Sunday, March 12, 2023

Phil Kniss: The terrible parable

Lent 3: Jesus reveals the costly grace of God’s realm
Matthew 22:1-14

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Today’s parable is a perfect example of why we need to consider
context when approaching scripture.
It’s dangerous NOT to.
It can lead not only to faulty interpretation,
but to tragic real-life outcomes.

Take Matthew’s version of the parable of the wedding banquet,
pull it out of its narrative context and its political context,
read it as an isolated parable,
and you will find one of the strangest, and most violent,
and most off-putting stories of Jesus in the Gospels.
Out of context, it’s a terrible parable.

When reading it out of context,
people looking for justification of violence, can find it here.
And well-meaning gentle readers
will try to make it tamer than what it actually is.
They will bend over double
to find a non-violent way to read it.
But they will fail, because it can’t be done.
Or, they will totally avoid it,
and turn instead to Luke’s version of the Great Banquet story.
That one has no violence.
The worst that happened in Luke,
is some people missed out on a fine banquet.
Nobody got tortured and killed.
No cities got burned.
And no one, due to wearing the wrong outfit
got bound hand and foot, and thrown into the outer darkness,
where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.

I know if I was told to preach a banquet parable,
and was given a choice between Matthew 22 and Luke 14,
I would not be preaching from today’s Gospel.
But today I don’t have a choice.
Thanks a lot, Narrative Lectionary!
No, really! Thank you.
Because I have had to wrestle honestly with this story
to preach from this text for the . . . (count on fingers)
first time . . . ever.

Okay, let’s review the basic elements of this terrible parable.
The king’s son, the prince and heir to the throne we assume,
was getting married, and that’s a big deal.
The king sent his servants out with invites
to everyone who deserved to be at the royal wedding banquet.
Listen, they are being invited to dine with their future king.
But every last one refused, it tells us in v. 3.

So the servants went out again, to do a better sell-job, v. 4.
They said, look, there’s going to be food galore!
Freshly-butchered local beef.
Fattened calves. The works! It’ll be great!

This time, half the invitees laughed in the face of the servants,
and went back to work on their farm, or place of business.
The other half responded in a violent rage,
first torturing, then killing the innocent messengers.

In retribution, the king marshalled his army,
killed all the people who refused his invitation,
and then burned their city to the ground.

And then they went on with their merry banquet.
Inviting everyone they could still find . . . alive—
good and bad—Matthew says, v. 10.
And they filled the hall.

But when the king walked in,
he saw one guest not wearing the proper wedding robe,
and when confronted, the man had no answer,
so the king had him bound hand and foot,
outer darkness, weeping, teeth-gnashing, all that.

Cool story, huh?
This parable is not just terrible. It’s unbearable.

So, this is the Gospel of Matthew.
Where is the Gospel word here?
Where is the good news?

You can see what I mean,
it’s pretty hard to ignore the violence,
and pretend this story is only about the wonderful news
that all are invited to the great banquet—
every race and nation.

Nope. Sorry. That’s the way Luke tells the story.
Matthew clearly has a different agenda in mind
in repeating Jesus’ story in his Gospel.

There is some serious judgment going on here.

Which brings us again to the context,
to which we keep circling back in this series.
We are working within the widely-held scholarly view
that the Gospel of Matthew was written first
for the community of Jewish Jesus followers in Antioch,
around 70 AD, near the time when Caesar’s army
laid siege and laid waste to their holy city of Jerusalem,
leaving the temple in a pile of rubble,
and killing up to one million Jewish people.

So stop and think about that for a minute.
You and your family are of a race and a religion
that the Empire is trying to crush, to obliterate.
This is the Empire that, just a few years ago,
succeeded in destroying
every treasured and holy place of your people,
and massacred great numbers of your own relatives—
aunts, uncles, cousins—
the very people you used to look forward to visiting,
and eating at their tables,
and sleeping in their homes,
every time you went to Jerusalem for Passover.
They are now dead.
And the temple doesn’t exist.

This is the Empire that rules Antioch, your home town.
Most of your neighbors are loyal and supportive
Roman citizens of this Empire.
To make matters even worse,
the only people in town you could actually talk to
about your trauma and loss and continuing fears
are your fellow Jews.
And your Jewish community has divided against itself,
because of the growing movement
of those, like you, who say Jesus was the Messiah.
That division has hardened, on both sides,
to the point you are no longer part of a movement within,
but a group separated from the synagogue.

