“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king . . . .”
This is an ugly parable that Matthew reports in today’s gospel. It is similar to a parable that is related in Luke’s gospel, but Matthew adds details that challenge us deeply, even to the core of our faith, to the center of our being as Christians. When Luke tells the story the host inviting his neighbors to dinner is not a king; he’s just “someone.” (Lk 14:15) When Luke’s host sends his servant to tell the intended guests that all is ready, they offer only excuses; no one “makes light” of the occasion and no one seizes, mistreats, or kills the slaves. (Mt 22:5-6) Luke’s host gets angry, but only Matthew’s king sends an army “destroy the murderers and burn their city.” (Mt 22:7) Both hosts send the slaves back out to invite others from the streets and highways; Luke’s dinner host adds an instruction specifically to invite “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” (Lk 14:21) In both stories the banquet hall is filled, but only in Matthew’s story is there the judgment, not mentioned in Luke’s, that the substitute guests include “both good and bad.” (Mt 22:10) And, finally, Matthew’s Jesus adds the detail about the man present without the proper wedding garment who is thrown into the “outer darkness” (Mt 22:13) and that final warning, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” (Mt 22:14)
Luke’s version of the story is much nicer; it’s a story of inclusion, whereas Matthew’s is a story of anger, death, destruction, and exclusion. This is underscored by the different settings in which the two evangelists tell us the story was told. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus offers the story as part of dinner conversation at table with other guests when he is invited “to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath.” (Lk 14:1) One of the guests says, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” (v. 15) and Jesus tells the story in response, illustrating that all those socially outcast folks (“the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame”) will be included in that blessing.
Here in Matthew’s gospel, however, the darker version of the story is told in a confrontation with the temple authorities. This is the same conversation we began in the gospel readings two weeks ago, in which the chief priests and scribes demand to know the source of Jesus’ authority to do the things he does (Mt 21:23-32), and continued last week, in which Jesus told them a parable about greedy vineyard tenants being displaced when they fail to give the landlord his due (Mt 21:33-46). Matthew has taken a story that Luke uses to champion the merciful inclusion of the outcast and used it instead to illustrate the judgmental casting out of the excluded.
Why would he do that? Some scholars suggest that Matthew’s primary purpose is to address the concerns of his initial audience, a congregation of Jews following the way of Jesus in Jerusalem sometime around the time of the Roman destruction of Herod’s temple in 72 AD. His story of Jesus telling the great banquet parable, adding details from perhaps another story, is similar to apocalyptic literature; it’s an allegory for what is happening in the current world of the author and his audience. As one scholar puts it, “The image of the Messianic Banquet in the Parable of the Marriage Feast is best understood as the present kingdom age in which many are sitting down enjoying the Lord’s blessings in the Church awaiting a final entrance of the King for judgment.” (Daniel S. Steffen, The Messianic Banquet)
The “present age” for Matthew and his first readers was about 80 AD, the first decade after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. They were Jews who had been cut off from mainstream Judaism because of their belief in Jesus as messiah, but now those who had excluded them had been “murdered and their city burned.” God’s favor seemed no longer to rest upon temple Judaism; perhaps it rested on the followers of Jesus, who had been invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb and put on the garment of baptism.
In this parable and last week’s story of the vineyard tenants, both cast as part of a confrontation between Jesus and the chief priests, we are catching Matthew’s gospel at the downside of a pretty nasty family feud that pitted the Israelite tradition of faithfulness to the God of Abraham and Sarah against those who had found the fulfillment of the divine promises in Jesus of Nazareth. This is not a fight between Jews and Christians; it is a struggle within the Jewish community with generations of faithfulness to God which now includes a new group struggling to understand itself as it moves in a new direction. Matthew’s retelling of this parable as part of Jesus’ confrontation with the temple authorities would certainly have comforted them.
But . . . here we are 2,000 years later left to confront what I early called “an ugly parable” (quoting David J. Lose of Lutheran Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA) and trying to figure out how, or even if, this really awful, angry, murderous king illustrates the kingdom of heaven. And I really mean that “if” . . . listen carefully again to the first ten words of this story as told by Matthew’s Jesus: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king . . . .”
“May . . . be . . . compared . . . .”
We’re all much more used to hearing, and probably to thinking, the words of the King James Version, “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .” and when we hear or think those words, we are likely to think in terms of equivalency or exchange, even in terms of identity. When we say, “A is like B,” we usually mean that in some ways B can substitute for A. Unfortunately, the King James translation of the original Greek is misleading. It’s not wrong; but it’s not right, either.
The original Greek word is homoiothe. It’s not an adverb (such as “like” is); it’s a verb. It’s a verb in a very peculiar tense we don’t even have in the English language, a tense called the “aorist passive indicative.” The most direct translation would be something like “may be made similar to;” most often it is translated as our New Revised Standard rendering puts it, “may be compared to.” In this sense, A may be like B but only if we mold and shape and trim both A and B to fit, and overlook the ways in which they are different.
We don’t have that aorist passive indicative verb tense in English, but we do have a folk saying to use when someone says “A is like B” and we know that they really aren’t the same, that the comparison takes a lot of work. “You’re comparing,” we say, “apples and oranges.” There’s a much more colorful Serbian expression for the same thing based on a rhyme in that language: “Your comparing grandmothers (babé) to toads (žabé).”
