The Guest at the Banquet

Matthew 22:1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying:  2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.  3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come.  Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’  5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business,  6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.  7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.  8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.  9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’  10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 

11  “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe,  12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.  13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’  14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Fredrich Wilhelm I, king of Prussia in the early 18th century, had a hot temper and a short fuse.  He often would walk unattended through the streets of Berlin and if people saw him coming they would do their best to make themselves scarce, because if anyone displeased him for even the slightest of reasons he wouldn’t hesitate to thrash them with his walking stick.  One day an unlucky man who didn’t see him coming in time attempted to slide into a doorway to avoid the cantankerous king but his efforts were in vain.

“You,” called Fredrich Wilhelm, “where are you going?”

“Into the house, Your Majesty,” replied the nervous man.

“Into the house?  Your house?” asked the king.

“No,” replied the poor man.

“Why are you entering it, then?” asked Fredrich Wilhelm.

The unfortunate man, afraid he might be accused of burglary, decided to tell the truth.  “In order to avoid you, Your Majesty.”

Fredrich Wilhelm scowled. “To avoid me?  Why would you want to avoid me?”

“Because I fear you, Your Majesty.”

King Fredrich turned purple with rage and began to beat the poor man’s shoulders with his walking stick as he shouted, “You’re not supposed to fear me!  You’re supposed to love me!  Love me, you scum!  Love me!”

Do we sometimes see God as being like Fredrich Wilhelm—hot tempered with a short fuse, ready to punish for infractions large and small?

I thought about that as I read the parable in this week’s gospel lesson and how we have traditionally interpreted it.

I need to say before I go any further that this parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew is one of the most challenging, if not the most challenging for preachers and scholars.  Just about any way you approach it you will find problems and loose ends—pieces that just don’t fit.  No less a scholar than David Lose said, “This parable seems just plain nasty. Not so much because it’s difficult to interpret – it is to some degree – though mostly, I think, because we don’t like what it says—but rather because of the indiscriminate violence in the passage.  What are we to make of it?”[1]

As with so many of Jesus’ parables, we have traditionally interpreted this story of the wedding banquet as an allegory and assigned identities to the characters. 

In most of these interpretations, the king who gives the banquet represents God and the bridegroom/son represents Jesus.  

In one traditional interpretation, the original invited guests who turn down the invitation represent the people of Israel, and the people brought in off the streets represent the gentiles who are brought into the feast when Israel turns down the invitation.  

In one historical interpretation, the invited guests who refuse to come represent the Pharisees and the street people who take their place represent the new Christian community, those people first hearing and reading Matthew’s gospel.

There is another interpretation, David Lose calls it the “Lutheran” interpretation, which doesn’t dwell on those who decline the invitation or the street people who take their place at the table.  This interpretation focuses, instead, on the gracious generosity of the king who issues the invitation in the first place, first to the chosen, then in opening it up to “everyone they found.” 

In all these interpretations, the wedding robe is understood to be God’s grace which clothes us in imputed righteousness.  The guest who is thrown out into the outer darkness for failing to wear a wedding robe is understood to represent someone who refuses to accept God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

That’s pretty much how I’ve always heard this parable preached or taught.  These interpretations works well enough up to a point, but they’re not without their problems.  So let’s look at some of those problems, the things we gloss over if we keep hearing this story the same way we’ve always heard it.

Let’s start with the son, the guest of honor at the banquet.  If this is Jesus, in this story being told by Jesus, he is oddly passive in this story.  The son does nothing.  He does not deliver the invitation or announcement of the feast.  He does not supply the wedding robes which, in traditional interpretations represent being clothed in grace.  He does not intervene on behalf of the guest being ejected into the outer darkness.  He is utterly and completely passive.  Would Jesus have described himself that way?  Is that how you understand Christ?

What about the idea that those who first receive the invitation represent the people of Israel, the Jews, and the street people who take their place at the banquet are the Gentiles who would later dominate the church?  The people of Israel reject the king’s, God’s, invitation, so God destroys them. On one level, it’s easy to see how this fits. You can interpret the slaves delivering the invitation as the prophets.  You could argue that the destruction of the city is an allusion to the Romans having destroyed Jerusalem.  But remember, the first people reading this account in Matthew were Jewish Christians, probably living in Syria.  There is good evidence that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew.[2]  Even the people hearing this story in the Jewish Christian community of Matthew’s gospel still thought of themselves as Jews, as the people of Israel, but Jews who had received Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah.  Would they be likely to hear this as a story about God’s rejection of Jews and acceptance of Gentiles in their place?  Also, this interpretation leads all too readily to antisemitism—and has historically been used for that purpose.  Would Jesus, a Jew, be likely to tell a story with such a theme even if it wasn’t the main theme?

