Making Sense of an Ugly Parable

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“What should I wear?”
I used to ask my roommate years ago. Her answer was always the same, “Wear whatever makes you feel good.” That’s not the same advice that used to be given by the fashionistas on the makeover show, “What Not to Wear,” as they picked through someone’s  closet, tossing out what they judged unflattering, out-dated, or not age-appropriate. Nothing there about feeling good.

Then there’s Jesus, not your definition of a fashionista. But, at least according to Matthew,  he had some ideas about what and what not to wear. The Parable of the Wedding Banquet takes a bizarre twist as the king invites people off the streets to his son’s wedding feast, but then gets upset when one of them arrives in clothing he deems inappropriate for the occasion. The hapless guest is bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness. 

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This is an ugly parable.
Granted, parables should be disturbing. They’re meant to shake us out of our complacency and compel us to ask hard questions. If we’re not surprised or challenged by them, we’ve missed the point. But this one? If this is what God is like, if this is what the kindom of heaven is like, I doubt we could convince many people that this is Good News. So what are we supposed to do with it?

This is why biblical studies are so important: when it was written, who wrote it, to whom was it written, etc. Taken at face value, this parable takes us down into some dark and violent places. So if we’re going to find any meaning for us today, we need to do a little background work. You see, this is one of three versions of this story. One is from Luke. One is from the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of the sayings of Jesus discovered in 1945 among a whole collection of manuscripts buried in the desert near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. 

The versions in Luke and Thomas are quite similar, but Matthew has some very distinctive differences. Many scholars consider Luke’s version closer to the original than Matthew’s. See if you can spot  the differences. 

Then Jesus said, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. He sent his slave to say to them, ‘Come; everything is ready.’ But they all began to make excuses. One said, ‘I’ve bought a piece of land, and must go out to see it; please accept my apologies.’ Another said, ‘I’ve bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m going to try them out; please accept my apologies.’ Another said, ‘I’ve just been married, so I can’t come.’ 
The slave returned and reported this to his master, who became angry and said, ‘Go out into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ The slave said, ‘What you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ The master said, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’” 

What’s missing? No king, no wedding. No violence – they don’t kill the messengers who brought the invitation; the king doesn’t retaliate by sending troops to kill them and burn down their town. There’s no guest without proper wedding clothes; and there’s no threat of being cast into hell. It seems that Matthew has turned a challenge parable into an allegory about Jewish rejection, Christian acceptance, and final judgment. 

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Oh, boy. You can see the problems. For centuries, this story has been interpreted by Christians, with the king representing God, the bridegroom is Jesus, the wedding feast is the Messianic banquet, the rejected slaves are Old Testament prophets, the A-list guests who refuse to attend are the Jews, and the B-listers who come in off the streets are the gentiles. The guest without the wedding garment refers to those who don’t produce proper fruit. He’s thrown out into the darkness where “they’ll weep and grind their teeth,” another favorite phrase of Matthew’s. 

It’s an ‘attack parable’
But here’s what we have to understand about what Matthew was doing here. John Dominic Crossan, in The Power of Parable, doesn’t just call this version an allegory, he calls it an ‘attack parable.’ The additions to this parable give us a glimpse of a low point in an intrafaith fight. Matthew and members of his community are Jews who are caught up in a struggle with their own Israelite kin about how to be faithful to the God of Abraham and Sarah and whether Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah Israel’s prophets had promised. It’s not a Jewish-Christian dispute – though in the centuries that follow Christians will use this passage to further their anti-Semitism (which is one of the things that makes this passage dangerous). At this point, it’s an intense family feud, and it’s crucial for us to understand that – and reject any further dissemination of anti-Semitism. 

In fact, reading this in conjunction with the Isaiah text gives lie to the oft-repeated explanation that the Old Testament is about God’s wrath and the New Testament is about God’s love. But listen to the Old Testament prophet Isaiah: 

On this mountain, the Lord of Hosts will prepare for all peoples a banquet of rich food, a banquet of fine wines, food rich and succulent, and fine, aged wines. On this mountain God will remove the mourning veil covering all peoples, the shroud covering all nations, destroying all death forever. God will wipe away the tears from every cheek, and will take away the shame of God’s people on earth, wherever they live. Now that’s Good News!

OK, now that we’ve got the background, what’s the “so what?” for us today? Something we were discussing in our book study group Thursday night pinged into my thoughts as I worked with this text. We were talking about the idea proposed by some that we are in the midst of a shift in human consciousness. One of the characteristics of this shift involves a redefinition of religion because many of the answers given in the past don’t address questions being asked today. 

One of the reflection questions at the end of the chapter was: “What are some questions asked by people today that aren’t being answered by traditional religion?” Reading this version of the parable in light of that question, I realized that the allegory/attack version doesn’t work for us today. We’re not in the same place or time of his community. Nor are we asking the same questions. So what questions arewe asking today?

I can think of a lot, as I’m sure you can too. The president is in the hospital. COVID-19 is ravaging our country. Racial tensions continue. Climate change threatens the whole planet. How will the human race emerge from these threats? When will the wildfires stop? How will the church survive in these days and in whatever circumstances are to come?  

