The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.

 

Murder and Mayhem

Giving up the whole God-is-a-bastard thing.

By Debbie Blue

Gospel Reading: Matthew 22: 1-14

For Sunday, October 9, 2011: Year A—Ordinary 28

This parable is scary and violent. The king is petty, murderous and arbitrarily cruel. Who would want to go to his party?

Boycott and Resist

But people don’t normally refuse an offer from a king (or Don Corleone)– even an awful paranoid king like Herod the Great who had little babies slaughtered, according to Matthew, executed his wife and sons according to Josephus (Caesar Augustus said, “it is better to be Herod’s pig than his son”). That the characters in this story boycott the king makes them seem a little brave.

Some hearers of this story must have been attracted to the characters that refuse to dance when the king calls. Their kings were minions of the Roman Empire and they weren’t very nice. The way of God’s people has always been to resist the summons of worldly power. I feel a little sorry for the king that no one wanted to come to his party, but he is a bully. I like The Resistance.

Choking on the Fat Calf

But then the rebels disappoint. They treat the king’s slaves shamefully and kill them. No one looks very good in this story. It’s a familiar one.

The king retaliates explosively. He sends in the army and burns the rebel city down. Those left alive after the murderous rampage—walking the streets because their homes were torched—are rounded up for the banquet.

Somehow this doesn’t seem like a fun time. I imagine them sitting at the tablet all petrified and anxious. I doubt they were dancing and enjoying their food—more like choking it down tight throats, ready to see blood spill across the roast of lamb when the king is somehow slighted.

And then it Happens

The king spots someone without a wedding robe!

I wonder how anyone would have dressed properly in the midst of the burning carnage. But the king centers his sights on this one, makes him the sacrificial, speechless victim, tells the servants to prepare him like a lamb for slaughter and throw him into the outer darkness. The king says, “many are called but few are chosen.” Just the one is chosen here? Bound and gagged and cast out?

Humble, and Mounted on an Ass

Matthew constantly contrasts the Empire kingdom with the kingdom of God. If there really even is what could be called a king in God’s kingdom, it would look like Jesus. Jesus says he comes not to be served, but to serve. That’s really different. He tells this parable after his “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem: “Behold your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass.” That’s so different it’s funny.

Luke’s version of the parable doesn’t include a king or violence. Maybe Matthew tweaks it for his own purpose, his anti-empire bent. Does Matthew really mean for us to compare the violent king to God, or to contrast him to Jesus? Who’s the man without the robe? Could this be a critique of the way the Empire works? Right after Jesus tells this parable, the Pharisees try to entrap him with the question of paying tax to Caesar. Jesus answers: “give to Caesar what is Caesars, give to God what is Gods.” Armies and taxes and violence, retaliation and cruelty belong to Caesar not to God.

The Hardest Question

The storyteller is God incarnate (so our faith proclaims) not the enraged king in the parable, and yet so much of the Christianity I grew up in got its image of God from these scary parables—based its image of God on the angry, violent, king. Why does the image of God as a sadistic brutal violent tyrant persist even in the face of Jesus? Does it say something about us?


Debbie Blue is one of the founding pastors of House of Mercy in St. Paul, MN, the author of Sensual Orthodoxy and From Stone to Living Word. She lives on a farm with her family, friends, and animals

Comments

  1. Grant says:

    I too am struggling with this king in the parable. This world’s royalty inherited their wealth and status from the plunder and abuse of past generations of the poor and powerless. In the face of world hunger and poverty, royal weddings are boring displays of trite and empty sycophants gone mad.

    Yet in this parable also I see some glimpses of Jesus. Hell is not God’s choice, but ours. We can turn God’s invitation down. The invitation is also inclusive of all. There is no exclusive invitation to a snobbish elite. And this royal family is also different, willing to die for the people.