If we choose an interpretation that focuses primarily on God’s grace, then what do we make of the king’s violence?  If grace is our theme, how do we understand the king ordering one of the guests to be bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth simply because he didn’t wear a wedding robe, especially since we are given no reason for why he’s not doing so?  And what do we make of that last line—many are called but few are chosen—when it seems like the many are staying at the banquet and the few, the one, really is being chosen for a rough exit?

If we take any of these approaches, we miss something else going on in this parable in Matthew.  There is a very similar story in Luke 14, a story of a great banquet, but it is a much milder story.  The host is a merely a man, not a king.  The invited guests make excuses, but no one is punished for not coming, except that they don’t get to taste the delicacies at the banquet.  No violence.  No wedding robes.  No outer darkness.  But in this story in Matthew those are the things Jesus is using to make a point.  But what, exactly, is the point he is trying to make?

If we look closely we’ll see that there is a lot going on politically in this story.  The host is not just a man, he’s a king.  That means that the invitation to the banquet carries a certain weight.  It is, in fact, a genteel form of command appearance.  The noted English Biblical scholar, Richard Baukham, put it this way:

The attendance of the great men of the kingdom at the wedding feast of the king’s son would be expected not only as a necessary expression of the honor they owe the king but also as an expression of their loyalty to the legitimate succession to his throne. Political allegiance is at stake. Excuses would hardly be acceptable, and the invitees (unlike those in the Lukan parable) offer none. To refuse the invitation is tantamount to rebellion. In refusing it, the invitees are deliberately treating the king’s authority with contempt. They know full well that their behavior will be understood as insurrection. This is what they intend, and those who kill the king’s messengers only make this intention known more emphatically. The king responds as kings do to insurrection (v. 7).[3] 

So… we have a king whose kingdom is in open rebellion.  Why?  In response to his envoys being killed he launches an all-out attack and destroys the rebellious city.  But the feast is all prepared and must go ahead.  He has to save face.  He has to show his political strength and force.  The aristocrats who were invited are out, so he turns populist.  He brings in people off the street.  It’s right out of the Roman playbook–bread and circuses, just like Julius Caesar.  Just like Augustus.  But when he sees one poor schmo who isn’t in formal wear he has him booted.

And now we’re back to Fredrich Wilhelm I.  Capricious.  Thin-skinned. Hot tempered.  Short fused. 

Is that how we see God?  

More importantly, since Jesus is the one telling this story, is that how Jesus saw God?

I don’t think so.

Quoting Jesus from just this Gospel of Matthew, we hear him say, “Your Father in heaven makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (5:9).  “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (6:8)  “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (6:26)  “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” (10:29)

Does that sound like the king in this parable?  Or is Jesus trying to tell us something else here?   

Is there a way to hear this parable where we hear Good News?  Is there a way to hear this short story by Jesus where we Gentile Christians don’t get a version Good News that’s just cheap grace at someone else’s expense?  As Debi Thomas put it, “— not the mingy Good News that secures my salvation and my comfort at the expense of other people’s bodies and souls — but rather, the Good News of the Gospel that is inclusive, disruptive, radical, and earth-shattering. The Good News that centers on the Jesus I trust and love.  What would it be like to look for Jesus and his Good News in this story?”[4]

What happens if we reassign the roles in our allegory?  

Credit where credit is due.  I am indebted to Debi Thomas for what comes next, an idea which has completely changed the way I see this parable.  In her weekly lectionary essay in Journey with Jesus she wrestled with all the difficulties in this parable and then arrived at a solution unlike any I’ve ever seen or read before.  I’ve shared her essay with several colleagues and we all think she’s on to something.

What if the king represents all the powers that be in this world, the powers that insist we conform to their norms—religion, politics, the boundaries of society—the powers that rise up to crush anything or anyone that steps too far out of line, that rejects and ejects those who don’t wear the garment of conformity?

What if all the people in this parable are just that?  People in their stratified layers.  The aristocrats and wealthy who get the embossed invitations to all that’s good in life and then everybody else—regular people who go about their lives making do but who sometimes get a fabulous break because the original guests are no-shows.

