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.”
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.