+ A sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on October 11, 2020 +
Texts: Isaiah 25:1-9, Matthew 22:1-4
I want you to do me a quick favor.
I want you to think back to the last time you were invited to a wedding.
And yes, I know it probably seems like forever since any of us have been able to go to a wedding—but think back.
I’ve been to quite a few weddings in recent years because I’m in that stage of life when a lot of friends are getting married.
But there has also been more than one invitation I’ve had to send my regrets.
I assume you’ve done the same.
There’s just no way to make it to every wedding.
But, looking back, there has not been a single time that I’ve declined a wedding invitation when the host sent an army to kill me and burn my town.
And thinking back to my own wedding, when my cousin threatened to flout the dress code and show up in jeans and a t-shirt, I somehow resisted the urge to banish her from the party and throw her into the outer darkness.
Today, Jesus describes to us what is possibly the worst wedding ever…maybe outside of Game of Thrones.
And honestly, this has got to be my least favorite parable from my least favorite gospel.
And I know I’m not alone in this, even Martin Luther himself called this a “terrible gospel” text that he hated to preach on.
Because any way you approach it, this is just an ugly story—more akin to dystopian or horror fiction than it is to gospel.
And yet, New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine reminds us that Jesus’ parables are meant to disturb us.
That if we aren’t provoked by his parables, we’re doing them and ourselves a disservice by not really seeing their potency in disrupting our lives, pushing us out of our comfort zones.
Even so, this particular parable stands out in its brutality and harshness.
The initial guest list is so adamant in their refusal to attend the wedding that they literally kill the messengers.
The king, who is hosting the party, is enraged and murders that guest list, burns their town, and, seemingly in an effort to pad his ego, packs the hall with people from the streets.
And yet, when one of these new, last minute guests isn’t dressed to his standards, the king orders him bound and thrown into the outer darkness.
What a joyous tale, huh?
For centuries now, preachers have grappled with this parable, trying to soften the edges and desperately sift for the good news amid its terror.
The most widely accepted interpretation has been one of allegory, in which each character is linked to a familiar person or group.
Traditionally, the role of the king has been assigned to God, the son/groom figure is Jesus, and the wedding feast is the great Messianic banquet.
The slaves sent to invite the guests are the Old Testament prophets and those who reject the invitations are the people of Israel.
And then, the nugget of good news is that we, the Gentiles, are those people who are gathered from the streets, “both good and bad,” filling the banquet hall.
And surely, we would be the ones to grab our best clothes and conform to the dress code, reveling in our good fortune at being invited and feasting with the king.
Now, on the face of it, this does sound like somewhat good news for us, doesn’t it?
It helps us make sense of a difficult passage by assuring us that we are being invited to the feast God is preparing.
But even this interpretation commits great violence.
Just under the thin veneer of good news, it fosters a dangerously anti-Semitic view of God.
It tells us that our Jewish ancestors and neighbors have lost their covenant relationship with God as the chosen people and we Gentiles have taken their place at the feast.
And this interpretation has indeed been weaponized against Jewish people for centuries, justifying violence and discrimination.
And, what’s more, we have to ask ourselves if this is really how we want to depict our God—a petty, arbitrary, murderous tyrant whose hurt feelings lead to the slaughter of his subjects and the utter destruction of entire towns.
I mean, is it any surprise, given this depiction of the king, that the subjects are so rude and unwilling to attend the prince’s wedding banquet?
That they even go so far as to commit murder rather than accept their king’s invitation?
This isn’t the type of ruler that evokes love and loyalty, he’s a source of terror and intimidation.
And I’m not sure the second round of invitees are much better—they accept the invitation to attend a feast while their neighbors have been murdered, while the towns around them burn.
Is this how we imagine the great heavenly banquet?
A giant party we’re relieved to be invited to as the world burns around us?
Do we really want to worship a God who so easily reneges on ancient covenants, commits heinous atrocities, and sets a feast for a few while banishing the rest to the outer darkness or worse?
Who welcomes in those living on the streets only to humiliate them and throw them out again when they don’t meet the standards of respectability?
Is that how we really envision our God?
One whose wrath falls upon those who don’t fit into our vision of the kingdom?
I guess I am worried that this interpretation, that the king is a stand-in for God, really does reveal to us what we think about God.
How we, assuming we’re in the second wave of guests, wittingly and unwittingly participate in these abhorrent methods.
How we’re feasting as the world burns.
How we’re complacent in the discrimination and violence and destruction that seems to reign across this globe.
And I guess I’m worried that we so easily show this side of ourselves to the world and pass it off as gospel—from street preacher yelling in bullhorns to ‘turn or burn,’ to the desire to impose our beliefs and ideology upon others, to our willingness to cozy up to empire and power.
I’m worried that this is how we choose to depict our God—a God who is easily offended and prone to anger.
A God whose holiness seems to depend on reputation and saving face.
A God who offers only conditional salvation; whose love operates through quid pro quo.
As much as I’ve tried to wrap my head around that interpretation this week, I just cannot find the comfort of good news buried in this view of the text.
Maybe others can.
After all, parables are intended to contain a multitude of meanings, to speak different things to different people in different situations.
And I imagine for the original audience of Matthew, there may indeed have been a sense of comfort in this story.
They were a community who were being persecuted by their family and neighbors for following Jesus.
