A reflection by rev. Dr. Thom Bower
For October 15 2017, the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time and
the second of three Stewardship Sundays
Based on Matthew 22:1-14
We continue in a section of Matthew where Jesus teaches with parables. The plots are simple, but the characters and their actions are often confusing. We’re left with riddles to make us think about faith. This morning the realm of God is compared to a wedding banquet. The first guests do not come, so a second set of guests are invited. Listen closely to the actions of the groom’s father: does this resemble the God whom you know?
What’s going on with Jesus? Last week the parable dealt with the murder of the landowner’s messengers, including the landowner’s child. This week we have a groom’s father who is violent to his guests. This is the gospel; this is the good news of Jesus Christ. This is the book of stories we say we want our children and grandchildren to know. Why did Jesus tell such violent stories? What point is he trying to make?
I used to love parables. Through them I learned many of the skills of biblical interpretation I use today. Parables often employ exaggeration and humor, so they are natural playgrounds for clowns. They often have some sort of conflict that can be physicalized, giving clowns the opportunity for slapstick. Parables are like little plays, so you have to get into the characters to understand their actions, and you have to feel their actions to understand the characters. Realizing the bible comes from a different culture and a different time means spending time in getting to know its cultural practices. Parables require we taking time to compare the ways different gospels tell the same story – and ask how the differences reveal the writers’ intentions.
I continue to hold a fondness for parables, a certain nostalgia, but I’m finding myself less enamored by parables. They are confusing. The morality they inspire is not as clear as I once was led to believe. They are less like fairy tales and more like riddles, less like Bugs Bunny and more like the headline news.
Today’s parable has three main beats to it. First, a king invites his friends to the wedding banquet of his son.
It’s important to note Luke’s Gospel has a version of this parable, but it is very different. Comparing the two versions helps get to the meaning of Matthew’s version. Luke’s main character is described as a man, while Matthew identifies him as a king. Typically whenever Matthew introduces a king, we’re dealing with a story about God’s grace or abusive human power. Hold that thought for a minute; we’ll come back to it.
The king invites guests to the wedding party of his son. In our day it is custom the bride’s family pays for the wedding meal. In Jesus’ time, the groom’s family was in charge of the wedding feast. The groom went to the bride’s home, collected her, the couple went on procession through the town to the location for the wedding ceremony, and then went to the groom’s home – for the wedding banquet.
In Luke, the guests offer excuses for their inability to attend; and the excuses are all fairly plausible. Matthew tells us the guests did not want to come. In Matthew the king sends his servants out with a second invitation to the original guests. Some of them went about their business, while others captured, abused, and killed the messengers.
Back in the day my clown friends and I took this as the invitation for slapstick, beating up one another in the guise of comedy, mixing the gospel with the Three Stooges. My favorite tool was a big sledgehammer I made from foam rubber.
But now I find that suggestion of violence to be less humorous. In the wake of armored police vehicles in Ferguson and at Standing Rock, with news of police misconduct and the Black Lives Matter movement, in light of torch-carrying racists in Charlottesville, in the days after yet another mass shooting, with the revelation of widespread sexual abuse in our entertainment industry, with a president who continues to threaten nuclear war and prefers violence to diplomacy for international and national and even interpersonal disagreements, I am less able to find humor in violence.
This king’s violence is excessive: soldiers sent to burn down cities because the invitation to a wedding is refused. I think Jesus is using exaggeration here. It’s meant to be a distorted response. I mean, who goes to war because of dinner party invitations? I think we’re being warned to keep our own responses in check, to make sure we’re appropriately angry at the correct social distortions.
Matthew then moves to the second beat of this story. It follows pretty close to Luke’s version: go out and invite anyone you can find. Go through all the streets, not just main streets but the side streets too. That means not just the wealthy, not just the merchants, not just well-known teachers and politicians, but also the poor, the unhealthy, the ones who have nowhere else to go but alleyways. In Luke’s version, this is a demonstration of grace: the banquet is prepared, and when the original guests reject the invitation space is made for everyone who will come. The house is filled with guests.
Matthew seems to be heading the same way, except that Matthew then adds a third beat to the story, a scene absent from Luke’s version. The king sees someone who is not dressed appropriately. The king wanted a black tie affair with men in tuxedos and women in ballgowns; instead this guy is in his blue jeans and cowboy boots.
“I didn’t see in the invitation that this was expected to be a black tie event.”
“That doesn’t matter: you’re being thrown in prison for offending my sensibilities. And since I am the king, since I am the host of this party, I get to decide what is right and wrong – no checks and balances.”
In the world of this parable, to reject the invitation is to risk being slaughtered, but to accept the invitation is to risk being punished when the expectations are not fulfilled. Many are called, few are chosen. And again I say: this is the gospel; this is the good news of Jesus Christ.
What a strange parable. It is difficult to figure out what it means for being a disciple of Jesus, let alone how it specifically addresses stewardship.
This morning the organizers of the CROP walk have already been along the route and posted signs for the walkers to follow. Straight ahead. Turn here. At a couple of the busier intersections police will probably be present to escort the walkers. Rarely in my faith life have I experienced such clearly laid out pathways.
Being a Christian is not easy. It is often confusing. It is often uncertain. We’ve developed this culture where faith is characterized as certitude, never doubting, never fearful, always clear-headed. I fail those tests. I am skeptical. I am full of doubt and hesitancy. I do not see morality as black or white but navigating the grey, for there is always grey – lots of grey.
But despite the grey, there is resilience. I trust in congregational processes – those shared processes of discernment. Rather than being the individual with certain faith, I place my trust in the discerning community of faith – because it is within working at the relationships with others that God’s presence is encountered. Rarely do those relationships deliver agreement, but they always deliver the invitation to grow. Without others I would not have experienced the despair of losing jobs, losing children, losing business, the deep depression that can come with grief. I also would not have experienced the grace found in those wilderness areas. And when it came time for my own losses – I have been fired, I have been divorced, I have failed – I knew that the church would struggle with me to find grace in my circumstances.
For me, an essential component of our stewardship is how we sustain healthy relationships. There is our witness, there is our strength, there is how God delivers grace to the world.
The parable ends with the statement “Many are called but few are chosen.” Calling may be the key to making sense of this entire parable. Yes, the guests are invited to the banquet, but in this story the guests are not the only ones called. The responsibility for the banquet belongs to the host, and that too is a calling. Because of this responsibility, the host is the main character that the church is intended to observe. Being the church is like being the host of a wedding banquet.
And so this parable becomes a cautionary tale about how we use our power. This king abuses the people around him, and breaks the covenantal relationships with his community. He is untrustworthy. In the name of Christ, how will we be different? How will we uphold these covenantal relationships which make us trustworthy individuals, bind us together as communities of faith, and make us reliable to other people outside the walls? How we treat others is a demonstration of stewardship, because it is through how we treat our guests that they will experience God’s grace and our commitment to being graceful.
How we treat one another in this ongoing relationship called congregation is constantly being observed by those not yet part of the congregation to assess how we live out those words about loving our neighbors. Stewardship campaigns may raise our awareness of church finances, but they also need to raise our awareness of all church resources – especially about how we love one another and willingly govern our behavior in mutual accountability. And once again, this is the good news of Jesus Christ.