, and the hurt they cause can continue for a long time. Unfortunately, this parable has been used hurtfully up until our own present time by some people to want to justify the worst kinds of prejudice and discrimination and violence against Jewish people. To be honest, I think that not only have this writer’s way of telling this parable been harmful, it’s served to disguise what Jesus may have originally said, and what he’d originally meant.

And we can look at this passage with those critical eyes, you know. The truth is, this same story shows up here in Matthew, and again in Luke, and also in the so-called Gospel of Thomas, an early Christian collection of the sayings of Jesus that wasn’t itself included in the New Testament. And in each of these versions, you can see that the author told some basic, core teaching of Jesus, but each of them told it in a way with some degree of editorial “slant” that emphasized their particular overriding message.

If that’s the case then, what might be a better way for us to hear this parable as it appears in Matthew? Is it possible to strip away some of Matthew’s dangerous and ugly editorial slant, and maybe get closer to what Jesus might really have been saying?  Is there a way to hear the gospel here, and reject the hate?

Well, how about something like this summary: The kingdom of God is indeed like a banquet that God is hosting – a banquet that we begin to enjoy here in this life as we live in relationship with God and with one another, and it continues at this Table as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and it continues into eternity. It will be something indescribably good and wonderful, and God will not allow anything in the world to prevent it from happening. And God invites the famous and the faceless, the great and small, the good and the bad, the acceptable and unacceptable. And finally, as the banquet goes on, God does expect those guests – us guests – to show, with God’s own help, some evidence of lives transformed by this act of immense grace, and welcome, and hospitality on God’s part. This is the great joy, the great hope, that all of us guests have through our faith in Christ, regardless of what the kingdoms of the world and the kings of the world might do to crush our hope.

Maybe that’s a good synopsis of Jesus’ original point. Maybe that’s really the good news that we can get out of this parable, after strippng away the storyteller’s harmful editorializing. I don’t know, what do you think? We all have to reach our own conclusions, I guess, but I think it is, anyway. Because that’s the kind of banquet I hope for – that’s the kind of God that I can put my faith and trust in.

Thanks be to God.

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