I have preached this parable before, of course. I have preached it as it is written and as it is often most typically understood — as a kind of warning to accept the invitation to the ‘banquet’ and to be ready when doing so. In fact, even this week as I read it I was going down that path once more. Only this time, I was reading it with eyes of surprise. For who turns down the invitation of the king? Even if one is not a particularly strong supporter of a particular ruler, don’t you think you would show up out of curiosity, or just to rub elbows with the wealthy and powerful? Fast forward a few thousand years and take up residence in the culture I call home and I can certainly imagine how it might be difficult to turn down the invitation to the inauguration of a president, even if one didn’t vote for him or her. Or tickets to the World Series, even if your own team was not playing. Oh, the enthusiasm would not be the same, but you would likely go just for the experience — particularly if the consequences of NOT going were as dire as they play out in the story Jesus tells today.
So this is the direction I was going. And if you want a reflection that goes down that path, I would invite you to spend some time with my words from three years ago. (You can find them here.) Only this time I changed course. And while there are a thousand reasons I may be entirely wrong, given the fact that in my perusal of the commentaries I have not as of yet found anyone else going in this direction, still, I am settling here for a while.
For you see, the ‘king’ as described in the story before us now is not one that seems anything like the God I have been taught to worship, much less one I could give my allegiance to in this life. For this king rules with threat and violence and vengeance — even though at first it seems that violence is only in response to violence already perpetrated by his citizens. Even so, the God who is Jesus surely does not rule in this way and so I wonder how it is that we so quickly fall into what, for centuries, has been perhaps the most obvious, straightforward understanding of Jesus’ words today.
And so I propose another way.
- What if those invited did not come to the banquet as a sign of protest?
- What if they did not drop everything and go because the promises of the king were false, or because in this king’s reign there was no justice, or because the poor were left in their poverty with no recourse?
- What if they did not go to celebrate with the king because the king was no king worthy of the title?
And while it is hard to justify mistreating and killing those slaves who had no other real choice but to deliver the message with which they were sent, one does not know what happened between the slaves and the people before such violence was perpetrated on them. Certainly some people who live in oppressive regimes wind up behaving in ways which are otherwise reprehensible simply because they feel they have no other choice. And it is worth noting that not everyone behaved in this way and yet the king, in his vengeful ways not only punishes the ‘murderers,’ but everyone else who called that city home.
And yes, it is in keeping with our understanding of how God works that the king would invite all and everyone who would heed that invitation to come to the wedding banquet. And yet, what comes next again seems over the top, no matter how we try to explain it away. And this is why I can’t help but wonder if the king was only trying to fill that banquet hall so as not to suffer shame in the eyes of friends and adversaries alike. I cannot help but believe that Jesus was, in fact, more like those who would never have been among the first invited to the wedding banquet of the king’s son, but would have found himself in the second batch of invitees. Indeed, as this parable comes to its conclusion, I cannot help but wonder if Jesus is not the one without the wedding robe — the one who could not, would not pretend to honor a tyrant king by putting on that wedding robe — who in behalf of all of us was thrown into the outer darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.
I have no way of knowing this for sure, of course. In fact, I know that many of you can make a solid argument that I am way off base in term’s of Matthew’s intent here. And yet, the Bible is a Living Word, is it not? And isn’t it possible that it might take on new meaning in new days? And isn’t it just as likely that the kingdom of heaven is more like any one of us who refuses to bow to the powers that be when innocents suffer than like a king who throws his power around and destroys those who would not do his will?
More than this, the places my imagination took me this week as I pondered this parable seem more in keeping with the way Jesus often turned things inside out and on their heads when he told stories. So why not with this story. Why not?
I have no way of knowing, of course, but this is what I am wondering now. How about you?
- How do you understand this parable of Jesus? Is it possible, faithful, helpful to hear it in a new way? Why or why not?
- What arguments do you have in favor of hearing it in the more traditional way?
- If my proposed way of hearing this story doesn’t add up for you, why is that? What questions or comments would you offer to help us hear it more clearly together?