Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, October 15 2017, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Ex 32:1-14; Ps 106:1-6, 19-23; Phil 4:1-9; Mt 22:1-14

It would be hard to pick one parable as the most difficult of Matthew’s many difficult parables, but this one is certainly a strong contender. To review the problematic events—having decided to throw a wedding banquet, a king invites a variety of guests. These guests are unwilling to attend, and some of them express this unwillingness in no uncertain terms by beating and killing the messengers. In response, the king destroys them all and burns their city, and then, in a perhaps surprising development, decides it’s still party times. Having sent his servants to drag people into his party from the streets, he is then, for some reason, enraged to find that at least one of them doesn’t have appropriate clothing, and descends upon this hapless victim, ties him up, and throws him into the outer darkness, where there is, of course, wailing and gnashing of teeth. It is a sequence of hideous events within a hideous world, in which the ordinary behaviour of nearly everyone is to attack and kill other people for no good reason; and if we were to accept the all too commonly employed allegorical reading, in which the king stands for God, we are left with a God who is not only violent, but irrationally and nonsensically violent.

It’s interesting to note that Luke’s gospel contains a parable with a premise very like this one, but entirely lacking in random slaughter or casting into outer darkness; it is a relatively short and simple parable about invited guests who decline to attend a banquet, and societal castaways who come instead, and it makes a characteristically Lukan point—that the outcast and the marginalized will be the ones who will understand and receive the great good news, which the privileged will ignore or refuse. It may be that this is the core tradition—supporting this view, the story appears in the same form in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas—onto which Matthew, or a later editor, has grafted a strange angry violence which did not exist in Jesus’ original telling of the story. However, we have Matthew’s story, in this form, passed down to us, and we are obliged to make of it what we can.

First of all, we can look at the way it is introduced. You’ll remember that both Mother Andrea and I have been drawing attention to Matthew’s several different ways of introducing parables. This is one of the ones which is introduced with a phrase something like “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to”; it might even be translated “some people compare the kingdom of heaven to”—a phrase which may invite us to see a hidden or forgotten contrast, an unspoken “whereas I say to you, the kingdom of heaven is.” Maybe this nasty story is not at all how we are meant to imagine the kingdom of heaven, but rather an illustration of how some people have portrayed it—and indeed continue to portray it. You do not have to look very far to find the lurking angry God, the violent punishing God, in far too many theologies; the kingdom of heaven certainly has been compared to the world of this vicious king. We see it in the reading from Exodus, too—the children of Israel projecting their own sense of guilt at their descent into idolatry onto a God whom they imagine to be deterred from their destruction only by the intervention of Moses.

This parable follows on after last week’s parable of the wicked tenants, and you may remember, as Mother Andrea pointed out, that it is not Jesus who predicts violent revenge on the part of the landowner in that story; he simply asks his hearers, who seem to be mostly Pharisees, what they think the landowner will do. They’re the ones who answer that he will, obviously, kill those tenants and find someone else to exploit. They’re the ones who stay locked in that world, and who project the values of that world onto God. But maybe the universe of this story is not the kingdom of heaven at all; maybe it is precisely the kingdom of earth.

It would reflect, certainly, how the hearers of this gospel had experienced earthly kingdoms. The mention of the burning of the city reminds us that Matthew, and some of those in his community, might have lived through the great trauma of the destruction of Jerusalem, would certainly have thought of that event when they heard this story; in fact, one commentator has referred to the eruptions of murder and destruction in this parable as the literary equivalent of post-traumatic flashbacks. The author and his audience are scarred, marked by the violence of kings, in a way that Luke’s more largely Gentile audience probably was not.

So the king in this story would evoke memories of the generals Vespasian and Titus, destroyers of the holy city, who were both to become emperors of Rome; and even more, memories of the client king Herod Agrippa II, who aided them in the seige of Jerusalem; and of the Herodian dynasty in general, that saga of bloody knives and betrayal. Matthew tells a story full of violence because his world, like ours, is full of violence, because these things happen in the courts of kings, because the Herodians sold their people lock, stock and barrel into the hands of the golden calf, and destruction really was the final outcome, both for those who worshipped that idol and those who would not; destruction brought on not by a God of childish vengefulness, but by the automatic operations of power, by empire doing what empire always does.

Perhaps, then, this parable, in Matthew’s version, is simply a reflection on human sin, on how the human world of the powers operates, and on how we let those operations distort our picture of God. For the kingdom of heaven has been compared to this king. But maybe there is another story hidden beneath. If we are standing in the courts of the Herodian dynasty, we need to notice that one silent figure who does not participate, who will not wear the robes of empire, who does not speak when he is called up by power and ordered to explain himself, the one who accepts in his body the world’s violence. Perhaps it is here, whether or not the author of the gospel intended it, that we meet the true kingdom, here that we meet the suffering Son of Man.

“Many are called, but few are chosen,” the story concludes. And here, too, if we read carefully, we are pointed towards that one silent figure. Many have indeed been called into that brutal imperial party, and many, apparently, are happy to wear the required clothes. Only one has the courage, or the desperation, or whatever it may be, which enables him to stand apart, to refuse to put on the robe, to be a silent witness against power. Singularly choosing, chosen.

Chosen for suffering, yes. But this parable, like last week’s, ends partway through the story—it ends without the resurrection, and the resurrection must change everything. The stone which the builders rejected, the one who was cast out from the celebrations of the powerful, the one who was chosen to suffer the violence of empire, this one will become the source of new life, the sign of new possibility for all the world. Because God’s solidarity with the lost and the rejected overcomes the power of death, because those who cannot or will not wear the wedding robes of this world’s kings are finally chosen by love, so we may rejoice.

If we understand the God whose children we are not as an unpredictable tyrant, but precisely as the one who stands aside from the crowd, we will not be spared our own suffering. We will be called to act likewise, to renounce power and its deadly amusements, and to accept that this will mean rejection in this world, it will mean the weight of pain. If we try, as we are able, to live into that gentleness, that purity, that justice, which will not wear empire’s robes, we will not know much peace in this world. But we are promised that we will be held in the peace which surpasses the world’s understandings. It may surpass our own understanding, much of the time; it may not feel much like peace. But God is near. And still we may rejoice—having to construct something upon which to rejoice, as T.S. Eliot says—in the name of the God of peace.