Sunday, October 15, 2017
With verses like: 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. and
The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.
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.”
With verses like these, it’s easy to understand why teachings on this parable will never be found in any Sunday School curriculum. Indeed, the parable that Jesus offers about the kingdom of heaven in today’s gospel text is bizarro world and confounds us, and, I suspect, makes us a little uneasy. It’s easy, of course, to agree with a text that describes everyone–good and bad–as being invited to the wedding banquet that a king throws. It’s a whole other can of worms to be dealing with slaves being killed, troops marching on and razing a city, and an innocent man bound and thrown into the outer darkness for nothing more than what appears to be a fashion faux pas.
So what is going on here? Well a few reflections about the context of the parable, a few reflections about the meaning of the parable, and a twist that is always a part of parables.
To begin, we have been reading this section of Matthew over the past few weeks, and it is clear that Jesus is having it out with the religious leaders of his day. Indeed, this is the third parable that Jesus uses to answer the religious leaders’ question by what right does he teach on their turf. Jesus’ answer is pointed and provocative. According to the parable, Jesus basically says that the religious leaders have frittered away their invitation to the great banquet, and, thus, everyone else is welcomed in. They are on the outs. Those who follow Jesus are coming in.
However, the transition from one community to the next is extremely violent. Why is this necessary? Particularly, if we believe in a God of love, why the need to be so cruel? Ironically, it is, perhaps, apropos that we are reading J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy for our book club today, for his explication of hillbilly life in
Kentucky and Ohio expresses the power of family that is the backdrop for what we read in Matthew. This is, ultimately, what is going on in Matthew’s text. We are not just reading about Jesus’ tiff with the religious leaders of his day; we are witnessing the breakdown of families in the early first century around remaining true to the God of Israel or showing fealty to this fledgling movement of Jesus followers.
In Vance’s hillbilly life, there is nothing stronger than family. Family holds a sacred bond. All show allegiance to the family. Come hell or high water, the family abides. Until it doesn’t. And if that happens? Watch out! If you betray the family according to the hillbilly code, you aren’t just figuratively dead to the family, you may find yourself literally dead as well. This, also, is part of what is going on in Matthew. The fledgling community of Jesus followers justifies its existence over the dominant family practice. Indeed, the Roman destruction of the
temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE is interpreted by many in the early church as a sign of God’s displeasure with their Israelite family and a justification of their practice. Thus, the violence of the king toward those who reject his banquet invitation simply describes a horrendous event–the temple destruction–that happened in real time for that early community. Unfortunately, this event has been used to justify anti-Semitism throughout the history of the church. It never should. We are witness only to an internal family feud, not a religious litmus test.
Ironically, what was once a justification for a fledgling community can become a judgment against that community centuries later. We no longer are the minority community in the first century. Christianity–right or wrong, good or bad, justified or not–has held a position of power within Western culture for centuries. While there are immeasurable blessings and beauty that have come from this position of power, there has also come a good deal of abuse and misuse. We, perhaps unwittingly, have acceded to a position where we may very well be the group that Jesus was railing against. Have we become those who reject the king’s invitation? Karoline Lewis offers an important critique of our contemporary condition:
Jesus called out the leader of the synagogue for this very thing —
that one who represents God, who speaks for God, who acts for God, finds
it acceptable to eschew life in favor of church as it has always been, in favor of a fear of systems and institutions rather than a fear of God.
Somewhere along the line, we have let go of what is central to Christianity — life, liberty, and love — and latched on to an idolatrous Christianity that has as its golden calf a hypocritical mix of second amendment rights, religious freedom, and bought loyalties.
Thus, when a move from marginalized to powerful is made, the roles are reversed. How we read the story may very well depend upon where we are sitting.
Regardless, of where we find ourselves–among those who are the primary invitees or the great unwashed, ALL the people good and bad–the end of the parable is a conundrum. The man without the wedding garment–basically festive garb or Sunday best to borrow a colloquium–is identified by the king, bound, and thrown into the outer darkness. What is going on here? The man did nothing wrong. If he was invited from the “main street,” he wouldn’t be wearing festive garb, nor would he necessarily have access to such clothing. So why does the king respond in this way?
If we can step back for a moment, we often impose a particular framework to parables. Often we read them allegorically, and we have done so for part of this reflection. God is king. First century Israel are the initial guests. The fledgling Christian community are the second wave of invitees. However, what if we played around for a moment with the final sentence? Many are called, but few are chosen. We assume that this statement refers to us. We are all called. Are we the chosen ones? Seems to be the implication. And how, exactly, do you move from called to chosen beyond a particular wardrobe decision?
However, within our tradition, we recognize that only one is chosen, and his chosenness makes for our membership in the family of God. Call it grace. Indeed, the thrust of the parable is precisely about the inability of any of the guests to do anything that makes them worthy to join in the banquet. They simply are invited.
And the invitation comes as the early church develops precisely through the actions of one who is bound and beaten and thrown into that place of darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. In a twist, what if Jesus alludes to himself in the final part of the parable. What if he is the one who is rejected? Bound? Thrown out? It’s only from this perspective that the question of, “How am I welcome to
the banquet? And where did my garment come from?” now makes sense. Well, of course, Jesus gave you his.