Squeezing Gospel out of a Difficult Parable

(sermon 10/11/20)

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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For several Sundays recently, the Adult learn & Serve group took a look at some of Jesus’ parables – especially recognizing that we’ve tended to domesticate them, to soften them up, to gloss over the actual discomforting nature that they have. The reality of the situation is that, as Dr. Amy-Jill Levine has written, if you read one of Jesus’ parables and you aren’t discomforted, you’re missing the point.

Today’s gospel text, the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, is a classic case in point, because no matter how much we might want to gloss over its actual details, there’s just no denying them – it’s a disturbing story about a horrible king who does brutal things. Considering this parable in particular, Dr. Levine writes that if we hear it and we aren’t disturbed, there’s something seriously wrong with our moral compass, and I think that’s true.

The parable is weird. And here’s where it gets even more weird, because we’ve all been taught that it’s a story meant to teach us what God’s final judgment, and the kingdom of heaven, is supposedly like. We’ve traditionally been taught, and Matthew would even agree, that the parable is an allegory where every character or situation symbolically represents something else. In this way of understanding, the wedding banquet represents the kingdom of heaven, the king represents God, the guests originally invited are supposedly the Jewish people, who refuse to respond to God’s invitation to the banquet, and the replacement guests are supposedly us Christians.

There are just so many things wrong here if the parable is that kind of an allegory. For starters, this is a story about a king who is so petty, vengeful, and irrational that he would destroy a city of his own kingdom, and would take actions that kill his own people – all because he felt some personal slight over a wedding RSVP. That made his own people unworthy of consideration, even unworthy of having their lives protected, in his eyes. Then, he’s so wrapped up in appearances and his own ego that he wants to have the largest wedding banquet ever, period. So he has his troops drag in total strangers, both good and bad, we’re told, just to make the party look well-attended and a big success. For what it’s worth, can you imagine any of those guests having anything remotely resembling a good time, as they sat there in the palace, knowing that outside the palace walls, their city, their homes, are all destroyed and their loved ones dead? Honestly, given the way the king behaves in the story it’s no wonder the original guests went to such lengths – even to violence and murder – to avoid being in his presence and the banquet.

What kind of king is this? And why would anyone ever think that this king represents God in any way? On this score, Dr. Levine says if the king in the parable represents God, then we should wonder if this is the type of God anyone would want to worship.

And then there’s the replacement guest who isn’t wearing a wedding garment – which isn’t surprising; he’d probably just left his house that day on his way to run a few errands; maybe he was in a T shirt and an old pair of jeans, and he was just on his way to the hardware store to pick up some lawn bags and a hose clamp, and all of a sudden he gets rounded up by the king’s security forces to go to the wedding. And then, when the king sees how he’s dressed, he says “Friend, why aren’t you wearing a wedding garment?” As a sidebar here, you can rest assured that any time someone is called “friend” in one of Matthew’s parables, it’s dripping with sarcasm; the person being addressed is anything but a friend of the person speaking. In this gospel, to call someone “friend” is Matthew’s equivalent of telling them “bless your heart.” This poor man ends up being punished by the king. He gets thrown out of the palace, out of the banquet, and out into the “outermost darkness,” out into all the chaos and destruction and human suffering that the king created by laying waste to the city beyond; what we’re taught supposedly represents hell and eternal condemnation. Allegorically, it’s been taught that this man supposedly represents either people who say they believe in Jesus but really don’t, or whose visible actions don’t reflect their professed beliefs; or they’re believers who have strayed into false doctrine or teaching and who God will supposedly cast out. Either way, the treatment this man gets in the parable is really unfair.

We need to remember that Matthew’s gospel was written some fifty-odd years after Jesus’ crucifixion, and at a time when Christianity and Judaism had just recently split into two different religions, and there was a lot of hostility between the two. That anti-Jewish hostility shows up in Matthew’s gospel in numerous places, including here. That reality has caused terrible suffering for millions of Jews over the last two thousand years, and this text, with others, even gave cover for the Holocaust. We Christians have to acknowledge that and denounce that kind of an interpretation – it’s completely inconsistent with the radical grace, mercy, hospitality, and sacrificial love of God that Christ teaches and models for us.  

Martin Luther wrote that sometimes, we have to really squeeze a passage of scripture in order to find some gospel in it. Frankly, I think this passage requires some heavy-duty squeezing.

