October 15, 2017
What a horribly difficult gospel parable we have today. It seems to portray God as a terrifying, maniacal king with a taste for violence and murder. What do we make of it?
It starts out OK – the king is preparing a wedding banquet for the marriage of his son. It’s a Biblical image, a feast of rich food spread for all. We heard it in the passage from Isaiah earlier [Isa. 25:6]. But the plot starts to go wonky when the invited guests don’t bother to come, but go off and do other things. Some even kill the messengers sent to invite them.
Then it turns uglier, when the king has his soldiers kill those guests and burn their city. This doesn’t sound like God to me, but some murderous dictator.
The parable goes on, and other guests are brought into the wedding banquet instead: people who were just walking around on the streets, good and bad alike. And finally the hall is full and the party begins. That seems fine. It might be good if it ended there.
But it doesn’t: there’s a horrible twist at the end (- some commentators think it was originally a different parable that’s been tacked on by Matthew), when the king enters the hall and sees someone not wearing a wedding robe. (Well how could he, if he’d just been brought in from the street?) The king has him tied up and thrown out into the darkness “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” [Matthew 22:13]. It’s a disturbing ending.
I was going to teach a short course this fall on taking the Bible seriously but not literally. I’ve had to postpone it, but sermons are also excellent opportunities to explain how to approach the Bible. And this parable is a good example of where literalism gets you into very hot water.
God is not like a violent, vindictive king.
The gospel cannot be based on threats of punishment, because that’s not good news of God’s love and grace, that’s emotional manipulation through fear.
So I don’t approach a parable like this one as a step by step description of God and the kingdom. It’s more complicated than that. There are at least three elements of it that we need to unravel:
1. It’s partly about the way Jesus has been rejected by the religious authorities based in Jerusalem.
Jesus came preaching and teaching about God’s kingdom of justice and grace, and he was rejected by the leaders of his own people. Matthew places this parable-telling just between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, when Jesus is right in Jerusalem and facing his imminent arrest and death. So yes, the wedding guests who refuse the invitation to the feast represent those who rejected Jesus. And that includes us, whenever we are too busy with our own all-consuming lives and occupations to even listen to God’s invitation to us to live deeper lives of holiness and trust.
2. It’s also Matthew’s explanation of why God allowed the Romans to burn and destroy Jerusalem in the year 70.
Some 40 years after Jesus died, the Roman empire decided to crush a 4-year rebellion in its Jewish territories by destroying Jerusalem and the temple. It was catastrophic for the Jews. And Matthew, writing his gospel as a Jewish Christian for other Jewish Christians, saw it as God’s punishment for the Jews’ refusal to believe and follow Jesus. Matthew couldn’t free himself from the idea of divine wrath and vengeance, so it’s here in his version of the parable of the wedding banquet. (If you read Luke’s version you see that it doesn’t have the violent elements in – Lk 14: 15-24)
3. But it’s chiefly about the invitation to life that God is always issuing to everyone, and how turning away from that means turning away from life itself.
The gospel, the good news of God’s love and our transformation through that love, is for everyone:
• The sower sows the seed liberally over all kinds of ground.
• The king invites people “good and bad alike” to come to the wedding feast.
• Jesus tells the disciples after the resurrection, “Go and make disciples of all nations.”
It’s an invitation to life, a call to transformation, and not through any good works of our own, but through God’s grace. It’s just the way God is.
This is how Episcopal theologian and priest Robert Farrar Capon puts it:
“Grace is the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its [calls] to every window, pounding at every door… until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears.” [Between Noon and Three.]
…. and the wedding guests who refused the invitation finally realize what a life-giving feast they were missing.
Matthew loses the plot by mashing the message up with violent imagery, but it’s true that there’s an element of judgment in the parable: when we turn away from God’s invitation to life, we’re walking down a path that can’t lead anywhere good. It isn’t that God punishes us; it’s more that we get lost in the darkness of our own selfishness, our self-satisfaction, our desire to be in charge of our own lives when in fact we need to surrender them to God.
What we need to hear, behind the strange, disturbing elements of Matthew’s version of the parable, is the simple story Jesus told:
• God is like someone throwing a party and everyone’s invited
• So come to the table
• Put on the clean clothes of a renewed life
• Join this celebration of the union between divine and human
Week by week we gather together to celebrate a symbolic feast with this eucharist. Week by week we’re invited and called. Day by day, moment by moment we’re invited into the life of God’s grace. We don’t always hear or respond. We sometimes turn away and walk into our own darkness. But the invitation is always extended.