Stephen R. Shaver
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, San Francisco, CA
October 12, 2014
Proper 23, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary (Track I)
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
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In a pastoral care class during my last year of seminary a wise guest lecturer handed out a simple, tongue-in-cheek card entitled “Ten Modest Suggestions to Keep Your Vocation in Good Health.” Under the title was a small notation: “suitable for framing.” I’ve found it so helpful that I did in fact frame it, and when I’ve been in parish ministry I’ve kept it somewhere in my office. The suggestions include things like “Say the Daily Office” and “Keep your financial life in order” and “Keep your promises” and “Remember it’s not about you and you’re not entitled to anything.” And they include my favorite: “Don’t dismiss the tradition. You are not smarter than it. Wrestle with it until it blesses you.”
It’s a reference, of course, to the story of Jacob in the book of Genesis, who wrestles all night with a mysterious stranger only to find out that it’s the angel of God. And it’s a good word for us as Christians, who live within a great historical tradition, and who need to continually find ways to move into the future without coming unmoored from who and whose we are.
Sometimes it’s scripture that we need to wrestle with until we get a blessing. As Anglicans we believe scripture is holy and inspired; the Holy Spirit breathes through it and speaks God’s Word to us. But that doesn’t mean we believe it’s inerrant, or self-interpreting, or free of the biases and limitations of its human authors. So it takes wrestling sometimes to discover where God’s Word is for us in a particular text.
Today’s parable from Matthew’s gospel is one of those, I think. It’s not often that we get a glimpse of how a parable of Jesus was told and retold in different ways by the first few generations of Christians before it got written down. But with this one, we do—because it so happens that Luke’s gospel has a simpler and quite different version of this same story. Luke’s version has a man who decides to throw a wonderful banquet. The people he invites turn down his invitation with various polite excuses. So, because he’s so determined to throw a fabulous party, he sends his servants out instead to go out onto the streets and bring in everyone they can find. End of parable. It’s an appealing image of God’s overwhelming, inclusive grace. I like this parable. Maybe you do too.
I don’t find it as easy to like Matthew’s version. Because Matthew has taken the basic, skinny bones of this story and hopped it up on steroids—into a parable of rage and retribution. Now the man is a king who’s throwing a wedding banquet for his son. But when he tells his guests that dinner is ready, instead of just declining his invitation, they beat and kill his messengers. That unusual response might be our first clue that we’re on very strange territory in this parable. Next, in turn, the king massively escalates the violence. He mobilizes his army, wipes them out, and burns their city to the ground—all, apparently, while keeping dinner warm, because he then sends out another round of messengers. This time no one is bold enough to say no. But then—and here I find myself imagining him like a medal-chested dictator, toying with the squirming guests at his gold-plated gala—he singles out a poor fellow who has shown up underdressed and has him clapped in irons and sent to the gulag.
What kind of parable is this? What kind of God is this? Is the king supposed to be God? Are we the guests? And what is God going to do to us if we don’t wear the right robe? For that matter, what is the robe? Is it baptism, belief in Jesus, good deeds? The conventional readings of this parable overlay and compete with one another. And it can be hard to hear the gospel, the good news, through all the violence.
Now the scriptures were written by people: faithful people, people who loved God and sought, under the Spirit’s inspiration, to make sense of their experience of God in the places and times where they lived. And the anonymous Christian who compiled the gospel we know as “Matthew” lived in a violent and turbulent time. Most commentators think he—and it probably was a “he” in this case—was a Jewish believer in Jesus, one who had studied the Hebrew scriptures and come to believe that the crucified and risen one was the Messiah. He and his community understood themselves as faithful Jews, but they also welcomed Gentiles who had come to believe. Meanwhile, they struggled to understand why most of their Jewish sisters and brothers weren’t accepting their invitation to join this messianic community.
And in the midst of all that, there was a revolt against the Roman Empire, and the Roman army responded by flattening Jerusalem and burning the Jewish Temple to the ground.
It’s that trauma, and this particular group of Jewish Christians’ attempt to make sense of it, that most scholars believe has affected the way this parable was told and retold in Matthew’s community. Matthew has taken this parable and made it into more of an allegory: God invites the people of Israel to the Messiah’s banquet, but they reject the message of the prophets and finally of Jesus himself, and kill him. In Matthew’s understanding, then, the destruction of the Temple is God’s judgment on the people’s rejection of that invitation.
We can have compassion for Matthew and his point of view without being willing to share his interpretation of what happened. For one thing, Matthew is a Jew. And it is when we are members of a group, and then feel betrayed by our sisters and brothers within that group, that we can come to criticize it most violently. Maybe you’ve experienced this in at least a small way. Maybe, like me, you’ve found yourself at some point making an angry or dismissive comment about a group you belong to: perhaps “Americans” or “San Franciscans” or “Episcopalians.” In the trauma of the destruction of Jerusalem, Matthew comes to feel this way about his own people, Israel. He comes to believe that the church has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people. Not all the books of the New Testament have that point of view. Paul has a very different understanding, for example. But for too many centuries, Christians have often used a simplistic form of Matthew’s point of view to support anti-Semitism and all kinds of violent exclusion of those who didn’t accept Jesus as Messiah.
Now a parable isn’t simply a code meant to be deciphered: it’s a story through which the Spirit speaks to us. And so there is always more than one way to read it. There may well be true and worthy lessons to be drawn from this story if we read it in the conventional way, with God as the king and us as the guests. For example, God’s invitation isn’t free. It costs something, and we can refuse it. And the consequences of refusing God’s invitation are serious. But if we literalize this one reading, we can end up with all kinds of implications about God that just aren’t workable. Because the king in this parable also behaves in ways that simply don’t match the personality of the God we know from the rest of the scriptural story. Think of the God we meet in the Exodus lesson today, whose anger burns hot when the people turn to a false god, but who is quick to change his mind and forgive the people rather than destroying them. Think of what Matthew himself writes, elsewhere in his gospel, about Jesus teaching his disciples to forgive seventy times seven times. And think of Jesus, the very incarnation of the personality of God, who refuses violence and forgives his enemies right up to the cross itself.
Who is Jesus in this story? Perhaps he’s the bridegroom, the son who never actually appears in the parable. But perhaps he might show up in more than one place. In fact, if there’s any character in this parable who most resembles Jesus, it might just be the man at the end. Like Jesus, he’s silent in the face of his accuser. He’s bound hand and feet and cast out into the darkness. If we read this parable with Jesus as the innocent victim, we might discover something totally new here about God—the God who shows up in the most surprising places, in solidarity with everyone who is terrorized or tortured or excluded.
It turns out, maybe, that Matthew is writing scripture in spite of himself. Because a parable is never about just one thing. And sometimes when we wrestle with it Jesus gets in there somehow, the good news gets in somehow, where we least expect.
Who are the ones we would rather ignore? Who are the ones who are being cast into the outer darkness? Whose city is being destroyed? Who might we ourselves rather not find ourselves next to at the heavenly banquet? It might be that each of these people is Jesus for us.
Jesus is the bridegroom, and he is also the speechless man. And he is the robe, the wedding garment God has already provided for the whole world. And he is even the food for the banquet itself, whose foretaste we celebrate today. And in Jesus there are no scapegoats, no outcasts.
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For insights behind this sermon, including the image of wrestling with scripture and the reading of Jesus as the man bound hand and foot, I’m indebted (as I often am) to the work of Paul Nuechterlein and others over at the Girardian Lectionary Page.