I invite you today to listen in on a one-sided conversation, like the reading of a letter from me to Matthew the Gospel writer…
(This concept is a result of the fine work of the folks at Preachingpeace.com)
What a difficult time you must have been experiencing – your community beginning to face persecution, the Temple in Jerusalem having fallen, and the followers of Jesus in your beloved community and elsewhere trying to understand what in the world God was doing.
But I have to be honest, Dear Matthew, that I find it hard to deal with some of your anger, the way your pain seems to be so fresh, so raw, so in our faces.
Still, I’m glad that you’ve given us a clear lens, a filter through which to read your telling of the Jesus story, for those of us who have come to faith in the centuries after you have found it far too easy to read your retelling of Jesus’ parables through the lens of our own hatred, and pain, and prejudice – through our natural human tendency to lift ourselves up on the backs of others, trampling them beneath our drive to be right, and powerful, trampling them beneath our desire to be God’s chosen people to the exclusion of all those “others” out there in the world, and especially to the exclusion of those who are weak, who are the least and the last, the “anawim” as they were known in Jesus’ language, those who lack material goods and who await the blessings of God, those you remember Jesus speaking of in Chapter 5 of your Gospel.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, the ones who mourn, the humble, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted.
But it seems to me, my dear brother Matthew, that that message gets lost at times in your struggle to tell the story, yes, but also to help your community and those of us who come after you to interpret the story as well.
Today we read the parable of the wedding banquet, and I find your telling of it troubling in several ways, or at least I find the way your telling of it has been interpreted by the followers of Jesus since your time troubling, for when Luke, your fellow evangelist, recounted this same story in chapter 14 of his Gospel, he did so in significantly different ways. In Luke’s version, those who refuse the invitation miss the meal, but that’s it, and the invitation goes out to others until, finally, the table is full.
But in your version, the refusal is complicated by what you add to the story. The invited guests don’t just refuse the invitation, but they seize, mistreat, and then kill the messengers. And the king is so enraged that he sends troops and destroys the murderers and burns their city! Then he sends out still more slaves to gather others from the streets, and in this way to fill the wedding hall with guests.
The troubling interpretation has read this story as follows:
God chose Israel to be the people of God, but Israel refused to live as God called them to live, so God sent prophets to call the people back to right standing with God. But the people rejected the prophets, refusing to hear their words as God’s word, mistreating them and murdering them. And because they have rejected God, God will reject them and will give the kingdom to strangers. That is, God will invite to the great wedding feast a new people – Gentiles – the church.
But is this how Jesus lived – Jesus who is himself the exact representation of his Abba, the exact representation of God, our Abba, our Father?
Look, Matthew, I get how angry you are. It’s understandable. It’s difficult to deal with rejection without returning rejection, or at least hoping that God will do so! But, Matthew, it was you who gave us the lens of the beatitudes. It was you who reminded us that Jesus calls us, his disciples, to be the anawim – the little ones – because Jesus himself associates with them, even saying that when we have done, or failed to do, something to one of the anawim, we’ve done so unto him. It was you who reminded us that Jesus said: blessed are the ones persecuted because of righteousness, as those in your community were, and blessed are those who face such persecution and who still seek to make peace. It was you who recounts that Jesus tells us to keep on turning the other cheek, and to go the extra mile as he did when he suffered for us.
How could this be the one who sends troops, who destroys enemies, who kills murderers?
It just doesn’t add up!
Well, and then it seems we go from bad to worse as you add a part of the parable that our brother Luke doesn’t include at all. This poor fellow, improperly dressed, who is cast out into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth – one who was, apparently, called, but not chosen.
But, Matthew, you know that it was the responsibility of the host to provide the wedding garment. In fact, it was the host who was required to put it on his guests. If this man is not properly attired, it’s the king’s fault, not the man’s! So by what right does the king banish this man, casting him out bound hand and foot into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth? And can this really be a vision of God with which you’re comfortable?
Matthew, could you really be telling us that God, the father of Jesus, and our father, too, who loved the world so much that, through the incarnation, he made a way that we might have eternal life – the heavenly rewards promised in the beatitudes – could this God really act in such an ugly, hateful, capricious way?
No. It can’t be.
What have we done to your story, dear brother, to twist our reading of it so badly that we begin to believe that God acts as we do?
It is God who, through the prophet Isaiah, promises to meet us on the mountain where death’s shroud is cast, and to remove the shroud, to destroy death, to wipe away every tear and all sadness, and to make for ALL people a feast of rich food and well-aged wines. It is God who the psalmist reminds us is with us even in death’s dark shadow. It is God who Paul insists is near even as he’s chained between two guards in an Roman prison facing the very real threat and possibility of the death penalty, and who encourages us to rejoice, and to worry about nothing. This is God, our God, the father of Jesus! No murderous king, no capricious host casting out those who are in no way responsible for their condition, who, in fact, are dependent on the king for that condition!
So God can’t be the king in the parable. But what about us? Could it be, dear Matthew, that you, and all of humanity together, have become the king – all human structures that exercise violence and exclusion, especially those which do so in the name of God, so that when Jesus comes in the flesh, and in that coming reveals how far from God’s way our ways have become, we cast him out, bound, and weeping, and dying? Could it be that we cast Jesus out each and every time we fail to recognize him in the other – in the little ones, in the anawim?
Here’s the simple truth: God, in Christ Jesus, is not about casting others out. God, in Christ, was cast out for our sake when he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, and descended to the dead. And it’s there that he meets us – each of us in chains, walking in the valley of the shadow of death, dwelling under the shroud on the mountaintop.
It’s in our weakness, in our failure, in our sin that Jesus meets us, not to bind us and cast us away, but to wash us in the waters of Holy Baptism, forgive our sins and he feed us with his own broken body and shed blood – a feast that puts an end to death and calls us forth toward that day when he’ll finally put an end to all of our murderous ways and awaken us to the full understanding of his peace that guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, when all humanity will say together: This is our God; we have waited for him so that he might save us.
Let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.