YOU . . . are the ones to whom Matthew is writing the Gospel of Jesus.

Friends, understanding that context makes all the difference.
It puts the violence in this parable into some perspective.
A story of a king’s army killing the enemy and burning their cities,
is not just a terrible parable—it is lived reality.
The Antiochan Christians, and their loved ones,
have been at the sharp end of the King’s sword.

It is a mistake to read this parable as if Matthew wants all people,
everywhere, and at all times,
to picture God in heaven as violent and vengeful and bloodthirsty.
That might seem like the straightest reading of this story.
But we live in relative peace and freedom,
We experience faith as a pleasant add-on to life,
instead of central to an identity that might get us killed.

Matthew’s readers were in a unique position to hear this story,
and to see the king as a symbol of justice
against all who had a hand in getting Jesus killed,
and who continue to oppress them today.

The church in Antioch could hear this parable,
and see themselves, finally,
as not just a helpless and hapless minority community,
but as the unlikely people who have just been invited
to the King’s Table to dine in luxury.
That tables have been turned.
Those who rejected Jesus,
or stood in the way of Jesus,
or, like the Roman Empire, crucified Jesus—
have had the tables turned on them.
They are missing out on the meal.
They have been consigned to the outer darkness.

But those who accepted the invitation
to the Messianic wedding banquet—
they are . . . finally . . . safe, secure, well-fed.

This is, in fact, a good news story for people of faith
who have experienced oppression
who have been silenced,
who have been pushed away from the table . . .
but are now the honored guests at the king’s table.

Okay . . . But then, what about this unfortunate guest
who came to the banquet in the wrong clothes?

Like the other parts of this story,
it’s a metaphor.
It’s not meant to teach us how to treat our guests.

Again, put yourself in the shoes of Antiochan Christians.
You would have been well aware
of the apostle Paul’s life and letters.
Paul spent time with you there in Antioch.
And Paul’s letters came earlier
than the compiling of this Gospel.
So by the time you heard this parable for the first time,
you already knew all about Paul’s talk of
clothing yourselves in Christ.
And you would have been quite familiar
with the practice of caution and secrecy
that Christians in the Empire adopted to survive.
As a threatened community,
you always had to be on the lookout for infiltrators,
maybe Roman spies, or your own townspeople,
people who pretended to be one of you,
to gather intelligence to be used against you.
So you had to develop secret symbols, like the shape of the fish,
or other means of telling true disciples from false.

So this story tells about a guest who came without proper attire.
You’d get this metaphor without having it explained to you.
Here is someone only pretending to be on the side
of those sitting at the Messianic banquet.
But he is not actually clothed in Christ.
And he was found out.
And had no credible answer for himself.
And the bouncer threw him out, rightly so.

You see,
we usually read this parable from our place of comfort and security,
and as people who tend to see faith
as something that’s convenient for us,
that enhances our social connections,
rather than as something that endangers us,
or turns our lives upside down.

When we read this story properly,
it can still be good news for us all,
that is, if we take our faith seriously.

It tells us
that our trust in Jesus is worth something!
It’s worth investing in,
worth taking risks for,
worth taking unpopular stands for,
worth even dying for, if it ever came to that.

It tells us that the God of justice will fight for us,
and for others whose lives are threatened.
We need not cower in the shadows.
We can live in the light of Jesus.

And it proclaims the good news, after all,
that everyone—everyone—who says yes to God’s broad invitation
is welcome at the banquet,
when they come in good faith.

Thanks be to God.

In response, let’s read a confession together in unison.
It will be on the screens, as well as in Voices Together, 908.

It’s a prayer written by Jan Richardson,
expressing our trust in a God who will work with us,
even those caught in a quagmire of violence,
in a world that is broken and frayed.

It’s both a prayer for God to intervene with justice and healing,
as well as a statement of confidence that God will do just that.

Let’s read it in unison, poetically, with an ever-so-slight pause
at the end of each line.

From all that is broken,
let there be beauty.
From what is torn, jagged,
ripped, frayed,
let there be
not just mendings
but meetings unimagined.
May the God in whom
nothing is wasted
gather up every scrap,
every shred and shard,
and make of them
new paths,
Jan Richardson (USA), © 2010

—Phil Kniss, March 11, 2023

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