A Provocation: Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost: October 15, 2017: Matthew 22:1-14

Matthew 22:1-14
22:1 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying:

22:2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.

22:3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come.

22:4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’

22:5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business,

22:6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.

22:7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.

22:8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.

22:9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’

22:10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

22:11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe,

22:12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.

22:13 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.’

22:14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

A Question or Two:

  • Would you invite people like that to your child’s wedding?
  • Would you GO to a wedding like that?

Some Longer Reflections:

This parable makes no sense.  At the very least, it is offensive.  The king has time to launch an attack on the city of his unworthy guests, kill them all and burn their city, all between killing the fatted calves and serving the appetizers.  Really?  And before that, the unworthy guests kill the messengers that invite them to a feast?  Seriously?  And the substitute guests, gathered off the street randomly, are expected to be wearing tuxedos?  And the one guy who is not so attired is bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness?  So now we have the death penalty for the dress code?

There is nothing proportionate or balanced here.  If this is meant to be a picture of how God deals with Creation, this is not a God worthy of the name.

I mean it.

This scene (and many others like it) are what convinced me to pay closer attention to the way Matthew tells his story of Jesus, the messiah who escaped genocide.  I sketched this interpretive line in this blog last week.  And I made the argument at greater length in my book, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storyteller’s Commentary.

You can read my argument in those places if you would like.

This week I am fixated on this strange parable.

If we are meant to decode parables by figuring out which character is God, which is us, and which is our opponent, this parable is dangerous, and for obvious reasons.

But parables are not coded allegories, and Adolf Jülicher taught us that roughly a century ago.  Parables, Jülicher taught us, are focused stories that make a single point.  This was a good lesson.  Even when parables seem to make more than a single point, still the parable itself is a crafted story, and works the way any well-told story works.  Stories, even very short ones, project worlds in which the story takes place.  These worlds stand in tension with the world we think we live in.  This is true for every novel, every story, but it is especially true for parables, which are (as John Dominic Crossan taught us 40 years ago) world-disruptors.  Until you have felt the earth shaking, you have not discovered the real force of a parable.

There are other interpreters of the parables whose work we should read, but Jülicher and Crossan will give us a place to start with the parable in this preaching text.  Following their lead, there are a few questions we should ask:

  1. What is the world created by this little story?  It is a world with kings, and therefore it is a world with subjects.  It is a world structured hierarchically, a world in which power holds things in the place that kings want them held.  That goes a long way toward explaining one oddity in this little story: it starts with an occasion of joy (“a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son”) and ends in murderous rage, which is acted out by both the subjects and the king.  The rage reveals that the joy is a veneer, a light coat of paste wax over the crude working of the machinery of power.  The subjects attempt a rebellion and the king destroys their city.The rage is also revealed in the king’s response to the guest (compelled to attend) who did not have a wedding garment.  You can invent any number of explanations for this odd reaction if you somehow need to make the king look justified.  Interpreters have done exactly that for centuries.  But the king’s violent and disproportionate reaction is best read as a revelation of the raw power that makes the world of the parable what it is.In that world, the king fails at controlling his subjects and his failure makes him insecure.  Worried monarchs are dangerous monarchs: they are likely to erupt in rage.
  2. What makes the earth shake in this parable?  

For the king, the answer is easy: the king’s world is shaken by his inability to command respect.  When his world is shaken, he erupts in destructive rage.  Even if we judge that the murder of his son is what set him off, still his rage is destructive and unreasoning.  He destroys an entire city.  He throws a man into the outer darkness (bound hand and foot) for not wearing a tuxedo.  When the king’s security is shaken, he reveals that everyone else’s security is an illusion.

For the audience for the parable, the question of the cause of the earthquake is somewhat more complicated.  If the king’s violence offends the audience, then the violence itself is the earthquake, especially when the parable is presented as if we are to identify the king with God.  In that case, the audience is shaken by what the king does, and out of being shaken emerges a resistant interpretation.  Which is unsettling, even for people who have learned to ask hard questions of biblical texts.

But the earthquake is even more unsettling when the audience is NOT offended by the king’s actions.  Then they approve of the anger; then they are sucked into sharing the anger.

On the one hand, sharing the king’s anger will offend people around the audience.  Anger reinforces itself.  That seems true enough.  But anger also divides, splitting communities into groups of Us and Them, with Us standing in sharp opposition to Them.

As a result, anger also isolates.  The edges erode around the group of Us that is defined by our anger at Them.  Having already concluded that there is no possible connection between Us and Them, it is distressing to discover that the group of Us grows smaller, and thus more isolated.

And this increases Our anger at Them.  People leave Us because they begin to conclude that anger is destructive.  This also causes an earthquake.

Eventually, a small hardcore group of Us is left, united only by the purity of their anger, and they have to decide whether pure anger, and angry purity, are enough.

This is exactly the situation that I think exists at the end of Matthew’s story, and the last person to abandon Us is Jesus himself.  When he accuses God of abandoning him at the moment of his death, Jesus exhausts his purity.  When God raises him from the dead, his anger no longer operates.  Given the chance to split his final audience into a group of Us (the remnant of believers) and Them (those who, the storyteller informs us, doubt), Jesus abandons both anger and purity and sends the whole mixed crowd out to train people in grace and forgiveness.

This may be the biggest earthquake of them all.


2 thoughts on “A Provocation: Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost: October 15, 2017: Matthew 22:1-14

  1. James E Fowler, DMin

    Pastor, Trinity Lutheran Church

    816 East Clark Street

    Vermillion, SD 57069

    Church: (605) 624-4442

    Cell: (281) 851-457


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