To that end, I’m going to suggest that in his original telling of this parable, Jesus wasn’t telling a story that was an allegory at all, at least not primarily so. I think that when Jesus told this story, the wedding banquet was just a wedding banquet; the king was just a king, and the guests were just guests, invited to a party by this horrible king – the kind of ruler no one should ever have to live under. As Dr. Levine writes, if we perhaps started by seeing this parable not as about heaven or hell or final judgment, but about kings, politics, violence, and the absence of justice, we might be getting closer to Jesus’ original point.  

Maybe when Jesus originally told this story, it was just a commentary on corruption and injustice and evil seen in power and authority structures in this world. We really don’t know. But Matthew says that Jesus told it as a way of teaching something about the kingdom of heaven, and so we have to look at the story from that standpoint. If that’s really true, what might Jesus have originally had in mind? What in this story is actually like the kingdom of heaven?

Here’s a possibility. I didn’t originate it; others came up with it before me but I think it’s a good one. What if, instead of the king representing God, he simply represents corrupt, evil, unjust earthly rulers and power? And what if the good news in the story, the gospel that we can squeeze out of it, is that the kingdom of heaven is the antidote to the kind of injustice seen in the king? What if the real gospel here is actually seen in the blameless, innocent guest who is unjustly punished and sent out to the outermost darkness, who suffers the same fate and who is sent out to be with all the others who were suffering at the hands of the king and the powers of the world? In other words, what if there is a bit of an allegory here, just not the one we’ve always been taught to see? What if the unjustly punished guest represents Christ himself, who was innocent but who showed solidarity with the suffering and who was ultimately executed by unjust earthly powers?

To be honest, that makes much more sense to me. It seems much more likely that Jesus’ actual, original point in this story is that the real, eternal banquet of the ages, the kingdom of heaven, takes place outside of palace walls, outside of corrupt, unjust earthly power structures – that it takes place among, and with, and for, the suffering. And that this picture of life under the thumb of a vindictive, all-powerful king doesn’t portray heaven,  but it’s actually a depiction of hell.

What if, outside the palace walls is where the real party is, and that’s the party that Christ, the unjustly punished guest in our world, has invited us and reserved a place for us, just as we were created, just as we are? What if it’s Christ’s solidarity with – God’s presence with – all those who were suffering outside the palace walls, outside the bounds of power and privilege in this world, that is the illustration that Jesus was trying to show in this story? If that’s the case, then I can read Jesus’ story, this difficult parable of his, and I can still say

Thanks be to God.

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

(sermon 21/8/19 – Second Sunday of Advent)

Advent-Wreath-2-candles-lit

Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

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Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

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This always seemed like an odd week in Advent to me. We start off with this beautiful passage from Isaiah that we heard earlier, where he speaks so eloquently about this wonderful future time of peace, when the wolf will lie down with the lamb, and so on – and then we hear this second reading, about wild, cranky, angry John the Baptist, insulting the people standing around listening to him, calling them a “brood of vipers.” I mean, I get the idea of John’s call to repentance fitting in with the focus of Advent, but his whole attitude seems more than a bit off-putting, especially this week when our Advent litany recognizes the peace embodied in the coming of Christ. It’s like that crazed panhandler that you’re trying to avoid eye contact with while you’re stopped at the traffic signal, who’s yelling at you through the window because you won’t give them any money.

But the more I consider it, I guess I understand it. John knows this passage from Isaiah; he’s read it and heard it many times, and he knows its hopeful vision of a peaceful existence for all the world; and he knows that he’s telling people about this very same vision, this same time, except he’s telling them that it’s about to break into the world. But he looks around, and almost everything he sees is the exact opposite of that vision, and quite simply, he’s ticked. He’s angry at what he sees going on around him, and he’s calling people out for it. What he sees is an existence where sin hasn’t just tainted everything, it’s completely taken over.

At this point, I suppose it would be important to recognize just what it is that John considers that sin to be. Just what is it that a Jew in first-century Palestine would consider sin? The biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine has pointed out that we Christians have often been misinformed, mis-taught, that the Jewish religion of Jesus’ time was all about ritual and ritualistic practices; a kind of checklist religion, over against a Christian religion that is supposedly so much different from that, when in fact Judaism then wasn’t any more ritual-based than Christianity is. She goes on to explain that the Jewish concept of sin, then, wasn’t that some set of ritualistic traditions hadn’t been adhered to – but rather, throughout the Hebrew scriptures, whenever sin is discussed, whenever it’s identified, almost without exception it refers to attitudes and especially actions that have the effect of mistreating or hurting other people. Did you hear that? Almost every single description of sin details actions that hurt other people. Actions that treat others without justice, or mercy; actions that exploit or cheat others from enjoying the same existence that a person wants for themselves. It’s a virtual constant in the Hebrew scriptures, and we see the exact same message in Jesus’ words in the gospels.

