A new type of King - A sermon for Pentecost 17 based on Matthew 22: 1-14
Let me start with a confession. I think the way we often interpret parables is offensive and verging on blasphemous. What I mean by that is the tendency to strictly allegorise in a way that everything must neatly match up.
Look at the parable of the wedding banquet if you want an example. You know the sort of interpretation I’m getting at, the sort that sees the King as standing for God. What do you end up with? A psychopathic monster who deals in revenge and slaughter assumed to represent God followed by intellectual gymnastics to say that it’s ok.
Rubbish! Stuff of nonsense! There is absolutely no way that we could possibly justify a God who is like this King. Let’s go further. I’d rather give up on faith than follow such a malign being.
But wait! The choice need not arise! God who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ cannot possibly be like this King. The differences are all too apparent. After all to borrow a creed used by David Jenkins the former Bishop of Durham;
God is as he is in Jesus.
Therefore there is hope.”
You see it is the translation differences that are at the heart of this parable. The NIV translation may say;
“The kingdom of God is like a King who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.”
But a much more helpful translation is that offered by the New Revised Standard Version;
“ The Kingdom of God may be compared to a King who gave a wedding banquet for his son.”
It’s quite a difference isn’t it? On the one hand we have a likeness whilst on the other hand we have a comparison. And in this case only the comparison makes sense. So please ignore the NIV on this one. For then we are liberated to see the difference between a King whose savagery is rooted in the honour culture with which Jesus was familiar and the very different perspective of the kingdom of heaven which Jesus heralds and embodies.
Our story is located around a wedding banquet. Such an event would be of great political significance. Sure not turning up would fail to demonstrate the honour owed to the King. But things run deeper. The marriage of a son would carry with it dynastic complications. Failure to attend would seem to represent a withholding of loyalty to the legitimate succession to the throne. Political allegiance would be at stake and failure to comply would be seen as insurrection. And the price for insurrection would be high! After all the kingdoms that existed in Palestine and surrounding territories were hardly liberal democracies. The only question was the level of violence to be directed at those who were or were thought to be dissidents. Real politique had no time for anything so namby pamby as human rights.
Still in our story when called for, the people resist the invitation. More than that they carry out acts of violence against the King’s representatives. And this begins a cycle of violence. The King kills his enemies and destroys their city. Is this not a picture of what we see in many conflicts today. One act of violence leads to greater acts of violence and the outcome is that the crime that is collective punishment becomes not just an injustice but that which draws more and more people into conflict creating ever greater circles of hatred, violence and destruction. “Love your enemies,” those words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is so removed from this orgy of death. No wonder Martin Luther King looking at the realities around him and centuries of grisly centuries summed up the choices that even more confront us today with the words;
“We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
In the story Jesus tells, it does not end with a scene of massacre. Now the King sends his slaves to compel those who previously had not been deemed suitable to attend the wedding, to now attend. Think for a moment of situations around the globe where those intoxicated by power in moments of need all too often find reason to call on the loyalty of those whom they had previously given little thought, that they might bolster the apparatuses of power. Pawns on a chessboard after all can defend even the most endangered of Kings.
But now comes another twist. It comes in the form of a man not wearing wedding clothes. The King deems this to be an insult. After all this can be seen as an expression of a willingness to enjoy the goodies but fail to enter into the joy of the occasion -as much an act of disloyalty as those who reject an invitation. But let’s hold on a moment! Given that some have been brought from the streets this might be a man without the means to be appropriately attired. Certainly he seems to be inarticulate for he offers no defence whatsoever. Might it not be that this man represents the many victims of arbitrary power, those who if not deemed to be non persons are treated as non persons in the world today as well as then.
Oh this King is a nasty piece of work. And we see it furthermore in the condemnation of the man to be tortured. Sure the line about the weeping and gnashing of teeth reminds me of the apocryphal story concerning Ian Paisley in which having read this line, he is confronted by a lady who protests that she has no teeth, only for him to give the reply;
“Teeth will be provided!”
But torture is a serious business. I remember as a student meeting Chileans who had electric shocks applied to the part of their bodies they would least like to be treated in such a way. And more recently we have seen the debate regarding rendition through which terror suspects were handed over to regimes such as Libya, Egypt and Syria to be tortured. And we heard of how a US government many of whose leaders professed to be Christians used weasel words to deny that waterboarding was torture. This is why careful exegesis of this parable is essential for if you are prepared to see your God as a tyrant then you will use his name to justify wicked deeds - even a bloodstained tyrant who having done his worst grimly says t himself in satisfaction;
“Many are invited, but few are chosen!”
This afternoon, I invite you to compare this gruesome King with the storyteller. For here is a massive difference. Yes the storyteller invites us to his banquet but does so with graciousness rather than for the promotion of his own honour. He spreads the invite far and wide not to demonstrate his power but because his generosity is for all. When we turn away he does not give up on us - indeed not even death itself marks the end of his loving intentions towards us. To use the title of a recent book, with him Love wins. For the storyteller Jesus reaches out through seemingly powerlesss love rather than as with this King through love of power. When our response is faltering and we approach him with all our imperfections the storyteller Jesus still dines with us and moves us forward with his presence rather than to respond with offended pique as does this King. And whilst the King at the end snarls words of condemnation the storyteller Jesus goes on loving and redeeming.
Indeed the point of this parable is that God is nothing like this King. The comparison shows how very different they are. And in this we are reminded of how the Kingdom of God is so different than the Kingdoms of Caesars and Empires. Here we see the clash that will be played out in Holy week as it begins with Jesus and his followers entering one gate into Jerusalem whilst on the same day Pontius Pilate would have entered in full imperial regalia through the other gate. And the clash that begins then goes on even today.
This parable asks the big question, “What is your God like?” The opposite to those whose power is used to dominate is the answer. But it speaks also to our world today indicting every example of arbitrary power that coerces, slaughters and demeans. Yes this is precisely the sort of parable that convinced the powers that Jesus was a trouble maker. So I invite you to be today’s trouble makers for the causes of justice and peace. Let’s get to it!