They had likely just witnessed the burning of Jerusalem, their holy city, at the hands of the Roman Empire.
They were urning for divine justice that would vindicate them and remind them that God had called them to the heavenly banquet.
But we are not that early Matthean community.
We are not facing persecution for our faith or the destruction of our cities at the hands of tyrants.
If anything, we’re the ones all too willing to sacrifice the teachings of Jesus in order to hold onto power, to retain our favored place in society, to cozy up to the empire, dancing and feasting as the world burns around us.
So it makes sense that this parable would speak something different to this community in this context than it did to the first hearers of Matthew.
Jesus introduces this parable by saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.”
So, what happens if we do what he says?
What happens if we compare this story to, what I would argue, are better representations of the kingdom of heaven?
Perhaps to the feast which Isaiah foretold in our first reading where the tyrants are the ones who are brought down, whose power has been destroyed.
Where God “will make for all peoples, a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines…and the LORD will destroy on [that] mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; the LORD will swallow up death forever. Then the LORD GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces.”
This is a vision where death is not weaponized, but ended.
Where conformity is not a prerequisite and all people are welcomed to the feast.
Or perhaps we even look to the vision from Luke’s version of this same parable where he tells of a great feast without any murder or destruction, where the guests are welcomed from streets but are not banished for violating the dress code.
And while we’re comparing, what would happen if we compare our current reality with these visions?
Or, in the words of commentator Debie Thomas: “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’?”
This parable challenges us to really think about how we view God, how we view our neighbors, what we imagine an open welcome to look like.
It calls us to honestly examine how we’re doing in building up the kingdom of God.
Perhaps it’s only natural to try to assign roles in this story so we can make sense of it.
But rather than just assuming the king is God, what if we admitted that figure more closely resembles the tyrants of our world?
And his victims those who are unwilling or unable to conform to the systems of oppression?
What if the king represents the false promises the empires of today make, assuring prosperity and happiness through consumption of goods and products made through exploitive labor or workers making less than a living wage.
Or the promises of peace through political brinksmanship and ever-increasing military armament.
Or the promises of comfort and quality of life coming from practices that devastate the environment and contribute to global climate change.
Or the promise of law and order at the cost of innocent lives.
Or the promise of calm and a thriving economy at the risk of spreading a deadly disease.
And what if, the God figure is the one we least expect.
What if we see Jesus in the role of the guest who refuses to conform to the ways of his tyrannical king?
The one who perhaps enters the halls of power not for his own gain, but to resist the forces of evil.
The one who will not wear the robe of coerced celebration.
The one who refuses to feast on the fruits of violence and exclusion.
The one whose silent protest brings that bogus banquet to a screeching halt.
The one who is bound thrown out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Now, maybe you’re thinking this interpretation seems so contrary to our understanding of power and prestige that it borders on implausible.
It frankly flies so far in the face of tradition that many commentators discount this possibility as incredible.
And I admit, it is sometimes difficult to convince myself that this silent, despised outsider is truly the Christ-figure in this story.
But stay with me, because just a few days after Jesus told this parable in the courtyard of the Temple in Jerusalem, he himself would throw a feast—we now call it the Last Supper—and he would knowingly invite his own betrayer to eat with him.
And hours after that meal, Jesus himself would be stripped of his own robes, stand in front of the religious authorities and King Herod and Governor Pilate in silent defiance.
And enraged by his insolence, those tyrants would bind him and throw him out onto the cross.
And then, on the third day, Jesus would rise again, proclaiming an end to the rule of these wicked rulers through the inauguration of his heavenly kingdom, trampling death itself in his new resurrection life.
And overcoming the ways of tyrants, our resurrected Lord invites all people to the banquet of life—a meal we taste each time we celebrate the Eucharistic feast, where the shroud of death is lifted and we commune with all the saints of every time and place.
This is the view we get of our God—one who stands against the tyrants of the world and works for transformation.
A God who does not force us into submission but invites us into a community of life with a wide and loving embrace.
A Savior who does not destroy those who rejected him but sets the table of abundance with an open invitation for all people, a pure and free gift without coercion.
But there’s one more role to assign in this parable, isn’t there?
And perhaps it is the most difficult of all to answer honestly.
Where are we in the story?
Are we throwing on our best robes and rushing to the feast?
Ignoring the weeping and gnashing of teeth we pass?
Oblivious to the burning earth and violence done in our name?
Or are we steadfast in our refusal to abide such things?
Are we willing to lose our place in the halls of power to follow our Lord in resistance to tyranny, seeking the true power of God’s kingdom?
I hope this parable disturbs you, my friends.
I hope it forces us to take stock of how we envision God and how we work with Christ to build the kingdom.
And I hope it compels each of us to look for Jesus and where he is leading us through this enigmatic story.
I hope you wrestle with this strange and provocative parable, beloved.
And wherever you end up with it, may we reject the spoiled food of empire and come gladly to the abundant feast to taste and see that the Lord is good.
May we put an end to the ways of fear and violence modeling our welcome on God’s own.
May we reject the false promises of wicked rulers and defiantly cling to the new life of Christ’s resurrection.
Thomas, Debie. “The God Who Isn’t.” Journey with Jesus, October 4, 2020. https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2777-the-god-who-isn-t
Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. 2014