15 October 2017

A Disturbing Parable (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
Sunday October 15, 2017
Reading:  Matthew 22:1-14 (with brief reference to the readings from Exodus and Philippians)

Confession time.  I don’t like the parable that we just read.  I mean, I really don’t like it.  It’s a very violent story.  It’s a story with escalating violence.  And it’s a very judgemental story.  We have the innocent slaves who are delivering the king’s invitation abused and killed by those to whom they are delivering the invitation – a case of ignoring the old adage, don’t shoot the messenger.  And in retaliation for killing his slaves, the king then sends an army to kill the murderers and burn their city.

And then this same king has a member of the second group of invitees bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  And what was his crime?  Not wearing the right robe to the wedding.

So I really don’t like this parable.  When I looked at the readings for today, I was tempted to speak about one of the other readings.  There is the great story in Exodus about Aaron building the golden calf and God threatening to destroy the people for idolatry.  But then Moses intercedes for the people and God repents.  God’s mind was changed by Moses’ pleading, and God didn’t destroy the people.  What a great sermon that would have been – if even God is able to repent and change, then surely we can repent too.

And then there’s the reading from Philippians where Paul, writing from prison to the church in Philippi, encourages the people to rejoice and to know the peace that God gives.  If Paul in prison can know joy and peace and thanksgiving, then surely we can too.  There’s another easy sermon that I could have written.

But in the end, I realized that it wouldn’t be fair to read a violent and disturbing parable and then to leave it there without trying to unpack it a bit.  So I still don’t like this parable, but I am going to look at it with you.

First of all, what is there that is good in this parable?  Right off the top, Jesus compares God’s kingdom to a wedding banquet.  This makes me think of the weddings that I have attended.  Whether the wedding is celebrated in a church or outdoors in someone’s back yard, weddings are times of joy and love.  There is often an abundance of yummy food to eat.  Anyone who has ever worked with a bride will also know the care and attention to the details of decorations and setting.  Nothing is left to chance, and everything is carefully planned out to reflect the celebration.  There is usually music and dancing.  So I am good with this image – the kingdom of God can be compared to a wedding celebration.

Another good thing that I see in this parable is that the king keeps on extending an invitation.  Even when the people refuse his first invitation in verse 3, the king invites them again in verse 4.  When the second invitation is refused in verses 5 and 6, the king still doesn’t give up – he sends an invitation to a new group of people.  This is a persistent king – he wants people at this wedding banquet he is throwing.  From this, I can take comfort that the invitation to the kingdom of God isn’t a one-off invitation.  If you miss the first invitation, they will keep on coming.

Is anyone familiar with the Harry Potter books or movies?  In the first one, the school of Hogwarts is trying to get in touch with Harry to invite him to school, but his Aunt and Uncle don’t want Harry to receive the correspondence.  An owl is sent carrying the message, but when that owl is turned away, another owl comes, and then another, until there are thousands of owls perched on top of the house, all trying to deliver the invitation.  This is what I picture the invitation to the kingdom of heaven to be like.  No matter how persistent we are at refusing it; God is even more persistent in trying to deliver the invitation.

But then what can we do with the escalating violence of this parable?  I think that here, we have to look at the context – both the context of Jesus as he told this parable, and the context of the community to whom Matthew was writing his gospel.

In the storyline of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is telling this parable very close to the end of his life.  He has entered Jerusalem on a donkey in the parade that we normally celebrate on Palm Sunday.  The morning after he gets to Jerusalem, Jesus goes into the temple and starts debating with the leaders who were there.  Things escalate quickly.

Remember that Jesus of Nazareth lived and died as a Jewish man in first-century Palestine.  He didn’t set out to start a new religion.  Rather, he seems to have been trying to reform the Jewish religion, calling people back to live in the way that God wanted the people to live.  And here he is, debating with the leaders of the temple – he is right at the very heart of his religion.  Three days later, Jesus would be arrested, and four days later he would be nailed to a cross.

I like how David Lose describes this situation.  He writes that “we are catching a glimpse of the low point in an intense family feud.”[1]  And so it isn’t surprising that Jesus’ stories are now becoming more and more violent and disturbing.

And then if we step outside of the story for a minute and look at the context in which Matthew was writing, you will find another violent context.  Matthew’s gospel was likely written around 40 years after Jesus had died.  There had been a revolt by the Jewish people against the Roman empire in Jerusalem that had lasted for four years, and which had ended with the almost total destruction of the temple in which Jesus is teaching in today’s story.  Much of the city of Jerusalem had also been destroyed.  The community that Matthew was a part of was intimately familiar with the sort of violence described in the parable – murdering those on the other side, and burning the city.

So we have violence in the world of Jesus, and the violence in the world in which Matthew was writing.  I’m glad that I live in a world without so much overt violence, but in ways this parable makes me think of certain events going on in the world today that are usually described in the news as “escalating tensions.”  One side does something, and the other side retaliates with something worse.  It doesn’t usually happen as quickly as in the parable where refusing an invitation is met with murder is met with full-scale war; but the truth is that we too are living in a violent world.

But then we get to the last couple of verses of the parable where a guest at the wedding isn’t wearing the right clothes, and is cast into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

OK – so if the kingdom of heaven is like a wedding banquet, what are the right clothes to wear to the kingdom of heaven?  Here, I have to turn to the writings of Paul.  Paul writes both to the church in Rome and the church in Galatia that they are to clothe themselves in Christ; and he also writes to the church in Colossae that they are to clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

So maybe with this parable, Jesus is saying that it isn’t enough just to accept the invitation to the kingdom of heaven, but we also have to allow ourselves to be transformed in Christ-like-ness.  We have to put on Christ as Paul says.  We can’t transform ourselves into the image of Christ, but we can allow the Holy Spirit to transform us.  The invitation is only the first step in our journey of discipleship.

I still don’t really like this parable, but I guess that I can accept this interpretation of it.

So the kingdom of God is like a wedding, and we are all invited.  And if we refuse the invitation, another invitation will come our way, and another.  But once we accept the invitation, the story doesn’t stop – we are called to allow God to work, through the Holy Spirit, to transform us into the image of Christ.  This parable includes judgement, but the good news is that we aren’t called on to be the judges.  The judgement adds some urgency to our calling or invitation, but we can allow God to do the judging.

Let’s all of us join the wedding feast!

Let us pray:
Merciful God,
We thank you for our invitation to the wedding feast.
We thank you that you keep reaching out to us,
            even when we refuse.
We thank you for the Holy Spirit,
            who works in us,
                        transforming us into the image of Christ.
We know that we live in a world of violence,
            but we ask that you empower us
                        to be agents of your love and your peace.
We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2014/10/pentecost-18-a-preaching-an-ugly-parable/

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