October 11, 2020
Text: Matthew 22:1-14
Deacon Alex Benson
Grace, peace, and mercy are yours through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This parable of Jesus is what some might call “a little extra.” To be “extra” is to be over the top, too much, a lot to handle. Jesus often told these parables, or stories, to his disciples to try to convey what God’s Kingdom is like – both breaking in among us now in this time and place as well as in the life to come. And these stories were usually intended to be a little over the top. They are meant to jolt us awake, make us raise our eyebrows, even offend us. The Kingdom of God is more baffling and beautiful and mysterious and jarring than any of us can fully comprehend. So Jesus told stories to help us understand – but I have to admit, sometimes they confuse me more than they provide clarity.
So, in case you missed it, here’s the story Jesus tells his disciples on this day. This is what the kingdom of heaven is like. There is a royal wedding. The king is throwing a wedding banquet for his son. Sounds great. But this king, who apparently owns a whole lot of slaves, sends them out to invite the most important people in the kingdom. This is to be the party of the decade. But, for whatever reason, these folks want nothing to do with this royal wedding. And instead of simply declining the invitation, some of them take it out on the king’s slaves – beating them and killing them. The king is furious, throws a giant temper tantrum, employs military force and burns the city to the ground. But he is still determined to have his party, so he sends out some more slaves to invite whoever they can find to fill the seats. So the slaves go out, gather as many people as they can find, which apparently is a real hodge-podge group. The wedding hall is filled, the party commences. The king enters, surveys his guests, and spots one poor soul who is not wearing the proper wedding attire. He’s not wearing the right clothes. And, the king determines this is an unforgiveable offense, so he instructs his servants to bind this guy hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
To me, this sounds more like a horror movie disguised as the Kingdom of Heaven. I don’t know what to do with a story that seems to depict God as an insecure, tantrum throwing king who seems to have no qualms about burning down entire cities when enough people don’t show up to his party. I have no idea what to do with a story about a God who throws someone into the outer darkness for not wearing the right clothes to a wedding – especially when the guest in question seems to have been pulled in off the street from a last minute invitation. Maybe he didn’t have the money for a wedding robe or just didn’t have the time to get ready.
Scholars have interpreted this story in a variety of ways over the years. Some say that God is the king throwing the banquet and the first batch of guests symbolize the Jewish people and the second group who actually shows up represent the people who eventually become the Christian community. But to me, this just seems like anti-semitism disguised as the gospel. It’s a way of reading Scripture that conveniently classifies us as the “good guys” while casting blame on others who don’t share our particular identities. And maybe this is Matthew’s context, but it just doesn’t seem like a helpful or faithful reading in our time and place.
Some say the wedding robes represent baptism and that while all are invited to God’s banquet, we must be willing to put on the Christian life and it’s call to act accordingly. To stay in the Christian community requires that we act in certain ways – and I do think there is some truth to this. I believe that being a Christian requires us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God, to strive to love our neighbors as ourselves, to follow Jesus’s example in acts of love and service and care for the least of these. And maybe to do this is to put on a wedding robe at the banquet. And yet — I still cannot get past this horrifying image of a king who will cast out those of us who don’t make the cut.
To me, this just doesn’t match up with the God who is presented to us in the larger arc of Scripture.
It just doesn’t make sense.
I suppose I could just add it to this of things that have stopped making sense to me in this crazy year. In case you’ve forgotten and need a little recap — So much seems to have been turned on its head. I don’t know about you, but I’m continually recognizing that the assumptions I’ve held don’t hold weight the way they used to. In the midst of a pandemic, we may be recognizing how much we took for granted our own public safety, financial security, or health for one thing. It’s harder than ever to separate fact from opinion or even straight up lie. These are confusing times.
