I Don’t Like This Parable

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.

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  1. First thing which enters my mind is that this is a parable, and not a narrative of an actaul event, like Acts Chapter 5 where Ananias and Sapphira were struck down for not sharing their resources. But even that shares a theme with this parable. God means business. This is not London Bridge or doe-sie-dotes or Ring around the Rosie (sic). This is about the most important thing in life. Think of it as God’s making an offer you can’t refuse. Think about Michael Rennie in The Day the Earth Stood Still, with that very menacing robot (???) behind him. The velvet glove over the iron fist. (One could go on like this for a very long time.)

    I suspect the one point in which I would agree with you most strongly is that if I found myself in a position to sermonize on this parable, I would make it about myself and not about the congregants.
    I’m puzzled: In my NRSV, this parable is at Matthew 22:1 – 14 and in my lectionary, it is on Proper 23, Series 1.
    One scholarly way of interpreting this is to note that Matthew didn’t like the Pharisees very much, and may have been referring to them (although it does sound a bit more like Luke).

    1. You’re right. Matthew 22 and not Matthew 14. This is why the world (er, me) craves and needs editors! How many times did I stare at it and write the wrong chapter/verse in Matthew? Oh, let me NOT count the ways I looked and did not see. Hopefully it’s corrected throughout the reflection. Those that read these words after the corrections may not fully understand my humiliation . . . but thanks Bruce for finding another of my “public” mistakes!! I shall not tally the private ones!

  2. What I get from it : The people being invited refused to come..so the rest..the secondary people..are the others better..??no…but, the wedding is a gift..the fatted calf slaughtered…I do not believe that the wedding robe has to be some fancy clothing(in a literary scheme of things)..I think the friend (guest) just showed up and was not taking the seriousness of the gift as being as important as it was/is…

    I agree, it would be so much better without the last “bind him hand and foot and throw him into outer darkness…” but, isn’t that where the person may be already? and how cruel to cast someone away that showed up…It really makes you think that the King has little patience…if you are invited , you MUST come…but, the person came and didn’t have his respectful grateful clothes on..inside or on the outside of his/her body

    In all parables, I switch back and forth as to who I am at the time and what I am going through …Am I the castaway, the person who didn’t show up? , the King who invited all my people and then they didn’t show up..or am I one of the nameless people who came and stayed and ate the fatted calf? Since this is about the kingdom of heaven being compared to a king inviting the chosen to a wedding for his son..which is one of the most important things that could happen to a father and son (whether a king or not)..a day to celebrate, to share in the king’s glorious day, ..It is more important to the king for his son to have all there and be ready with respect ..a joyous occasion..a shared moment ..a day..an eternity???..to me, the clothing (wedding robe) is like saying the person was disrespectful and not ready, didn’t take it serious..it is on the inside that the clothing is worn..not on the outside..for the parable has many meanings..

    You are right Larry, this is a very hard one..but I think it just really comes down to whether we are prepared and willing to put on our wedding dress on the inside and to be grateful for being asked to share in a most tremendous occasion

  3. Larry, I came on your article while preparing for next Sunday (Oct 9th) when I’m using this parable. I don’t like it either. I find myself understanding one minute and not the next. It really makes me uncomfortable, and I know that’s what it’s supposed to do. I chose to preach on it, and now I sorta regret it. The only certainty I have concerning it is that I will not do it justice, no matter how hard I try. My mind has been caught in a loop from TS Eliot’s Gerontion…”…Thoughts from a dry brain in a dry season.” God help our congregation this Sunday, because my best efforts aren’t likely to be of much comfort.

    1. Hey Curtis: Thoughts from a “dry brain in a dry season.” Whew. Thanks, Mr. Eliot. Thanks for the truth!!

      I kinda hope your sermon will “equally” include the parts you understand and those where you just stare at the verses blankly and wonder, “Why?” I can’t help but think this parable was “corrupted” by the early church leadership as they “used” it to condemn/eliminate some followers. At the same time, simply because it’s irritating, Jesus likely shared some of this story!

  4. I have always had trouble with this parable, because I have been trained to assume that the “king” is God in the story (makeing us the invited guests). However, the image of the king doesn’t fit my Theological understanding. What if God is not the king in the story, but the guest that doesn’t “dress” right? What if I am the “king” that will hurt others who disrespect me and throw out anyone who doesn’t follow my rules (even Jesus)? This parable makes me take a long hard look at my need to be “king”. It makes me wonder if I have sometimes thrown Jesus out unaware.

    1. I think that’s a wonderful insight, Jeff. I remember the first time when a Biblical scholar mentioned the father in the Prodigal Son parable may not be as “good” as I sometimes want him to be. I deeply believe Jesus told parables, and created a tradition of parables, that intentionally throw us curves. Who are we tossing out?

  5. I wonder if those who deemed this text worthy of inculsion in the lectionary have ever preached it to a congregation. It certainly doesn’t make my “Top Ten” list of favorites. I had hoped to find good reason to preach it this Sunday, but after engaging it again, I decided not to do so. I just don’t like it enough. I’ll pray the Spirit to lead me, inspire me, and see what happens between now and then. Blessings + upon us all.

  6. I have already left one reply, but am starting to have fun with this text, so here we go! I plan to have my congregation eat a wedding cake while I preach. The hope is to help them enter into the “feel” of the text. Then unpack the parable…with all it’s twists and turns. Just wanted to share the idea.

  7. Thanks Larry for your insight – in my world of youth ministry, I find students assign all sorts of meanings to parables that we adults often miss. For this one I went to a similar place as you – what did I do with the invite once I got it? In the pervasive youth culture of who is “better” this parable is one NOT to overlook, challenging as it is. Your wordswordswordswords have helped – I will let you know what they do with it after Sunday!

    1. Thanks Lori. In the ancient days when I worked with youth…it was similar: youth discover/discern “truths” I often missed. And then, after some gift and take, I became the student to their teachers. I look forward to hearing what they do with it…

  8. Larry, thanks for being honest with this text. I for one will be very happy when we switch lectionary cycles and get into good, raw Mark. Yeah I’m struggling with this parable, but isn’t it cool that Jesus, who had all the answers, so often didn’t give straight answers but told stories we’d have to read and wrestle with so they could work and breathe within us. Maybe its all about the process and not the product.

  9. Larry,
    I am a newbie, but want to suggest that Jesus is the one without a garment, refusing to play by the ruler’ s rules. The king is Herod, etc. The point is that in Christ we will probable have to face some painful rejection,Just passing through.

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