“From King to Unrobed Guest”

Reverend Thomas G. Steffen

11 October 2020
Philippians 4:1-9 (The Message) Matthew 22:1-14

The parable we read a moment ago is a challenging read to say the least. Both Matthew and Luke include this story in their records, but it is the ending that Matthew adds that is so unnerving.

I recently found a few notes I jotted down while listening to an NPR broadcast, I think around February of 2008, just as the great recession was spreading like a virus and people were growing nervous. The expert offered three options to consider during a down turn in the market.

 One option is to stop paying attention. Stop looking at all the updates from local banks, brokers, pension managers. In other words, no news is better than more bad news.
 Another option is to pay attendance but don’t do anything, which translates don’t mess around with the mess you’re already in.
 The last option is to “Sell down to one’s sleep level and see how it feels.” Now, I don’t personally manage stocks, you may not either, but perhaps the idea is to get out of the risky investments, but do not get out of everything all at once.

Well, I thought about these options as I worked with today’s parable about a king who hosts a wedding banquet for his son. In Luke’s version of the parable, it is simply a rich man who gives yet another grand party. As was the custom, a guest list is made, and those invited are told the party is going to take place. When everything is finally ready, the servants go out and contact everyone on the guest list. But those on the “A” list say they are too busy to attend the party. According to Matthew’s version, the guests make fun of the servants and actually kill a few of them. This violent act, unique to Matthew’s version, is met with even more violence from the king: he has the entire village burned and the people slaughtered.

Then the king sends his servants back out to find people to fill his banquet halls, this time inviting all the down-and-outers, and both Matthew and Luke agree on this new invitation list. In Luke’s version, after the lame, homeless, and the blind come to the party there was still room in the banquet hall, which prompts a third invitation to be extended to those not just from the street but the “hedges,” whatever that means. And the story ends there for Luke, with a rich man who meets for the first time several poor people in his village, who eat and go away feeling, for one evening, what the royals in Downton Abbey must feel. But in today’s reading, the king spots a down-and-outer who doesn’t have the correct clothing on. The king orders the man to be bound, hand and foot, and cast into the outer darkness, where people weep and gnash their teeth. And then comes this closing line: “Many are called, few are chosen.”

What are we to make of this parable? Well, here is where the advice I heard on the NPR broadcast comes into play. Should we simply ignore Matthew’s version of Jesus’ parable? If you have suspicions that God can be like a cruel and crazy king, perhaps no news is better than more bad news about a violent God. Or should we continue to read this parable but pretend we don’t notice the vindictive and explosive behavior of the king? In other words, keep reading this parable, but don’t discuss the implications? Well, I’d like to suggest we go with the third option when faced with a difficult parable. I recommend that we sell down, eliminate the potential harm, trade enough so we can sleep tonight. As it is said, sometimes we need to “unsee” a biblical text before we can begin to really see it at all.

At Tuesday’s Zoom Morning Prayer gathering, I shared a reflection from Debie Thomas, a writer who I regularly read, who reminded us that sometimes the most honest response to a story from Scripture is regret, regret that can lead to repentance and sincere reorientation. She, like most of us, perhaps, was taught that the king in the parable is God, the soon-to-be-married son is Jesus, and the wedding feast is the long-awaited Messianic banquet. The Old Testament prophets are the rejected, murdered servants, and the “A-list” guests, who refuse to attend, are the Jews. And the “B-list” people? Those last-minute guests? Well, the gentiles, of course, you and me. Sound familiar? 

Of course, I am grateful to be invited to God’s party; I suspect you are too. And we ought to be grateful. And we ought to be willing to say that the God we late-comers know, revealed in Jesus, cannot be merciful, warm and inviting one minute and cruel and callous, thin-skinned and vindictive in another. Isn’t it best to simply admit this? And
should we not state publically, whenever we read aloud this parable, that the God, revealed in Jesus, does not burn an entire city to appease his wounded ego? Should we not say to every struggling person we assist with a hot meal and clean clothes—“the God who has led you to this church on Seventh Street will not strike you dead on Front Street for having your shirttail out!”

Thomas confesses in her reflection that she now grieves the usual interpretation of today’s parable and repents for the hurt that it causes. She writes:

“I wonder now if Jesus tells the parable in such an extreme and offensive way precisely because we do believe in a God as harsh as the king who turns his armies loose on his own people…. but,…. What if the king in the parable isn’t God at all? What if the king is what we project onto God? What if the king embodies everything we’ve learned to associate with divine power and authority from watching other, all-too-human kings and rulers?…. Some of us still carry deep wounds from decades we spent appeasing the ‘king’ we mistook for God.”

Look, if you are beginning to “unsee” this parable with “eyes starving for Good News,” well, listen with me to what Thomas writes next:

“What if the ‘God’ figure in the parable is the one guest who refuses to accept the terms of the tyrannical king? The one guest who decides not to “wear the robe” of  forced celebration and coerced hilarity, the one guest whose silent resistance leaves the king himself “speechless,” and brings the whole sham feast to a thundering halt? The one brave guest who decides he’d rather be “bound hand and foot,” and cast into the outer darkness of Gethsemane, Calvary, the cross and the grave, than accept the authority of a violent, loveless sovereign?”

I know this may seem new, but listen with me, people of First Church—listen now like you have never listened before.

If Jesus is the unrobed guest, what would change for you, for me? Would I be willing to stop wearing a tuxedo, what Thomas calls “robes of privilege and power, location and complicity?” Could you forego a feast to follow the unrobed dissenter—for the sake of love—when he’s escorted into the darkness? Would you be willing to get up from that table and follower him? If Jesus is the unrobed guest, would we change the ministries, programs and personnel of our church? Would we rethink the way we spend our money and schedule our days? 

Well, so much for today’s parable; it’s a hot one. I hope you’ll resist turning away from it simply because it is difficult and disturbing. Rather, keep looking deeper for the good news of the gospel in it; our eyes are starving for good news. And if you want to sleep well tonight, join me in asking the Spirit to first reveal who God is not, so that the Spirit can reveal who God is.

And “celebrate God all day, every day,” as St. Paul says in today’s first reading. “Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them…. Instead of worrying, pray…. meditate on things that are true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse…. Do that and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into God’s most excellent harmonies.”

Thanks be to God.