in Matthew 22:1-14, Jesus tells a weird parable about wedding banquet and a murderous king. How could this possibly reveal God to us?
Proper 23A | Matthew 22:1-14
Remind me not to let Jesus be in charge of the guest list for any future weddings. That guy will let anyone in. Or would he?
This gospel is really weird. It bedevils scholars and pastors alike. Because it has a bunch of stuff going on. So what I want to do is unpack the action a little bit, then expand the context, and hopefully, we can start to see what Jesus’s point is. Then we can figure out what it’s trying to tell us. Sound good?
So what’s going on in this parable?
A Weird Wedding
1. The Stiffed Father
Jesus introduces us to a king whose son is getting married and he invites people to come to the banquet. But when the day arrives, nobody shows. So he sends out some slaves to check on the people, but they refuse. So the king sends out a second group of slaves to guilt them into coming.
And what happens when the second set of slaves go out? The invited guests “made light of it”. Two make lame excuses to take back to the king while the rest are beaten and killed.
This should sound a little familiar. Jesus has used this idea in other parables.
So how does the king respond to their slights? He blows his fuse, has all the guests killed, and burns their city to the ground.
Does this sound rational? Or good? No, of course not! It sounds vindictive and horrible!
Now remember what Judaism teaches about justice: that we limit our response. We don’t escalate violence. We don’t trade violence for greater violence. So, in other words, we shouldn’t burn a city.
So, we’re only halfway through the parable, and it still seems weird. This king is not the picture of love or justice.
2. The Replacement Guests
The story then turns in a totally unpredictable direction.
The king wants this wedding to go on. But rather than have no guests at the party, he sends his slaves to go round-up people. Imagine the king barking the order: It doesn’t matter who it is. Just find me some people! We’ve got all this food! There must be dancing! It’s absurd!
So the slaves go out and round-up a bunch of people off the street. But apparently not from the city, which he burned down. Or maybe they were from that city and now have no other place to go. May as well! Or maybe they’re all: That guy’s crazy! I’m not sayin’ no to him!
But they filled the wedding hall, “both good and bad,” it says.
3. Dressed Right
There’s something in Jesus’s day about what you’re supposed to wear to weddings. It’s not so much “don’t upstage the bride” as much as “minimize the evil thoughts.” So everyone covers up with wedding gowns which may have been supplied by the father of the groom.
So here they are, the place is full, we’re all ready to go, and the king sees one of these guests: we don’t know whether he’s one of the good or bad. But he’s sitting there in street clothes. So the king asks the man how he got in dressed like that.
The man doesn’t respond.
So what does the king do? Have the man bound and thrown into the land of misery. Like the place near the sewage treatment plant, or downwind from the coal-fired cement plant, where people get cancer and disturbing rates, but the rent is cheap.
That’s the parable. So let’s dig around a little to make sense of the context.
A Weird Parable
Jesus tells this parable right after the parable we heard last week. That’s the one with the landowner and the vineyard. The one which also had some pretty extreme violence and strained our ability to see anything about the Kin-dom of God in it.
And what I said last week was that it seemed less like a picture of the Kin-dom of Heaven and a lot more like the Kingdom of Earth. It seems more like Jesus putting pressure on the leadership’s description of God than some allegory about Jesus’s crucifixion.
I draw your attention again to the phrase Jesus uses at the beginning: he says “compare”. He doesn’t say this is the Kin-dom. Compare the Kin-dom to what I’m about to tell you.
Compare it to a king who invites a whole bunch of people to his son’s wedding and none of them want to come.
He tries to compel them to come, and they don’t; so he has them killed and their city destroyed.
Compare it to a king who thinks he can replace those guests with total strangers. And when that doesn’t go right, he flips out again.
Compare it to a king who keeps resorting to violence to get his way.
If there’s a question we should be asking about this weird wedding, it’s this: why doesn’t the king have any friends?
We could spend all our time trying to shoehorn this story into the box we have for it. Like God is this king and how fantastic it is that he calls all sorts of people to this wedding. Just don’t. This king has no one. Besides, he’s a slave owner and a murderer.
A Sharp Dressed Man
The one character we might give a little attention to is the one who gets thrown out by the docks. The one who wasn’t dressed for the occasion. What if we’re looking at him all wrong. Jesus tells us what he’s not wearing. But not what he is.
Maybe the problem is that he’s a sharp dressed man.
He looks good. And the other guests might be tempted by the rule-breaker. They’ll come runnin’ just as fast they can.
He broke this rule. What else will he break? Sabbath Law? Hearts?
Remember, we compare this vision of an isolated and murderous king to a God who is generous and full of compassion. So what if we see this wedding guest, not as a bad guy, but as one standing up to the vile depiction of God as ruthless and tyrannical?
What if we see in the guest the picture, not only of Christ, but of the one who stands up to injustice and brutality. And what if that makes him dangerous to the dishonorable? What if that makes him attractive to the other guests? To those who live under the tyranny of a genocidal dictator?
We can imagine the Pharisees might have a problem with that.
A Chance at Freedom
The only way the Pharisees saw this parable as being bad enough to try to have him arrested is if they felt that threatened by it. By what Jesus is teaching or saying. He doesn’t call them stupid or offer some deep heresy. So it wasn’t personal.
The very threat Jesus represented to the Pharisees, he represents to all modern kings and imperialists. Jesus breaks rules and threatens the social order. But he doesn’t do it because he’s an anarchist. He does it for love.
And his message of love: of a generous, merciful God; of a Kin-dom we pull to us; of a chance at freedom from the grip of oppression: that message is like light to a moth. It’s water for the dehydrated and shade for the sun-stroked.
This is love for the unloved, freedom for the shackled, hope for the suicidal.
Jesus shows us that God doesn’t resort to violence and isn’t murderous. God is merciful. This is a teaching the Pharisees are confounded by, but the followers would rejoice over! For unlike the landowner who only forgives the slave one time, our God shows mercy 77 times.
Those who know Jesus know the positive which compares with this negative, the hope with this despair, the mercy with this violence, the freedom with this oppression.
And we know that God doesn’t have an exclusive guest list or destroy cities when things don’t go God’s way. The diversity at God’s banquet comes from intention, not desperation. It comes with invitation, not compulsion.
And we know more than anything else, that God is more than willing to forgive our poor fashion choices. Because we can’t all look sharp.