So, while the comparison of the angry, punishing wedding host to the reign of God might have made a lot of sense for, and been comforting to, the Jewish followers of Jesus in late 1st Century Jerusalem, there’s a big “if” for 21st Century Christians in the suggestion that the grandmotherly kingdom of heaven is anything like this toad of a king. Comparisons are not always favorable and they need not be so; contrast and dissimilarity can be just as instructive as likeness and equivalence. What may sometimes work for one generation doesn’t for a later generation. The allegories of parables speak to different audiences in different ways, and we are not bound to understand the parable in the same way its first audience may have done. “The content of [a] parable is probably interpreted differently depending upon when and by whom it [is] heard.” (Keeney, William E., Preaching the Parables, CSS Publishing, Lima, OH:1995, page 185)
Today, we’re given another party story to help us in our compare-and-contrast exercise, the story of the revelry of the Hebrews at the foot of Mt. Sinai in our Old Testament reading from the Book of Exodus.
Moses, you’ll recall, is up on the mountain talking with God. He’s been up there for more than a month and the folks he left down below have gotten a more than a bit restive. Perhaps Moses has abandoned them! Perhaps this “I AM” whom Moses claims is their God has abandoned them! Perhaps they need another god! So they turn to their priest, Moses’ brother Aaron, and they demand of him what people demand of their clergy; they want reassurance. “Make gods for us,” they say. (Ex 31:1) So Aaron says, “Give me the gold rings worn by your wives and your children.” (Ex 31:2) From these, he fashions the idol of a golden calf and, around this idol, the Hebrews party and dance.
Now, where do you suppose these people got all that gold jewelry, enough for Aaron to form a statue of a golden calf? After all, these people had been slaves in Egypt, not members of the wealthy class! Well, back at the beginning of the journey, on the night of the Passover we are told, “they had asked the Egyptians for jewelry of silver and gold, and for clothing, and the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. And so they plundered the Egyptians.” (Ex 12:36-37) In a sense, the gold jewelry represented all they things they had envied in the Egyptians, all the Egyptian wealth and power that they had suffered under and that they had coveted for themselves. It represents all the same things that are represented by the excuses of the originally invited guests in the gospel’s parable: farms, businesses, new wives, new land, new livestock. The gold jewelry in the Old Testament story and the guests’ excuses in the New Testament parable represent our riches, our wages, all the things that please our senses, mollify our anxieties, and invite admiration from our neighbors.
In her commentary on this lesson from Exodus, Anathea Portier-Young, who teaches Old Testament at Duke Divinity School, writes:
[The] thing we [make] from Egypt’s gold is not our god. That thing may symbolize strength and power. It may personify virility, or femininity, or aspects of both or neither; it may embody rebellion or conformity, generosity or greed. But as close as we draw to it, as much as we celebrate it and place it at the center of our lives, it did not lead us to freedom and will not lead us to our promised inheritance. It will tether us to slavery, to a worldview in which people are expendable, interchangeable commodities. It will moor us in the impatience of our ignorance and fear. We may dance with it for a day, but soon find that it has led us to our death. (Working Preacher 2017)
That is certainly what happened in the parable! Drawn away from the wedding feast by their excuses, the originally invited guests found that those excuses had led to their death!
The good news of the parable and of the Old Testament story is that we can turn away from those deadly distractions. Although God’s anger was kindled against the Hebrews, in the end God did not destroy them. What that toad of a king did in the parable is not what God did in reality. “The LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” (Ex 31:14) The kingdom of heaven may be compared to the angry wedding-feast-hosting king, but it is a contrasting comparison for, in the end the reign of God, is demonstrably not like that at all.
Which leaves us with the man compelled to attend but eventually thrown out “into the outer darkness” for not being properly clothed. Alyce M. McKenzie, who teaches preaching at Perkins School of Theology, helps us understand this last detail:
It was the custom in Ancient Near Eastern weddings, that the guests would wear a garment that symbolized their respect for the host and the occasion. Often the host would provide a rack of such garments at the entryway for guests who had not brought theirs. Not to be wearing a wedding garment, when one could have chosen one on the way in, is a sign of disrespect for both host and occasion. The symbolism of putting on clothing reminds us of Paul’s image of “putting on” as a symbol for adopting the life of discipleship to Christ. (Gal. 3:27; Col. 3:12; Eph. 4:24) The wedding garment stands for the Christian life, and the qualities that lead one to hear the invitation, to accept it and show up to honor the host. (McKenzie, Alyce, Progressive Christian Patheos blog, citing Donahue, John R., The Gospel in Parable: Metaphor, Narrative and Theology in the Synoptic Gospels, Fortress Press, Philadelphia:1988, page 95).
The guest’s lack of appropriate clothing is a metaphor for our need for appropriate behavior in the new, inclusive Christian community. “The doors of the kingdom community are thrown wide open, and the invitation extends literally to all. But once you come in, there are standards. You can’t go on acting like you are not at an extraordinary party.” (Lance Pape, Working Preaching 2014) As the great theologian of the mid-20th century Karl Barth put it:
In the last resort, it all boils down to the fact that the invitation is to a feast, and that he who does not obey and come accordingly, and therefore festively, declines and spurns the invitation no less than those who are unwilling to obey and appear at all. (Church Dogmatics, II/2, T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh:1957, page 588)
So, when all is said and done, we are not Matthew’s original audience. We are not a minority within (and rejected by) a long-standing religious tradition in which we have little or no cultural power. We are not a fledgling church trying to make sense of our situation. So we do not hear this parable as they did. Instead, we are 21st century Christians and even in this ugly parable, we hear the good news that God invites everyone, including us, as flawed as we may be, “because God is a God of expansive love and radical inclusiveness.” (David Lose, In the Meantime)
A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, October 15, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the service, RCL Proper 23A [Track 1], are Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6,19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; and St. Matthew 22:1-14. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)