David A. Davis
February 28, 2016
You know it’s a wild parable when the violence isn’t the only thing that’s hard to hear. Pretty much every detail of this parable of Jesus stretches the limits of credulity. Right from the beginning; no one would ignore a royal invitation to a wedding banquet for the future king. No king would offer a second plea to those whose first refusal was way beyond the pale. It’s one thing to ignore an invitation that ought to be received more like an edict and go back to work. But seizing the king’s slaves, abusing them, and killing them, that’s not a believable or sound life decision. In the aftermath of the king’s vengeance, as the city is burning, we’re told that a second set of slaves went into the main streets to wrangle up some guests. That doesn’t make sense since people would have presumably fled for their lives. The Greek implies something more like the roads on the edge of town, but still! Who hangs around when an enraged king is sacking the place? And how about that lone under-dressed wedding guest with nothing to say? Getting scraped up off a burning street and brought to the party of the year only to be tossed for not wearing a tie, well, that’s just cruel. It’s not just the killing of the servants, or a king destroying his own city, or the dreaded “outer darkness” that makes the whole parable hard to listen to, it’s everything in between as well. Exaggeration or hyperbole or allegory doesn’t quite cut it when it comes to Jesus’ parable of the marriage feast in Matthew. Absurd, carnival-like farce works better.
Here’s the standard fare when it comes to the interpretation of Matthew 22:1-14. It is a tale that tells of the history of God and God’s people. The king is God. The son is Jesus and the banquet is the eternal marriage feast celebrated in the kingdom of heaven, that great gathering of all the saints where God wipes every tear from their eye and the Lamb is on the throne. The slaves who are sent to bring the guests, they are the Hebrew prophets. Messengers of God who begged and pleaded and cajoled and roared and warned and proclaimed. Those first invitees with so much else to do are the people of Israel and their established religious leaders. The seizing and killing of the slaves is symbolic of Israel’s rejection of the prophets. The destruction of the city is a reference to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., an event with all its death and violence that Matthew’s intended audience would have known. The inclusive invitation to bring in the good and the bad is the taking of the gospel to the Gentiles and the church’s call to make disciples of all nations. The missing wedding garment stands for the baptismal garment, putting on Christ, and the life of discipleship. The outer darkness and the weeping and gnashing of teeth, that Matthew’s recurring image of eternal judgment.
An allegorical approach that attempts to allow the parable to be more intellectually palatable while paying less attention to the violence. A take on the parable that offers a safe distance for the hearer, with its macro view of salvation history, making it more about the past than the present. An interpretation consistent with Matthew’s gospel and the urgent exhortation to live a faith-filled life best defined by the ethics of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The judgment that comes to that one guest has nothing to do with clothing. The party fail has to do with the complete disregard for the call to lead a Christian life. As the Apostle Paul puts it in Colossians, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, cloth yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience” (Col 3:12). When you’re invited to the feast, don’t just say yes, act like you belong there. Salvation history and Christ’s call to discipleship. The Parable of the Marriage Feast in Matthew’s gospel. Check please?!
One scholar points that reading the parable as an allegory is so “seductive because it ties up so many loose ends, rubs off the rough edges, and, most important, locates the church happily at banquet.” But you and I could sit with this parable for hours raising more questions, poking more holes, pointing out theological incongruities, searching for other historical help, trying to wrap our heads around some understanding, and frankly, just trying to feel better about the blasted thing. Even then, I imagine, we’d be left wanting; wanting more intellectual satisfaction. Here’s the rub, when it comes to a parable, passing intellectual muster is pretty much irrelevant. If you were to make a list of qualities or characteristics of the parables of Jesus, things like logical and rational and even coherent would be pretty far down the page.