So John looks around him and sees a society that is completely under the thumb of the Roman occupation. Oh, sure, Rome has given the Jews some degree of autonomy in their local governance and their religion, but not much – they’re on a pretty tight reign. The people are paying heavy taxes to a faraway empire and have very limited freedoms. People are being treated unjustly and abusively. And any time they get even a little bit out of line, the violent power of Rome comes crushing down on them, making sure they understand who’s really in charge. And adding insult to injury, some of their own people are collaborating with Rome to impose the dictates of this occupying force, simply because they realize that if they go along with the Roman occupiers, things will go well for them, and they don’t want to upset their own relative comfort and well-being.

John sees all this – how the people, especially the poor, are being mistreated and exploited. How God’s commands for caring for the widow and orphan, the sick and poor, are being ignored. And he gets mad. He recognizes that this just isn’t the way things should be, especially now, as God has told him that this eternal peaceful kingdom is about to break into the world. Prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. You brood of vipers, you poisonous snakes, change your ways, now, before it’s too late.

And now, as we think about this future time of peace ourselves, we look around us and we see the same thing. We see a society, a culture, that in so many ways seems to have gone off the rails. Poor people – men, women, and children; young and old – who can’t find work and who don’t have enough money to eat are being kicked off of federal food assistance. People legally entering the country seeking refugee status are illegally jailed, and families are separated, often without any plan for reunification, in violation of federal law, international treaties, Christian moral teaching, and just plain common sense and decency. People of color are enduring generations of injustice, being mauled in a criminal justice system designed to destroy individuals and families in multiple ways, and to deprive them of the right to vote, and to essentially create a perfectly legal replacement to Jim Crow society and a return to near-slave era conditions. One particular religious group imposing its narrow, burdensome, discriminatory beliefs on the entire society. Innocent men, women, and children becoming victims of human sacrifice to the false god of gun proliferation. A consumer culture that brainwashes us from before we’re even out of the cradle that we should want everything that we don’t have, and more of everything we already do; and that our worth as human beings isn’t that we’re loved by God and that we’ve been created in God’s image, but instead, our worth is measured by the worth of our stuff. Government leaders who rule with impunity, with no sense of accountability or ethics, only out for their own personal gain at the expense of all of us. Thousands of people being bankrupted every year by outrageous healthcare costs charged by for-profit healthcare corporations, or even dying simply for lack of health insurance or affordable life-saving prescriptions. The resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist, with nationalist groups, the rise of neo-Nazism and neo-Fascism all despite our thoughts that it could never happen here. But it’s happening here.

If you can see all of those things and not be every bit as mad as John the Baptist, you’re just not paying attention. Just John saw what he saw, we can see and know that this isn’t the way things should be. That it doesn’t have to be this way. That we need to repent from these kinds of things in our own personal lives, to be sure, but also that there are systems at work in our society that are causing and enabling these problems in ways far worse than we could ever cause them on our own. We’re all inescapably enmeshed in these harmful, these sinful, systems. Thinking about all of those things makes John the Baptist’s calling people out as a brood of vipers sounds almost tame.

As a congregation, we’ve signed on to the Matthew 25 vision. Next month, I’ll host a three-week Bible study that focuses on Matthew’s gospel, and Matthew 25 in particular, and just what the whole Matthew 25 emphasis really means to us as a congregation, here, where the rubber meets the road. But as a bit of a preview, I can say that it has a lot to do with exactly that kind of turning away from the current ways, and turning toward God’s ways, that John was calling for in this passage. The Matthew 25 vision echoes the idea that all those things don’t have to be that way, and it calls us to taking concrete steps to try to change them.

John was so upset, so angry, because he could see that same vision that Isaiah saw and told about. It was wonderful, and beautiful, and peaceful. And while we can’t create that final, ultimate peaceful world that only Christ will finally usher in some day, having that vision in our minds is enough for us to see that the current world could be so much better, so much more just, so much more peaceful, than it is now – and that by turning our lives, and especially our social systems and structures, toward God’s paths, toward God’s standards of compassion, and mercy, and justice, we’ll be adding just that much more straw into the manger in preparation for our celebration of Jesus’ birth, and in hope of his eventual return and establishing that wonderful world that Isaiah and John  saw. So have righteous anger at what you see – but don’t stay in the anger. Let that anger become repentance, and let that repentance become action, and in that action, find hope. Hold on to that hope, because those words from Isaiah, and from John, are true; that peace, that shalom, is coming.

Thanks be to God.