19 Pentecost, Proper 23 – October 11, 2020
So, this is a really difficult parable to understand. It’s an odd story about a king offering an extravagant banquet for his son’s wedding. Yet the invited guests do not come. Three times the king sends messengers out to bring them to the wedding feast. Yet they are too distracted, busy, or uninterested, and none come. Finally, when the messengers are instructed to invite anyone and everyone, the banquet hall filled.
This is definitely one of those parables where it is important to understand the social constructs of the time, the context in which the story is told. Social status was important in the honor-shame culture and the numbers of people that attended a wedding reflected the host’s social status. So, the no-show by the originally invited guests was a profound embarrassment to the king. It was damaging to his social capital and potentially detrimental to his economic interests.
That predicament explains his repeated requests to the guests and the extension of the invitation to “all the people” the servants could find at the street corners. But the king’s impetuous behavior and penchant for violence come to the forefront when he ruthlessly targets one of the substitute guests and orders him to be thrown out because of what he considered to be an improper attire. He calls him hetaire which is translated as “friend” but, as new testament scholar Stanley Saunders notes, within the context of Matthews gospel, “it is an ironic or even hostile greeting.” This Greek word indicates an imposter.
There are several interpretations of this parable that have been presented over the decades, but Debi Thomas’s recent struggle with the meaning really struck me this year. She has an essay posted on Journey With Jesus. She writes:
Sometimes, the most honest response to a story from Scripture is regret. Regret, repentance, and reorientation. This is especially true of Bible stories we inherit from other people — stories that someone else hands to us, wrapped in layers of interpretation so thick, we can’t tell where the interpretation ends and the story begins.
To put this another way, sometimes, we need to “unsee” a Biblical text before we can see it. New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine argues that if religion is supposed to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” then Jesus’s parables are meant to do the latter. If we read them and find ourselves unprovoked, then we aren’t really seeing them. Jesus was no teller of cozy bedtime stories; his parables are designed to show us things we don’t want to see.
This week’s parable of a wedding banquet gone awry is no exception. No effort to soften its jagged edges will suffice; it is a harsh, hyperbolic story, steeped in violence.
Do we believe in a God that acts like our king in this parable? I wonder now if Jesus tells the parable in such an extreme and offensive way precisely because we do believe in a God as harsh as the king who turns his armies loose on his own people — and we need the help of hyperbole in order to recognize it. Is it possible that Jesus is offering us a critical description of how God’s kingdom is often depicted by God’s own followers? What if the king in the parable isn’t God at all? What if the king is what we project onto God? What if the king embodies everything we’ve learned to associate with divine power and authority from watching other, all-too-human kings and rulers? Kings like Herod. Conquerors like the Roman Empire of Jesus’s day. Leaders in our own time and place who exercise their authority in abusive, violent ways, compelling their followers to gleefully celebrate in circumstances that call for lament.
Do we — consciously or not — present to the world a God who is easily offended, easily displeased, easily dishonored? A God whose holiness rests on the foundation of an unyielding and even violent anger? A God whose need to save face finally trumps his own graciousness and hospitality? A God whose invitation to salvation has strings attached to it?
It’s easy enough to say no, we don’t. Yet we are surrounded by people who have been victimized by brutal religion, many of them bludgeoned by the “Christian” depiction of a God who is angry, withholding, transactional, and perfectionistic. Some of us have friends or family members who have experienced the church as petty, ungenerous, and judgmental. Most of us know Christians so narrow-minded and exclusionary in their faith practice that we dare not approach them. Some of us still carry deep wounds from the years or decades we spent appeasing the “king” we mistook for God.
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son,” Jesus says by way of introduction to his parable. Okay, what will happen if we take him at his word? What might we learn if we attempt an honest comparison between God’s coming kingdom, and our current one? Are our tables open to all who come, and does our love extend to those who initially refuse our invitation? Are we willing to extend a welcome to those who show up unprepared, unwashed, unkempt? Do we take offense when people shy away from our banquet, or do we listen as they explain why our invitation strikes them as unappealing or frightening? Do we really want to open our arms wide, or do we have a secret stake in seeing some people end up in the “outer darkness”?
In the end, are we known for our impeccable honor, or for our scandalous hospitality?
I begin with repentance, and now turn to reorientation. That is, I turn to the possibility of seeing this parable with new eyes. Eyes starving for Good News — not the mean and stingy Good News that secures my salvation and my comfort at the expense of other people’s bodies and souls — but rather, the Good News of the Gospel that is inclusive, disruptive, radical, and earth-shattering. The Good News that centers on the Jesus I trust and love. What would it be like to look for Jesus and his Good News in this story?
Here’s one possibility: What if the “God” figure in the parable is the one guest who refuses to accept the terms of the tyrannical king? The one guest who decides not to “wear the robe” of forced celebration and coerced hilarity, the one guest whose silent resistance leaves the king himself “speechless,” and brings the whole sham feast to a thundering halt? The one brave guest who decides he’d rather be “bound hand and foot,” and cast into the outer darkness of Gethsemane, Calvary, the cross, and the grave, than accept the authority of a violent, loveless sovereign?
Yes, it’s disturbing. But stay with it for a minute. What would change for you if Jesus was the unrobed guest and not the furious king in this story? How would you have to change to welcome such a guest? To honor such a guest? To accompany such a guest? What robes of privilege, power, wealth, empire, location, and complicity would you have to refuse to wear? What holy rebuke would you have to speak or embody when the king demands your cheery presence at his table? What feasts would you have to forego to follow the unrobed dissenter when he’s escorted into the darkness, bound and broken for the sake of love?
To read the parable this way is to accept its indictment. To sit under its searing, breaking grace, and confess that I need to change my location in a story I thought I knew inside out.
The parables of Jesus are meant to afflict the comfortable. The parables are meant to show us who God is, and who God isn’t. So. May we embrace the loving God who is rather than the vindictive God who isn’t. May we choose affliction over apathy, even when it costs us a spot in the palace. May we refuse sham banquets while our cities burn and our streets run with blood. May we always reject the invitations of heartless kings. And may we, like Christ the unrobed guest, disarm all powers that bind God’s children, and render the world’s oppressors speechless in his name.
This day and every day, may you know yourself enfolded by the love of the God who calls us to the heavenly feast. A blessing by Jan Richardson:
In your mercy
in your protection
in your care
in your grace
With your justice
for your labor
by your love
and fit me
for your work.
Jan Richardson: The blessing is from Night Visions: Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas