Texts: Isaiah 25:1-9; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
We naturally assume when reading parables that where there is a king, he must represent God. This king even has a son who is being married; God’s son is Jesus, and the marriage feast of Jesus the Messiah is a common image for the end of time in both the Old and New Testaments. If God is the king and Jesus his son, then the guests must be humanity.
The first invited are those pious-acting religious people of Jesus’ time—the Pharisees and chief priests—who are nevertheless hypocritical and refuse God’s invitation to the wedding feast; they will be killed and their city (Jerusalem) will be burned. The second invited are the Jews and Gentiles who hear Jesus’ invitation and accept; but if they are not clothed in righteous deeds of discipleship, they can still be thrown out of the party into the outer darkness. Does that sound about right?
It is hard to escape the feeling of unease, even disgust, at the violence of this parable which Jesus says “may be compared to the kingdom of heaven.” If this is what God’s kingdom is like, then this king must be what God is like; and if God is like that, then we are all in danger of being caught with our pants down, as it were—lacking the necessary robes of good deeds and becoming the victims of this murderous God’s wrath. One thing is for sure: if this is what the kingdom of heaven is like, then we are all dancing and drinking and pretending to be happy while all being uneasy at best and terrified at worst that the king will show up and find us out as frauds.
This parable reminds me of a story told by Seneca about the Emperor Caligula. The emperor, having just executed a member of the equestrian class as his father begged for his son’s life,
invited [the father] to dinner on the same day [so as not to act with utter inhumanity toward him]. [The father] came, his face revealing no reproach. The emperor caused a half-liter [of wine] to be poured for him and placed someone next to him to watch him: the poor man endured it no differently than if he had been drinking his son’s blood... On the very day on which he buried his son, or rather, on which had not buried him, he reclined at the table as the hundredth guest and tossed down the drinks, … and without shedding a single tear, without allowing the pain to emerge through a single sign: he ate as though his plea for his son had succeeded. You ask why? He had a second son. [Seneca, De ira XXIII, 3-4]
The parable, you see, has a deeply political context. In the scene Jesus lays out for us, a king would invite subordinate elites—members of the ruling class who owed him homage—to the wedding of his son. Their presence would show not only their loyalty to the king, but also their recognition of the authority of his heir. By refusing to come, they are committing treason. This is further shown by how they treat the king’s messengers: they mistreat and kill the slaves to the king intentionally show what they think of him.
A human king in this situation has one and only option: the rebellion must be put down. In the previous parable about the vineyard, Jesus’ audience themselves pronounce what ought to happen to the tenants: they decree that the landowner should “put those wretches to a miserable death.” From a human perspective this is (like the king’s violent response) the only course of action that makes sense. Equivocation is weakness; mercy invites trouble. If the king does not respond strongly and swiftly, his enemies will sense his weakness and attack him. If the landowner does use force, his property will be lost.
This is how we think. This week, a member of our congregation shared with me a story about a friend of hers who had a son serving in the war in Iraq. This woman woman considered herself a “good Christian,” and yet also honestly believed that the only way to win the war was to slaughter all Iraqi children so that they would not grow up to be terrorists. A friend recently confessed to me that deep down, they hoped that somebody would assassinate our president. In the wake of the terrible tragedy in Las Vegas last week good, Christian people zealously proclaim that the only solution is more guns, so that we can shoot and kill the bad guys before they shoot and kill us. If time travel is ever invented, the first future chrononaut will likely go back in time to attempt to kill Hitler.
This is how we think! We fight preemptive wars, we build nuclear deterrents, we posture and threaten and retaliate. Throughout the ages countless philosophers, despots and heroes have imagined perfect societies—and they all have relied upon one type of violence or another to achieve them; whether physical, psychological, economic, or spiritual. Each and every human attempt to throw the marriage banquet of peace and justice has been either preceded or succeeded by massacres and purges. Even Isaiah’s enticing promise of the banquet spread for all people on God’s mountain is embedded in the images of the utter defeat of Israel’s enemies.
Into all this mess enters Jesus who alone offers us an alternative to the never-ending cycle of violence. Into the room full of terrified guests whose shaking knees are hid underneath wedding robes walks a man who refuses to put on false gaiety, who gives the lie to the illusion of celebration at this abomination of a wedding feast. When confronted by ruthless political or religious authorities, he is speechless, like a sheep before its shearers is silent; and he pays for this insolence with his life.
Just so, Jesus comes to us ruthless people and slakes our thirst for blood with his own—a living sacrifice to us and to our barbaric codes of justice. The miserable wretch allows us to put him to death so that he may rip away once and for all the shroud of violence that is spread over all nations and wipe away the tears from all faces.
It is Jesus, the unclad wedding guest who, in allowing himself to be cast into the outer darkness, shows us that is not he, but rather the emperor who has no clothes. Having been bound hand and foot and cast out of the banquet, he reappears to extend to us the invitation to the true wedding banquet: a feast of rich foods filled with marrow and well-aged wines strained clear, where death is destroyed forever, no longer used as a weapon of subjugation. Many are called, but only one is chosen to show us the way of life.
The meal around which we gather this morning is the appetizer to that feast. As we eat and drink, we are changed: we come to this table bloodthirsty, but we leave sanguine—filled with hope and confidence and joy for the reign of God, as the eternal life of Christ which is greater than death becomes our own. With his death, Jesus convicts us and our worship of violence and with his resurrection he proclaims to us the power of the One True God who calls all the nations to reject death and gain eternal life; and who chooses those few of us in the Church to share the good news of this new reality with the world.
Every day as we appeal to the forces of death and violence to coerce, to compel, to constrain the world to our will, the living Christ stands as testimony to the will of God that is far greater and far more benevolent than our own. Where we would bring murder and destruction, God offers life and salvation: a seat at the marriage supper of the Lamb, the feast that has no end. As we read the parable, we should hear an invitation: the dinner has been prepared, and everything is now ready; taste and see the reign of God has come near!