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It is often our habit, even as followers of Jesus, to domesticate his parables, and perhaps no better example that this one, which we may be tempted to ignore or discount, especially after just hearing it! It worries us that the King character is supposed to be God and we cannot imagine God acting like that. This is a very strange story, full of rejected invitations, murder, violent retribution, a dinner party that is still somehow going on and the final rejection of a person invited off the streets because of his clothing. Its really absurd. Allegories are often absurd, trying to make their point, typically about morality or politics, with vivid, even shocking, examples. We’re accustomed to these from Jesus though most, like the Good Samaritan and the Leaven, have cultural hooks that are lost on us now so they seem tamer than they were when Jesus told them. Other than this line about the brutal action of the king against those who have harmed his slaves – a pretty non-Jesusy “eye for an eye” kind of reaction – this is the kind of story we expect from Jesus, after all it’s not his first time to talk about “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
This parable is located in other gospels – Luke and Mark and Thomas, but the line about destroying the murderers and burning their city is present only in Matthew’s version. Why, I wonder, would he add that line? Matthew isn’t writing in a vacuum, he is responding to something with this gospel. It why we have gospels “according to”, in several versions. Each wants to tell the story of Jesus in a way that supports their own theology and situation. Matthew is written most likely between 80 and 90 CE, just after the Roman armies have marched into Jerusalem and leveled the temple, burning the city to the ground. Sound familiar? Matthew perhaps expects his readers to connect the current events of their own lives, their own anxieties, with the allegory, a not so veiled reference to the family feud that exists between this “Jesus movement” and mainstream Judaism, which had lived not always peacefully side-by-side in Jerusalem until the city was leveled. It is an intense family feud, a struggle about how to be faithful to the God of Abraham and Sarah and whether or not Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah that Israel’s prophets had long promised.
As David Lose points out in his commentary on this passage, “This is not a Jewish-Christian dispute – though in the centuries that follow Christians will use this passage to further their anti-Semitism (which is one of the things that makes this passage dangerous) – but rather represents the pain of a community alienated from its family [from it’s roots] and trying to justify itself.” Maybe, just like us, Matthew has a tendency to create a God to his own liking…a God who picks teams the exact same way he would.
Such pain and strife still exists in Jerusalem, with the family feud not only alive, but thriving and expanded far beyond the boundaries of that holy city. We express similar things here, where we stand equally as divided and conflicted over different issues, and every bit as capable of such vitriolic, self-justifying language. We ought to be familiar with the temptation to get God on our side, as Bob Dylan once sang, a theological motivator that allows for lots of evil to occur with the great modifier of divine justification.
If we are going to say that God is the king in this parable, which is not what even the parable claims, then at the very least we must say that the parable reserves as God’s role alone a task which too many people try to claim for themselves: God is the one who will settle any scores that need settling. Even if we are troubled by the characterization of God here, we ought to notice the role of humility and even compliance that is in effect. If God is the king in this parable, then we are NOT the king, and if teams are being chosen, then we are certainly not the team captain.
I think that such awareness, such humility, is crucial for us as a congregation that seeks to be welcoming. What does it mean to be welcoming? Can you welcome someone who doesn’t want to be welcomed? Can you welcome someone with whom you disagree? Can you welcome someone if they stand in opposition to you? These are especially important questions if we claim the title, “open & affirming”, for as open as we think we are, the many ways we say, “All are welcome”, we, too, have litmus tests. We expect people to be appropriately attired, in the allegorical sense of how they express their values, what words they use and if they are sufficiently “woke.” We have our own prejudices and wounds that reveal themselves in our theologies…of course they do. That’s what makes us human.
“The supreme challenge”, the great writer Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote, “is to see God’s image
in one that’s not in our image, for only then can we see past our own reflection in the mirror
to the God we did not make up.” This version of the parable from Matthew might reveal for us that there is always a gap between God and our version of God, and the trick is being able to sort those gaps out. Because God, I am increasingly confident, does not pick teams but instead welcomes. It is all of us who choose the teams. And I’m not so sure how good we are at it. After all, it is in the wake of fire and flood, earthquake and hurricane, that we realize how insignificant all of our divisions are and reach out, human being to human being, to help one another. It is precisely the times that we can’t pick teams that we find what is most divine and most human in each of us.
And perhaps this is the great lesson of a parable that seems so absurd, even offensive, that it gets us off our track long enough to think about how we participate in the very things we decry, sometimes despite our own declared values or theology. I really don’t subscribe to a God of vengeance who comes to smite all of the wrongdoers, for instance. And the problem is that I have some wrongdoers who I think need smiting. So, who’s gonna smite ’em? And who’s gonna choose the wrongdoers? When we pull this parable out of context, we might lose what is really at work in the Good News that there is for us, for Jesus doesn’t stop here, even in Matthew’s version. Jesus also teaches us of forgiveness and mercy, of justice and compassion, of the way that we must see the world around us if we are to enter the kin-dom, where the invitation is always there, but not without some requirements. We can’t enter if we won’t heed the call. We never really find the kin-dom as long as we feel personally charged with deciding who should pay for their sins and how they should pay for them. We can’t really sit at the table of hope and compassion unless we let God handle all of the judging, for God is the only one who can really do it effectively anyway for we, as the Apostle Paul once wrote, see through glass, only dimly…it is only God who knows our hearts and sees with clarity.
The Good News is that Jesus offers us freedom from that kind of responsibility. I don’t know if vengeance is ever needed, I do know that I sometimes want to dole it out. I don’t know if teams even need to be picked, I just know that I want to pick them. And I also don’t know if there will ever be some sort of great “judgment day” which will include a meting out of justice to the unrepentant evildoers. Even our scriptures and traditions argue about that. But Jesus, in Matthew and elsewhere, is clear on one thing: if judgment is needed, then God can take care of that. I don’t need to.
Arguments and division and strife are not unique to Matthew’s community, nor to us. Paul writes to his churches to get along, he urges these new Jesus followers to understand that their acceptance of the way of Jesus means that they necessarily have to see the world differently, and act differently, and that this is something they must “take on”, like a constant task, like bearing a cross. And he knows that they will fail at this, as he does, too, as we do. And he reminds them, he prays for them to move past the deceptive tendency to pick teams, even if it is “team Jesus”, and to follow the one who teaches us to live lives of grace, to practice compassion and to know that we will not find that peace comes to us as a prize for winning. Instead of the way of the world, as he would put it, instead of just trying to participate in “survival of the fittest” only with a Jesus bumper sticker on our car, Paul urges us to practice something else…to pray, to reprogram, to resist, sometimes even our own inclinations, so that the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep [our] hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.
From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. [Then] The God of peace will be with you.