March 8 – The Surreal One

March 8 – The Surreal One

The Surreal One – a sermon on Matthew 22:1-14

Early in January as I was starting to look ahead to what our Lenten texts would be, I got really excited about this couple of weeks where we would find ourselves with the parables of Jesus. And I got especially excited about this Wedding Banquet story. How great would it be to preach on the gracious love of God inviting us all to the best party we’ve ever been to. I could tell stories of great parties where there was time well spent with families and friends, and dancing late into the night.

But then I started to read and re-read this story Jesus tells in Matthew’s gospel and I became less and less thrilled at preaching it this morning. For like other passages of scripture – the slaughter of the innocence that opened Matthew’s gospel, the weird scene in Judges where Jepthah sacrifices his daughter in order to gain an advantage in battle, or any number of other stories where the unthinkable happens – the end of this parable just makes me cringe.

A man who show’s up to the wedding feast is seen by the king as not having the proper wedding attire and he is thrown out into the darkness where there is weeping and knashing of teeth. How is this Gospel? And How is the kingdom of heaven like this? How is this holy scripture?

It’s just too surreal the picture painted in this parable.

Thankfully there is a slight difference to the way Jesus sets this parable up that makes it a little more manageable to hear. “Once more”… we’re about to hear yet another parable about the kingdom of heaven. This parable is the third in a string of three parables that Jesus has told…and they are all very harsh…and they all are directed at a very particular audience…the “Chief Priests and Elders of the People.”

These are the religious leaders—the leaders of Jesus’ own people who are Jesus’ primary antagonists. Jesus has just made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem…the first thing he does is go into the Temple and turn over the tables of the money changers—quite a bold move—and the Chief Priests and Elders basically say to him, “Who do you think you are to do this…what authority do you think you have.” Jesus says, “Let me tell you a few parables.” Each one of these parables highlight the leaders’ rejection of what God is doing in Jesus. After Jesus tells these parables they are even more determined to kill him.

So unlike our parables from the last two weeks, the laborers in the vineyard, and the unforgiving servant, Jesus doesn’t tell this parable to a larger audience, but specifically to the religious leaders of his day.

The other thing that changes how we hear this parable is that there is no “like”, you know that one word we’re so accustomed to hearing Jesus use to introduce a parable.

But this morning, Jesus doesn’t say, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”

He doesn’t say, “God is exactly like the king in this parable…”

Rather, he introduces this story with, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to.”

And that’s really good news because if God is exactly like the king in this parable then we are all completely without hope and we may as well go home.

Thankfully, in this wedding banquet story, we’re talking comparisons, not simile’s.

As I struggled with this passage, and just what there is to say this morning, what hope, what piece of promise, or even how this is parable comes close to resembling good news. I kept on getting caught up on how this parable is helpful when it paints such a negative picture of God, when I stumbled over this line in a discussion group…

You don’t have to be like something to be compared to it.

The story is spoken by Jesus, but written by Matthew, after the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD. Even if we don’t know when it was written, we do have this grand analogy before us. For those in Matthew’s community maybe they heard the parable where…

King = God

son = Jesus

slaves = prophets

those invited = Israel

destroyed city = Jerusalem 70 A.D.

rejectors = 1st C religious authorities

“the good/bad” = Gentiles[1]

But what if we hear it with those who heard it from the mouth of Jesus himself…

If we move it from after the fall of Jerusalem to before hand, where we don’t have to worry about Matthew’s audience and the potential anti-semetism that is associated with Matthew’s community and gospel.

What if those who heard it from Jesus heard it where…

King = God

son = Jesus

slaves = prophets

those invited = Israel

These first four are all heard the same way, but then rather than being Jerusalem in 70AD, the

destroyed city = Jerusalem 586 BC

rejectors = 6th C religious authorities

“the good/bad” = Jesus’ audience[2]

Changing the way we see the allegory moves the story from just being relevant to Matthew’s community, to being a much larger story that has been taking place for some time.

We know a whole lot about wedding feasts. Maybe you remember standing in line at the grocery store this past week and seeing one of the latest Hollywood couples to throw a grand party for all their friends. Or maybe you gathered to watch the spectacle that was the royal wedding of Charles and Diana.

When the invitation to a royal wedding goes out, one normally goes and finds the nicest clothes they can and they go. But here, in this most bizarre of parables, a guest shows up without the proper garment, and gets punished severely by the king. No matter the setting, that just doesn’t seem like the kingdom of God to me.

The kingdom of God is supposed to be one where the king is forgiving, loving, merciful, and just. But here, in this story where “the kingdom of heaven” can be compared to this wedding feast with a merciless, judgmental ruler, we have to wrestle with how this too might be a view to the kingdom.

And there are no easy answers when it comes to parables like this, or those parts of scripture where God seems uninvolved – maybe that’s what makes them all a little surreal. That even when God’s voice is nowhere to be found and the picture of God we are given is the least that we would hope for or expect, there might be a tiny glimpse of hope and promise of something, someone, more loving than we could ever imagined.

So where does this leave us as we hope to respond to the invitation of a God whose love continues to expands and who wants to include even those who show up poorly dressed, ready to struggle with a hard story.

Maybe the kingdom of God can be compared to this great wedding banquet story, and maybe we can be comforted and encouraged by the words of Barbara Brown Taylor:

God is not looking for warm bodies but for wedding guests who will rise to the occasion of honoring the son. We can do that in shorts and sneakers, I think, as well as in suits and high heels, because our wedding robes are not made of denim or silk. They are made of the whole fabric of our lives, using patterns God has given us—patterns of justice, forgiveness, loving-kindness, peace. When we stitch them up and put them on we are gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous.[3]

And that might be good news indeed during this dusty Lenten season while we journey towards the cross together. That no matter when we have heard the invitation, that no matter how we are dressed, God’s extravagant party of love and grace is ready for our arrival.

Amen.

 

[1] Tom Long, Matthew p. 246

[2] As suggested by Rev. Eric Elnes on darkwoodbrew.org

[3] As quoted by Rev. Nicholas Lang in his sermon on this text at http://www.stpaulsnorwalk.org/sermon-2011-10-09/