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There’s an article that’s been making the rounds on social media this week called “30 Signs of Soul Exhaustion.” It was actually written in 2018, so it’s not even current. But it was all over the place, which should tell us something about how many of us are doing. It begins: 
Are you in a funk and feeling like you can’t get out of it? Perhaps you’re going through a traumatic event. Your heart and mind are preoccupied with what’s going on in your life. Your body starts reacting to the situation. Your body and mind are interconnected. So, when your mind is stressed, your body will begin to show the symptoms. Stepping beyond the physical issues and treating the problem is the only way to help. Your soul is tired. A worn-out soul is impossible to heal with medication. It takes confronting the underlying issues directly and dealing with them comprehensively to allow the soul to revive and recover.

Then, there are 30 ways your soul will try to tell you it’s exhausted and needs help. I don’t think they’re in any kind of order, but I find it interesting that #1 is: You don’t laugh anymore. #30 is: You’re physically exhausted all the time. In the middle at #16 is: you’re afraid of the future. It’s a pretty good article. It’s from a website called Medical News, so I wasn’t expecting any spiritual advice. Still, I found it intriguing that they would diagnose the problem as a condition of the soul. In another place they call it ‘spiritual exhaustion,’ but they don’t offer any remedies.

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So I went back to the parable. And there was that poor soul who was thrown out for wearing the wrong garment. What can we make of him in light of the questions we have today and for the good of our souls?

It’s a brutal way to say it, but Matthew appears to say that being seated at the heavenly banquet requires something more than merely accepting an invitation to discipleship. It’s not enough to just show up. There’s further accountability beyond out initial response of discipleship, our ‘yes!’ to God’s invitation to the banquet.”1 “In other words, “it’s not enough anymore to call yourself a follower of Christ and then act as if you were sound asleep during the Sermon on the Mount. It’s not enough to pledge allegiance to church membership without then vowing to live out that chosen-ness in the world. It’s not enough say you’re a “Christian” and then stay silent when life, liberty, and love are in jeopardy.”2   Or as Garrison Keillor once quipped, “Anyone who thinks just sitting in church can make you a Christian must also think that sitting in a garage can make you a car.” 

We might balk at the idea that the guest with no wedding garment refers to those who don’t produce proper fruit. That might sound awfully works righteousness-y to our grace-accustomed ears. But again, Isaiah points the way: “My soul shall be joyful in my God, who has clothed me with a garment of deliverance and wrapped me in a mantle of justice, the way a bridegroom puts on a turban and a bride bedecks herself with jewels. (Is.61:10)

In the New Testament, the writer of the letter to the Ephesians reminds us: “You were taught to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in the justice and holiness of the truth.” 

And then, with more practical detail: 

“So, let’s have no more lies. Speak truthfully to each other, for we are all members of one body. When you get angry, don’t let it become a sin. Don’t let the sun set on your anger. 

Be on your guard against foul talk. Say only what will build others up at that moment. Say only what will give grace to your listeners.”

The writer of Colossians says:
“Rid yourselves of anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language. Don’t lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self. Clothe yourselves with heartfelt compassion, with kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with one another; forgive whatever grievances you have against one another – forgive in the same way God has forgiven you. Above all else, put on love, which binds the rest together and makes them perfect. 

Let Christ’s peace reign in your hearts since, as members of one body, you have been called to that peace. Dedicate yourselves to thankfulness. Let the word of Christ, rich as it is, dwell in you. Instruct and admonish one another wisely. Sing gratefully to God from your hearts in psalms, hymns and songs of the Spirit. And whatever you do, whether in speech or in action, do it in the name of Christ.”

And in today’s second reading, Paul sums it up:
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever deserves respect, all that is honest, pure, decent, admirable, virtuous or worthy of praise – think on these things. Live according to what you have learned and accepted, what you have heard me say and seen me do. Then will the God of peace be with you.”

Compassion, kindness, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, love, thankfulness – these are not abstract concepts. They’re not works we have to do in order to be acceptable to God.  They are the threads that make up the fabric of our wedding garment. In the midst of our questions, our doubts, fears, and uncertainties, this is the answer to the question “What should I wear?” It’s an answer that will never be unflattering, out-dated, or not age-appropriate. And we can put it on every day. The remedy for soul exhaustion is to think on these things – so much so that our garment of deliverance is our second skin. These fruits of the Spirit aren’t so much actions or works, but just who we are. So that we can have the where-with-all to face the future – known or unknown – with thankful hearts. 

“Wear whatever makes you feel good.” This is it. 

Amen

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1. Sharon H. Ringe, “Commentary on Matthew 20:1-14,”

http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=997

2. Karoline Lewis, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4980

MATTHEW 22:1-14

Then Jesus spoke to them again in parables. He said, ”The kindom of heaven is like this: there was a ruler who prepared a feast for the wedding of the family’s heir; but when the ruler sent out workers to summon the invited guests, they wouldn’t come. The ruler sent other workers, telling them to say to the guests, ‘I have prepared this feast for you. My oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding.’ But they took no notice; one went off to his farm, another to her business, and the rest seized the workers, attacked them brutally and killed them. The ruler was furious and dispatched troops who destroyed those murderers and burned their town. The workers went out into the streets and collected everyone they met, good and bad alike until the hall was filled with guests. The ruler, however, came in to see the company at table, and noticed one guest who was not dressed for a wedding. “‘My friend,’ said the ruler, ‘why are you here without a wedding garment?’ But the guest was silent. Then the ruler said to the attendants, ‘Bind this guest hand and foot, and throw the individual out into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”