What if Jesus is describing the system as it was, and as it is—the way the world works, with its hierarchies of wealth and levers of power, with its struggles for control and its pressures to create and maintain business as usual?

And then, what if the “God” figure in this parable is the guest without a wedding robe?   What if Jesus is the one who refuses to wear the wedding robe, the garment of conformity?  What if Jesus is making a statement and saying, “I refuse to play along.”

When the king asked “Friend how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” the guest was speechless.  When Jesus stood before Pilate, he was speechless, too.[5]

What if the way to the real celebration was to opt out of the coerced party hosted by the powers that be,  to refuse to wear the clothes of conformity, to let yourself be bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness, just as the way to Christ’s resurrection was through the cross and the tomb, just as the way to eternal life is through death?

What if Jesus is the guest being forcefully ushered out of the party?  What would that mean for us as followers of Jesus?

Would you be willing to take off your robes of privilege, position, power and wealth to follow him into the outer darkness?   Would I?

Many are called.  Few are chosen.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

[1] In the Meantime, Pentecost 19, A Limited Vision, David

[2] Was the Gospel of Matthew Originally Written in Hebrew?,  George Howard, Bible Review 2:4, Winter 1986

[3] Parable of the Royal Wedding Feast, Richard Baukham; Journal of Biblical Literature, Fall, 1996, p.484

[4] The God Who Isn’t, Debi Thomas, Journey With Jesus, October 11, 2020

[5] Matthew 27:12-14

Another Sacrifice to the Shadow god

So. Another mass shooting. This time at a community college in Oregon. Last time it was at a church in Charleston. The time before that… well, I’m losing track.

I sit here confused. Not stunned anymore–it’s happened too often now. Not brokenhearted. I think I wept enough over Charleston that my well of anguish has run dry and I confess that the part of me that checks my own spiritual, psychological and moral pulse is more than a little worried about that. Not outraged. My outrage, too, is spent.

I sit here confused. And sad. And more than a little worried for the world my grandsons are growing up in. And more than a little fearful for the schools where my wife, my son-in-law and so many other persons I love so dearly are dedicating their lives to guide others down the transforming path of education. I sit here sad, worried, and fearful. But mostly confused.

I’m not confused about what will happen next. That’s all too boringly predictable. What will happen now in this great mediasphere in which we all spend too much of our time and energy is this. We will have a new cycle of anti-gun vs. pro-gun arguments. A few Facebook friendships will be terminated. But this cycle will be shorter than the last one because each one gets shorter as we become more accustomed to, less surprised by these random acts of violence. Blended into that small tornado will be a lot of talk about how we need to do more to care for the mentally ill, but the focus will be more about how we might be able to spot the dangerous psychopaths than how we might actually care for this unfortunate contingent of our population.

I’m not confused about how we came to be in this bizarrely immobilized nexus of violence. I study history. I doesn’t take a genius to graph the rise in gun possession and the radical neo-con reinterpretation of the 2nd Amendment against the defunding of mental health care. On a more esoteric level, it would probably be useful, too, to include some pages on the deconstruction of America’s common mythos of mutuality and how in its place we’ve been sold a mythos of individualism mixed with a simultaneous real-life devaluing of the actual individual in any kind of meaningful context of community. I would need to include the decline of the Church and religion in general in all that. No, I’m not confused about how we got here. The story is a bit complex, but not really all that long because it wasn’t all that long ago that it simply wasn’t like this. I know. I’ve lived through the changes.

It wasn’t always like this.

Some history. And a warning before you read any further: in what follows, it is not my intent to trash Ronald Reagan, although I confess that as one who lived through his era and has looked at his record in some detail I really don’t see any validity in lionizing him the way some do. Nevertheless, what follows is probably going to read as though I’m targeting him and blaming him for our current state of affairs. If it seems that way, it’s because, while history is complex and even starting points have roots somewhere, the fact is that everything does have a starting point and more than a little of the difficulty we face now began on his watch. I really don’t mean to malign Mr. Reagan. But history is history.

As both Governor of California and later as President Ronald Reagan let bottom-line accounting overrule both compassion and common sense. The irony here is that this kind of accounting, which is so necessary in a household, is disastrously short-sighted and crippling when applied on the macro-economic scale required by a national economy. I could write a good deal more about the fallacies and short-sightedness of Reaganomics, but I’ll save that for another time.

