“Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables.” Oh oh! Do you hear sirens, and see flashing lights and read signs that shout: “Danger ahead?” When Jesus speaks in parables, I believe that is code for Jesus saying: “I’m going to exaggerate here a lot to make a point that these dumb folks just won’t get.” So brace yourself for an extreme story with a lot of hyperbolic rhetoric.
First, be aware that this story of the wedding feast is told twice in the Bible but Luke and Matthew frame it very differently. In Luke, it is a lovely story of inviting everyone, even the poor and needy to a great feast. Warm, inclusive, happy. Then there is our story today from Matthew…
There are two parts to this parable and it goes from strange to stranger. The first part of the parable is about a king who decides to have a big party to celebrate his son’s wedding. Slaves are sent out into town to tell the invited guests that the food is ready and it’s time to show up. No one shows up. So the king sends out other slaves to be a little more insistent. Some people make excuses about how busy they are while other people grab the poor slaves and kill them. Look, you may not want to go to this party but do you need to kill the messengers?
The king is enraged so he sends out his troops, destroys the murderers and burns their city down. I think he overreacted. Now this very irritated king sends out more slaves with the instructions that they are to invite anyone and everyone from the streets. Both good and bad folks show up because they are happy for a free meal. You’d think the king would be pleased now, to see his son’s wedding feast being consumed. Well, not so much.
Now we enter the ‘stranger’ part of this story: the king sees one poor guy who is not dressed up enough. He asks him why and the man is speechless. The king responds by telling his attendants to bind the poor man hand and foot and ‘throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
And it all ends with this somewhat cryptic sentence: “For many are called, but few are chosen.” All righty.
The traditional interpretation of this parable is that the King represents God (albeit a very cranky God), the first people invited are the Jews (who turn down this invitation to the kingdom and are therefore punished), the son at the wedding feast is Jesus, and the poor and needy people are Christians who accept the invitation and get to feast at this great banquet. The casually dressed guy who gets kicked out at the end are those Christians who don’t try hard enough to live by God’s rules. Very tidy, huh? Also, just for the record, this is a very anti Semitic interpretation which has been used for years to fuel hatred towards Jews.
But even all wrapped up like that in a tidy package, it is still a pretty crummy king, or God, who is so violent and petty. People don’t show up for his banquet so he kills them and burns their city? Some poor guy doesn’t get sufficiently dressed up so he gets tied up and thrown out to the outer darkness? I don’t like this God.
Now remember the setting for this story: Jesus is talking to the Pharisees in the temple. The day before he’s had a violent fit and thrown over the tables of the money changers. The Pharisees are ready to kill him for all of his disruptive actions and within three days, Jesus will hang on the cross. Things are TENSE.
Matthew was writing this about ten years after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by Roman soldiers in the year 70. Matthew blamed that destruction on Jews who did not follow Jesus. Could he be referencing this when he describes the king burning the city?
Karoline Lewis has another take on this parable: She points out the this petty and vengeful King is nothing like the God she worships. She asks;
“•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?”
It’s worthwhile noting that the crucified Jesus looks much more like the guy at the end of the parable: the one who is silent before his accuser, then bound up and thrown out. Jesus will die within 72 hours of telling this parable. What happens to that man in the parable is what is about to happen to Jesus.
So there are many different takes on this parable. One sermon I read was entitled: “The Parable of the Wedding Banquet is a Horror Story.” Most people prefer Luke’s happy, inclusive parable, not this violent story.
I was surprised in my research by how many people wrote about seeing this parable in a whole new light this year for the first time in their lives. We believe that the Bible is a living document. It is the Living Word. These tales we read have meant many different things to people for thousands of years.
Especially when dealing with parables it is vital that we reject the neatly wrapped, tidy package with an easy, happy interpretation. If we are not deeply shaken by these stories then we are not hearing them as Jesus wants us to hear them. Believe me, it would have been a lot easier for me today to go with the tried and true interpretation and we could all nod and smile about this lovely story about a wedding banquet.
But we are in church to be shaken. We are in church to wake up. We are here to open our eyes and be fully present to the great mystery of faith. If you feel perplexed by this strange story then, congratulations! You’ve got it right! Jesus would be pleased with you!
Faith is not small and tidy. God is not small and tidy. God is incomprehensible. Remember those bracelets that said: “What would Jesus do?” The answer should have always been: “Who the heck knows?” Jesus questioned authority every single chance he got. Jesus threw over tables in the temple. Jesus broke the rules. Jesus was not small and tidy and easy to understand.
The best I can do today is to shrug and suggest that we sit with this odd, unclear message and not cram it into a pretty box with a bow on top. Faith isn’t understanding everything, not even accepting everything. Faith is hanging on, trusting in God’s love, even when you don’t always understand or agree.
Today the apostle Paul writes his letter to the Philippians and in it he stresses that we can’t understand the peace of God. Writing from prison, awaiting his death, he writes to a very troubled congregation. From that dark place, he gives extraordinary advice: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Amen.