Matthew 22:1-14 – the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for October 9, 2011
Before I began the first draft of this reflection, I trooped out to the kitchen to top off my coffee mug. In other words, I bought a few more seconds to . . .
. . . avoid Jesus’ parable a little longer.
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen.’
If you’ve read my lectionary musings in the past—I started this site in the summer of 2007—you’ll realize this one is different. I’ve never displayed more than a Biblical verse or two anywhere on my webpage. Every week I tussle with a lectionary “lesson,” but I trust that you, my intrepid reader, can find the entire passage on your own.
But this week I posted all 260 NRSV words and 1,408 characters (including spaces) of Matthew 22:1-14. Have I broken copyright laws? Perhaps the limit for quoting from another source is 100 or 200 words. Let whomever owns the NRSV translation sue me.
Why include everything? Because I wanted this parable in front of me when I wrote about it and in front of you when you read about it. Though I’d rather avoid these 260 words, I promised myself I wouldn’t.
I don’t like this parable. I don’t understand this parable. If I were currently serving a church, I might pass over the honor of interpreting it for a congregation. Indeed, I easily picture myself earning a modest salary at a nice suburban United Methodist Church and—maybe late last spring or early summer—leaving for a sermon planning retreat. There I’d study scripture and ponder my congregation’s needs and schedule the fall’s preaching. How responsible! Eventually, Bible open and a yellow legal pad beside me, this Sunday, aka the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time, would arrive. I’d read the 260 words about the wedding feast guests. I’d grumble. Scowl. Don’t like this parable. Don’t understand this parable. Thus I’d probably turn my metaphoric back on Matthew’s grim tale and choose Philippians 4:1-9—with its rousing ending—for my future sermon. Why Philippians? If you know the lectionary, you know it’s a scriptural choice for Ordinary Time’s 17th Sunday. If you don’t know the lectionary . . . just trust me!
But I’m not preaching. I’m just a guy trying to get a novel published, on leave of absence from nice-church-in-the-suburbs ministry, and I can do anything I want. In other words, even without earning big bucks and wheelbarrowing more money into a pension account, I can avoid Matthew 22:1-14. I’m on my own!
But I want to tackle these 1,408 characters and spaces. Is God nudging me to “proclaim” this corner of the Gospel? Or does a contrarian pride goad me to try? I suspect both.
Here are guidelines I’ve arbitrarily embraced . . .
- I won’t thumb through my Greek-English lexicons for language study. Those books stay on the library shelves.
- I won’t read Barbara Brown Taylor or Joachim Jeremias or others for insight. (As an aside…when I preached 45-50 Sundays a year, it seemed “safer” to quote a Biblical scholar or a popular preacher’s viewpoint rather than my own if a scripture intimidated me. Easier to tell my congregation what someone else thought. Avoidance comes in so many easy-open packages.
- I won’t explore this parable’s historical context. Which is foolish. For example: I should determine the wedding robe’s importance. How first century people perceived the value, or lack of value, of that garment might give “clues” to its meaning. For example: these verses may be less a story Jesus shared and more that Matthew attributed this tale to Jesus so the Gospel’s author could confront “bad” members of the early Christian community. Sorry, no contextual exploration for me. Foolish!
I just wanna try to see what this parable says to me. Unvarnished. Some might refer to my methodology as lectio divina. If you know what that means, you’ll likely raise your eyebrows or yawn. If you’re clueless about lectio divina, you’re probably better off anyway.
I should tell you why I don’t like this parable.
- I don’t understand it (yeah, figured I needed to repeat that).
- It doesn’t have a happy ending.
- If it ended at verse 10, I’d like it. After all, some highfalutin folks got their comeuppance. Since I’m not rich—and it’s mostly rich people who refused to attend the wedding—I can smugly say those guests got what they deserved. How can people overly concerned with secular treasure ever understand Jesus’ call to love your neighbor? Phooey on them, burn their cities! Alas, the parable doesn’t end there . . .
Okay, I’ll admit . . . I kinda do understand it. A little. Enough. Two reactions pierce my heart. Two truths, like a vise, tighten against my pride.
I am the man without the wedding robe. This is what I believe about Gospel parables: they are never about the other person. They are also never about people only “back then” in the “long ago” first century. They are about me. The true me. The me who is clever, boastful, humble and sarcastic. The me who is a mess. In the parable, the “king” calls me “friend” (vs. 12). I have been unexpectedly invited to a party, and not as a stranger, but as a friend. However, I don’t know others—those highfalutin wealthy types—insulted the king by not coming. Nope, all I “know” is the king invited me into a swell place with people just like me. But what did I do after I arrived? Since this is my fanciful, truthful interpretation, I think I’d keep to myself at the party. Or maybe I’d hover near the table with hors’ d’oeuvres and bubbly. I’d never show others what I was like. I’d pay lip service to the host. I’d come when I wanted, leave when I was ready. My rules are more important than any other rules. In fact, let’s face it, I really am the “king.” I’m in charge. If the so-called true king invites me to his party, it’s because I deserved it. If he then un-invites me, it’s because he really doesn’t understand me. I will always have an excuse for how I act . . . because I think I’m the center of the world. So there!
I wonder if the parable exposes some of the worst of who I am.
There’s a second reaction. Faith—heartfelt, honest-to-God belief—really, really, really scares me. I protect my weak, nickel-and-dime faith by regurgitating tons of words around myself. A verbal moat, if you will. You know why this reflection is so long? It’s like when I took a test and hadn’t adequately studied. If the exams were multiple choice or true/false, I’d likely fail. But in college, at least in the classes I took, most tests were essays. I could bullshit (pardon my nonacademic language) my way through them. Even if I didn’t know China’s history or Socrates’ theory of virtue, I cobbled together essays that eventually would appear to say . . . something.
What would you be doing at the party to “protect” yourself?
That’s what this sharp-edged parable does to me. It’s why I don’t like it . . .
- How easy (mostly secretly) to think I’m the center of the world. I’m better than you.
- How easy to wield words (wordswordswords) to keep you—and God—at a distance.
I probably haven’t done the parable justice. I’ve mostly prattled on about me. Larry divina instead of lectio divina.
And yet, just maybe, in a phrase or two, in an unguarded moment (even after all my revisions), you’ve learned a tiny bit about my fears and you realize that like you, I long to love the One who welcomes everyone—everyone!—to a party where we are invited to, and never forced to, help create the Realm of Love.