In telling the parable of the Marriage Feast, Jesus creates this absurd picture that is a caricature of pretty much every detail: the guests’ complete disregard, the king’s insatiable desire to be honored and respected, the violence that wipes out everything, an extreme invitation that comes in the form of a roundup of anyone still breathing, an inordinate attention to festive dress, and a punishment that far exceeds any wrong committed. Amid all those cartoon-like details, one guest, one and only one, stands out for the failure to exhibit of the appropriate homage, to embody the necessary gratitude, to exude the unrestrained joy, and to express the heartfelt devotion. The guest is called out for failing to embrace the party. Like it or not, the disrespect coming from the speechless guest in jeans and a t-shirt is just as offensive to the king as the ignorance of those who were on the A-list and killed the messengers. Jesus poses this farce of power, allegiance, violence, celebration, joy, and judgment. It is an artfully crafted view of the human condition on steroids with one character notably devoid of honor, gratitude, joy, and devotion at just the wrong time.
On Ash Wednesday last, I watched for a time out my office window as some clergy colleagues offered the imposition of ashes out there on Palmer Square. I also read accounts of ashes being offered at some stations of New Jersey Transit and street corners in New York City. One may not appreciate the activity but the strategy is clear. Don’t wait for the people to come to you, take the ashes to them. A ritual of the church’s tradition carried out to the streets. A sign of devotion and repentance taken to the sites that represent the very definition of humanity’s hustle and bustle, the sites that define hustle and bustle on steroids. It’s kind of absurd, I guess.
A colleague was showing a few of us a newly renovated sanctuary. The large baptismal fount was located smack in the middle of the center aisle about three or four pews back. The liturgical symbolism placed the emphasis on baptizing there among the people. And there was the hope that meaning would be found as folks would be coming and going past the fount each Sunday. As we admired the fount, somebody asked about weddings, “What do you do with the fount in the aisle when it comes to a bride and a bridal party?” The pastor didn’t say a word. He just smiled and pointed with his toe to the three huge bolts at the base of the fount. It wasn’t going anywhere. Then he said, “Can you think of a better time to remember your baptismal identity than when you are making a lifelong promise to someone?” I can imagine some folks since have thought that was absurd.
Imagine a baptismal fount out on Palmer Square, or at the train station, or on a crowded corner, or in your school, or next to the water cooler at work, smack out there on Main Street. Not to put piety on display or to splash out grace on demand (though that may not be a bad idea), but celebrating a baptism where and when you and I are immersed in all that the world demands. We baptized Oliver this morning, as, together with his parents and the rest of his family, we expressed our homage, our gratitude, our joy, and our devotion to the God we know in and through Jesus Christ. It’s one thing to give voice to it here at this fount. It’s quite another to shout it out on Main Street where our humanity runs amok and there are a whole lot more demands on your attention, your allegiance, your life.
What if an encounter with a parable of Jesus is less about sitting down and diagramming it until you can squeeze some meaning out and much more about being drawn into a world you’re not expected to understand and discovering afresh the one who is doing the telling. Here in Matthew Jesus draws a cartoon with his words. He creates a world so pumped up, so absurd, so distasteful, so foul. Yet a world, if we’re honest, that is uncomfortably familiar. And when you find yourself confronted again and again by the farcical nature of the powers and principalities of the everyday, it would seem that the one telling the parable still expects your devotion, your joy, your gratitude, and your commitment.
Living into and claiming your baptismal devotion to Christ Jesus precisely in those moments when it feels like the world around you has gone off the rails, or when you’re taking in the news of the day and find yourself whispering, “You can’t make this up,” or when the pain of a broken relationship or very real family drama leaves you wanting to wake up from a bad dream, or when you find yourself being bombarded a whole bunch of medical information you could never be expected to understand, or when the promotion at work makes you feel ten-feet-tall, or when the new love of your life has you on cloud nine, or the death of your spouse after 63 years makes it feel like you are living in some kind of fog, or when the newborn baby is cooing and smiling at you in the middle of the night and for the life of you, you never dreamed you could be so blessed… in those absurd moments of life that are so utterly everyday, don’t forget you’ve been marked with the indelible sign of God’s love and you have tasted the joy of God’s grace, and that life you have in Christ, it’s for the long haul.
And you know, you know, you know… you’re going have to say something.
© 2016 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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