  2. jeff says:

    I have always preached this story assuming that “we” are the person who is thrown out, because of our lack of proper clothes. Of course, that doesn’t make a great interpretation of the king. But what if that interpretation is compleatly wrong. What if Jesus is talking about himself here. He is the one who shows up and looks different in our “little kingdoms” of selfishness. He is the one that we would rather throw out of the party because He doesn’t fit in. —That would make for a different sermon, I think.

    Could this story be about our kingdoms and not the kingdom of God?

  3. Thanks, Debbie, for your honest reflection. This is a tough passage. I’m struggling with what to do with it.

    Jeff, I like your reading here. In the video, Russell says something similar. Seeing Jesus might be about the only way to reconcile this parable with the rest of Jesus’ life and teaching.

    This parable follows Jesus talking tough with the chief priests and elders…maybe this one is continuing that line of thought? That those who assume they are the “in” group are misguided?

    Could it be that the moment we decide we’re “in” is the moment we’ve become “out”?

  4. Jennifer says:

    This is a hard passage. I hate it. Maybe one week I’d preach on it, but it’s not going to be this one. If this is what the kingdom of heaven is like, please don’t invite me to that party. That’s certainly not the kind of king or host I want to hang out with.

  5. Matt says:

    Like many of you I have struggled with this text. It seems as if there are two parables instead of one. But after some careful reading and prayer I have wondered if the person who is thrown out is someone who has not fully embraced God. Many times we imagine ourselves as fully clothed in Christ but we know better. Perhaps, until we are fully clothed we will not be received into the party. Maybe this can be seen as a message of sanctification.

    I am intrigued by your thoughts Jeff regarding Jesus as the man tossed out. It is something I am entertaining. Thanks to all who have shared thoughts and struggles with this passage.

  6. Nadia says:

    Debbie Blue never disappoints. Great post!

  7. Rebekah Eckert says:

    To help our hearers (if we’re preaching this thing!) I think we have to offer some clear answers to several questions: are we reading this as a parable (the story with the surprise inside!) or an allegory (Matthew’s Moral Morsels)? Do we read it as the red-letter edition (out of the mouths of Jesus) or as the modification of the original (consider especially how the Lukan and Gospel of Thomas versions are almost identical, while Matthew’s has most of the nasty bits)?

    If we don’t answer those questions I think we’re being unfair to our listeners. Jeff’s reading is a lot of fun, and I wish it were true. I could do a version of what I call my Lego sermon: what can you build with the stone even a king rejected? But I’m jaded enough now to say even though it would be fun I don’t think it’s fair. That’s not what Matthew means – it’s a nasty bloodthirsty violent tale that’s intended to bludgeon the hearers – or at least coral us into conformity.

    Sorry if this is too blunt – there’s been a lot of playing church this week, and I’m bone-weary of it.

  8. Tom says:

    First, I agree with everyone that this is a most difficult parable. It is supposed to happen during holy week and surely Jesus’ knowledge of what is to come and the audience who is listening to this parable give us an environment to consider.

    But I simply don’t see how Jesus ever used being cast into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and nashing of teeth to refer to himself. If we reverse it all and make the king and his servants the bad guys, as many are contemplating here, it makes the people who reject the invitation and kill the stewards the good guys. This would be hard to accept as something Jesus would advocate. And Jesus sneaks in to no one’s party.

    The king is a tyrant because he punishes those who kill his servants? The king is bad because he rejects the one who refuses the wedding garment which would be freely offered him? Remember that the man without the wedding garments must have crashed the party as the steward would not have let him in. He is trying to eat the kings’s goods while rejecting the king’s own hospitality.

    I think what makes this parable hard is we don’t want God to judge anyone anymore.

    Sorry if I see it differently but Jesus does talk about judgment frequently although we are loath to preach it today.

  9. Drew Downs+ says:

    What Debbie does is to begin where the gospel is heard, not where we are at, which is essential. I don’t see how we can even entertain this pericope as it is (rather than ignore it and read only Luke’s version) without dealing with what Jesus was saying and to whom. I think Debbie has nailed how these good Jewish people would have understood the tyranny of a king. It has me wondering why, even in light of our own public anti-government rantings by even members of the government, it is so hard for us to read this parable as speaking about an earthly king and not God. That the very intent of this gospel is as critique. Wouldn’t that critique be just as essential for us?