And in the midst of ongoing racial reckoning, I’m realizing the ways I’ve been taught to read and interpret history turn out to be only a part of the story. The voices I’ve been taught to value aren’t the only perspectives worth listening to. Imbalances of power have been made more apparent than ever. I used to assume that my perspective on reality was relatively accurate – but these days I wonder more and more what I’m missing or what I’m imagining. It’s hard to know some days what is real and what’s not. It’s hard to know if my framework for reality is an accurate picture of what is actually going on around me.
And sometimes I wonder this about God too. What do I assume I know? What have I missed? Where am I, where are we way off base? What might these parables, these stories told by Jesus, have to teach us in our current context? How might they startle us awake to the ways God is at work in and around us in these confusing and tumultuous times?
Well, after a lot of research this week trying to make sense of this parable, I came across a perspective that helped me recognize some of my own assumptions once again. I had just assumed that God is the king in this story. But maybe that’s not the case.
In a sermon from a few years ago on this passage, Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber writes, “Why is it that we assume that God is always the rich man? Why is it that we assume that the tyrant or the slaveowner always represents God? Maybe it’s because we’ve been told that God is capricious, that God is on the side of winning and empire. But that’s just not the God we see in Jesus Christ.”
She then asks “What if the kingdom of heaven isn’t like a bullying king? What if the Kingdom of Heaven is like the guy who refuses to don that king’s wedding robe?”
This changes everything for me. Maybe the king is just that – another ego-driven, power-hungry ruler in the course of history. Kings don’t exactly have the greatest reputation in Scripture after all – they are often known for the selfishness and the way they hoard resources. The first King we meet in the Bible is Pharoah, and goodness knows, he’s not exactly a role model for righteousness. The Gospel of Matthew begins with the story of King Herod, who, frightened that his power may be threatened by this baby boy Jesus, seeks to have him killed. Later Herod kills John the Baptist largely out of peer pressure from the guests at a party of his own. And, less than a week after Jesus tells this parable, this King Herod will go on to turn Jesus over to be crucified, again largely out of fear. Kings aren’t exactly automatically the heroes.
If God isn’t the king – well maybe God is the one cast out for not wearing the right robe. Maybe Jesus is the one who refuses to play the games and follow the rules of the empire. Maybe Jesus is the one who is cast out on our behalf, who comes alongside us when we too feel like one of the cast-out ones.
After all, from what we know about Jesus’ life, he isn’t typically found at fancy banquets with royalty. He is more likely to be hanging out with the outcasts of society: people who are sick, people who are poor, people who are considered second class citizens. He hangs out with prostitutes and tax collectors, women who overlooked by powerful men, people who are hungry, people who the religious elite and political rulers of the day wouldn’t be caught dead with. Jesus continually sides with those who have been rejected, ignored, falsely accused, with those who have messed up, with those who don’t fit in.
Jesus refuses to play by the rules of what good and respectable religious people are supposed to do. And people who refuse to play by the rules are seen as a threat to insecure rulers.
So, maybe he is the one cast out. Rejected by society, he instead meets us at the cross. It’s not where we expect to see God, especially if we associate God with victory, with royalty, with winning. It turns the story upside down. It changes everything. It makes the unholy places holy. It offers the rejected people welcome. It brings hope when it seems like everything is lost. It takes the feast from the fancy banquet hall to the streets, the prisons, the hospital beds, to the corners of our deepest shame and sorrow.
After all, the very body of God has experienced public humiliation, pain, and death. And so Jesus shows up when we too are at our lowest and says “This is my body. This is the feast given for you.” Nothing more is required.
So what can these extra, over the top parables teach us? Well, maybe they remind us that just when we think we have things figured out – how to live, how to succeed, how to understand our history and these ancient stories passed down from our ancestors in faith…just when we think we know something, Jesus shakes things up by showing up in the places that God really isn’t supposed to be. God’s love is far too deep and wide to be constrained by any of the rules we try to place on it. It breaks every barrier, every interpretation, every assumption we carry about ourselves or our neighbors to meet us and claim us as God’s own.
Thanks be to God.