This is what I imagine: a feast, a table full of glorious food. There is roast lamb and potatoes, plates of olives and hummus, tomatoes, cucumbers and cheese. The table is set for hundreds, thousands, of guests. The host sits, waiting anxiously for the guests. Only no one comes. The hall is empty.
Can you imagine: the food wasted, the host disappointed and discouraged; not once but twice.
Now, if you or I hosted a party and no one came, we might get angry or disappointed. A king, though, that is a bit different, kings are powerful, they demand attention; they are used to getting their way.
And in today’s parable, it is true that the king is snubbed. It is also true that the king is attacked: his slaves are “seized, mistreated and killed.” I do not know one king who does not respond to violence with violence.
The king in today’s parable is embarrassed and abused. In his anger, the king attacks his new enemies. The king uses his power to react, to punish those who insult him.
This is what I imagine: the king strides into the castle, sweaty from battle. Throwing his armor towards his slave, he gives the next command, “Go into the city and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet." The slave cowers as he backs out of the room in anxious obedience.
The twist of the parable comes at the very end. From the beginning, the story seems to follow a script we all know: banquets, kings and the drama of kingdoms. Then, the unexpected happens; the king sees something we do not: a guest without a wedding robe. As the king strides forward, the possibilities are endless: maybe he will offer him a robe; perhaps there will be hand-to-hand combat. The man, though, is speechless. The king does more than throw him out. He condemns him. The parable leaves us wondering what just happened and why; what does it all mean.
For the last three weeks, we have listened to some difficult parables, especially the last two. Last week’s images of the landowner and his tenants along with this week’s image of the king disturb me.
In the context of every day storytelling, they might be normal, average characters. In the Gospels, they could offer insight into God’s way in the midst of the culture. In Matthew’s Gospel, their aggression and violence seem contrary to Jesus’ acts of mercy.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve studied many commentaries on these parables. I find none of them satisfying. Here’s why: each commentator turns these parables into specific allegories. These allegories pair each character with a known historical event. They also pair the main figures, the landowner and the king, with God. Read in this way, these parables are not portraits of God’s mercy or forgiveness. Instead, they portray God as one who seeks vengeance on all who rebel against God’s kingdom.
Now, this may be true: God may be vengeful and destroy those who rebel against God’s kingdom. I realize that the reading from Exodus does portray God’s anger at the Israelites. However, the Exodus reading also portrays the mercy of God. I believe that God’s mercy and love for creation gracefully overcomes wrath, vengeance and anger.
So, I do not easily accept the commentaries I’ve read. Instead, I want to challenge them. I want to imagine the other interpretations and meanings of the parables.
This is the purpose of a parable: to invite us into God’s story. Every good story entices the reader or listener to imagine ourselves in the story. Over time, our place in the story shifts and changes. A story with only one meaning is one-dimensional and, eventually, we outgrow those stories. Jesus’ parables are multi-dimensional;
they leave space for us to find ourselves in the story, even as we grow and change.
The parables are also part of a larger story, the story of the Gospels. Many of the parables are in each of the Gospels. However, rarely are they in the same order or surrounded by the same material. For example, a story, much like today’s, appears in chapter 14 of Luke’s Gospel. Yet, in Luke’s Gospel, the parable focuses on those who accept the invitation to the banquet. In fact, in Luke’s Gospel, there is no man without a wedding robe, no weeping and gnashing of teeth. Luke wrote his Gospel for wealthy Gentiles. He focuses on humility and generosity, care for the poor and sick. Matthew, on the other hand, is writing for a Jewish community exiled from the Temple and synagogue. He focuses on how Jesus’ teachings weave together with the law and the prophets. The parable, then, takes on a different character and meaning in each Gospel.
In the context of Matthew’s Gospel, one thing is clear: these parables are for the Pharisees and the scribes. We know that under the Pharisees and scribes the law had become unbearably strict. In many ways, the Pharisees and scribes commitment to the law outweighed their commitment to God. The path of salvation, from their perspective, is only through the law; they have forgotten the mercy and forgiveness of God.
The Pharisees and scribes are the ones the people turn to for access and understanding of God. However, because of their corruption, instead of leading people to God, they have become barriers. When they confront Jesus on his authority, he uses these parables to confront them.
Imagine this. What if the Pharisees and the scribes interpret themselves as the landowner, tenants or king? Would they delight in hearing themselves portrayed with such uncontrolled violence and aggression? What if the man without a wedding robe is Jesus? What if the disciples, and all those who the Pharisees and the scribes reject, are the slaves? What do these parables reveal about us?
We know that there were selfish landowners who denied their tenants enough fruit of the land to live. We can imagine that these tenants would eventually lash out at those tyrants and reject their authority. We know that there are kings who snubbed by the elite in their kingdom and suffered rebellion. We can imagine that these kings, in their self-righteousness, would reject the guest who can help them. We can imagine that our selfishness and self-righteousness stand as barriers to our experience of God.
This is what I know.
Every Sunday we prepare a simple meal of bread and wine. It is not fancy or extravagant. This meal is the same meal Jesus shared with his disciples. It is the same meal where he offered his life to them that they would experience the grace of God. Every Sunday, we invite Jesus to our table and he comes. Every Sunday he meets us here, clothed in the grace and mercy of God. I know that sometimes we cannot accept his offer of grace; that there are barriers, stumbling blocks, things in our lives that keep us from accepting God’s grace. I also know that Jesus is still meets us here, he still comes to the banquet, every week. I know he is ready to transform our lives with the gift of hope and the wisdom of God’s mercy.
Thanks be to God!