  10. Debbie Blue says:

    I love this discussion. I had hoped to at least get us asking if the man without the garment might somehow, somewhere be Jesus. It is really a very old and beautiful theological insight that Jesus is judged in our place. I think the biblical witness is usually pretty ambiguous about who the good guys and the bad guys are–or anyway, the good guys in one place end up being the bad guys in another. God’s people throughout the text are not that good. In this parable pretty much everyone seems like a bad guy to me (with the exception of the man thrown out–who seems a little like an innocent victim).

    I like that we have a midrashic sort of community here, where a multiplicity of interpretations are presented and argued. Thanks everybody!

  11. Debbie Blue says:

    Oh, and since I was writing posts on both this text and the Exodus text I preached on this one a few weeks ago. You can listen to what I ended up with at http://www.houseofmercy.org/?p=1747.

    I’m looking forward to preaching on Exodus. Jennifer, you should just go with the Exodus.

  12. Karen Golden says:

    I’ve heard a very different take on this reading recently from a youth pastor in Florida. He connected the parable with Zechariah 3. He suggested that the king freely offers the wedding clothes to everyone so the guest without has chosen to take on the filthy garments of sin. He sees Jesus as this guest referred to as “Friend” and when accused has “nothing to say”.

  13. Holly says:

    I think this is more an allegory than a parable, like the two ‘parables’ (allegories) in the lectionary for the previous two weeks, it’s aimed at the Pharisees who are invited (or who were hired as the tenants a week ago or who said ‘yes’ but didn’t go work in the field two weeks ago) and refused Christ’s invitation to the Kingdom of God (or Heaven, as Matthew refers to it). The second section of this allegory about the wedding garment completely confuses me. But I read John Wesley’s sermon on it (for once I could get through his very heady text) and his take on the wedding guest was that he wasn’t clothed with righteousness–right relationship with Jesus…for what it’s worth.

  14. Tom says:

    Folks, if you take the cross to mean that we aren’t going to be judged, you put Jesus in the position of telling countless parables and offering teachings that have no purpose. If Jesus only came to die on the cross for us, period, his ministry would have no purpose.

    To make Jesus the one who is cast out and “there will be gnashing of teeth” has no parallel in Scripture and takes all of Jesus’ warnings to us and cast them out instead.

    I love ‘the hardest question’ but we are trying to take the easy path if we turn this parable on its head.

  15. Kel says:

    Though “refusing to come” and “pa[ying] no attention” is a common rant of preachers re: this parable, let’s choose instead to focus on a new(?) application: Jesus as the”man there who was not wearing wedding clothes.” “What are you giving Jesus for a wedding present?” we could ask. Refusal? Ignorance (two-pronged meaning)? Pre-occupation–pun intended (“one to his field, another to his business”)? That’s bad enough but, truth be told, it’s worse than that as far as we are concerned: like “[t]he rest,” we seize his servants (“That nagging pastor!”), mistreat them and, worst of all, kill them–er, Him! (No pastoral exemptions here, so don’t get so self-righteous, you worship-because-you-must/it’s-your-job preachers!) It’s bad enough that we wear the wedding garment made for Jesus but, horror of horrors, we stoop so low as to “[t]ie Him hand and foot, and throw Him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Talk about a monster/monstrous mash–er, bash! Yet, resurrected, He stoops lower than we to re-extend the invitation–again and again and again. High Way Robe-ery!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] shaping my thoughts this week is the engaging discussion of the Matthew passage happening at The Hardest [...]

  2. [...] Debbie Blue, “Murder and Mayhem: Giving up the whole God-is-a-bastard thing.” Available at http://thehardestquestion.org/yeara/ordinary28gospel/. You can listen to her sermon “Murder and Mayhem” (Sept 4, 2011) at [...]

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