When Mr. Reagan was Governor of California in the late 1960s and early ‘70s it seemed to him like a good cost-cutting idea to close down all the state mental hospitals. It looked good on the bottom line and helped to “balance” the budget— to match income to outflow on an annual basis as he moved to give new tax cuts to corporations.

In 1980 when he was elected President, one of his first acts was to discard the Mental Health Systems Act which President Carter had signed only a month before. Again, it seemed like an easy way to cut a huge chunk of change out of the budget which would enable him to cut corporate taxes. So for one year-end report and a corporate tax cut, you get a better looking bottom line. But what happens next?

Here’s what’s happened. According to USA Today (2014) it now costs us, nationally, about $444billion a year to care for the mentally ill in our current non-system system. Most of that is toted up in ancillary costs that have to be paid for through interesting tricks in accounting since the category itself is largely defunded. It’s paid mostly by counties and communities, very few of whom have personnel, funds or facilities specifically designated for or prepared for dealing with mental illness.

Today in California there are 124,000 homeless people. 40,000 (1/3) of them are on the streets because they are mentally ill and simply incapable of managing themselves into a residence (2013 Sacramento Housing and Regulations stats). According to HUD figures, the cost to the state is $40,000 per year per homeless person, most of it in police, community services, shelters, and temporary series-hospitalizations, which means a total cost of $1.6billion per year to take care of mentally ill homeless persons living on the streets of California. Another 30,000 mentally ill in California are housed as inmates in our prisons at a cost $50K per annum each. That’s $1.5 Billion (Dept. of Corrections), for a grand total of $3.1billion per year. But according to the state’s Medi-Cal estimates, it would only cost about $900million to provide the necessary psychiatric care in home-based or institution-based residential systems like we had before Reaganomics. That would be a savings of $600million per year.

Aside from the cost in dollars there have also been staggering social costs as the homeless mentally ill become a ubiquitous feature of our urban and suburban landscapes. When I was a kid, my buddies and I took off in the morning and came back home when the street lights came on. We rode our bikes for miles and hung out in the city parks unsupervised by parents. I can’t imagine my grandsons doing that now, and for every blog I’ve seen on free-range parenting, I’ve seen an equal number of responses from people who think the idea borders on neglect because the world now is just too dangerous for that.

So when all is said and done, the free-range mentally ill are actually costing us considerably more than can be measured in mere dollars and cents. In light of all this, it seems grossly illogical to complain about or be perplexed by mass shootings by mentally ill people when we are failing to provide any treatment whatsoever for 40% of severely schizophrenic and bi-polar persons in our midst. Historically speaking, our budgetary priorities created the problem. Historically speaking, our refusal to properly regulate guns because we refuse to balance individual freedoms with collective responsibilities weaponized the problem.

So where does that leave us? We’re not willing to more strictly regulate firearms, to insist that they only be available to well-vetted, well-trained persons for use in a specific context, even though the 2nd Amendment begins with the words “A well-regulated militia.” And we’re not willing to pay for the necessary care and therapy for those poor souls whose mental illness makes it impossible for them to find a place where they fit in the world, which pretty much guarantees that from time to time the more violent among them will find access to some of the more than 300 million firearms abroad in this country and use them to act out their own pathologies and short-term mythologies in ways that are dangerous, tragic and horrifying for the rest of us.

And here’s the part where I’m confused. Apparently we’re okay with that. Apparently we’re okay with these random outbursts of bloodshed and violence. We must be, or else, like Australia, we’d do something about it. But apparently this continuing sacrifice of innocent victims is a price we’re willing to pay, although why we’re paying it, what it’s buying us, has never been explained in a way that makes any sense to me.

Why are we willing to continue tolerating these increasingly frequent episodes of bloodshed? Is this a sacrifice demanded by our society’s unnamed but clearly violent shadow god? Is that why so many treat guns as if they are somehow more sacred than the human lives they steal so abruptly? Is protecting corporations and the wealthier individuals among us from an additional 1% or 2% in taxes more sacred than providing care for the mentally ill?

We know what the problem is. We know that it rises from the easy availability of firearms intersecting with the lack of care for the mentally ill. We know this, so we know that fixing those two things would stop the bloodshed. But we don’t seem to want to. And why that is–why we just don’t want to– might be the most important question of all.