john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK



    A wedding party you'd want to avoid

    Bridestowe, Lydford,
    9/10/2011


    Matthew 22.1-14


    There are some parties you just wouldn't want to go to. And the wedding party in today's parable of Jesus is precisely one of those.

    Now wait a minute, you might be thinking, isn't this a parable of the kingdom of heaven, and therefore isn't the king in the parable meant to be God, and the wedding feast a picture of heaven, and we, the people that king invited? And doesn't the parable tell us quite clearly that we really ought to want to be at the party if we don't want God to reject us? And it's understandable if you were thinking those thoughts, because that's the way this parable has been taught for many, many generations.

    But, as I've been pointing out in my preaching of late, sometimes Jesus tells parables to illustrate not so much what the kingdom of God is like, but what we human beings are like, in stories from everyday life which have a ring of truth for their listeners. Like those of the vineyard workers, owners, tenants, we've been grappling with in recent weeks. Difficult stories of dangerously driven men willing to resort to violence against the 'other' to fulfil their desires. To discern what Jesus wants us to learn about the kingdom of heaven from these parables we have to read between the lines, just as to discern what he wants us to learn about the kingdom of heaven from our experiences in daily life, we have to develop an eye for seeing what God is doing in the gaps, an ear for listening for God speaking to us through the nuances.

    There's no escaping the knots we can tie ourselves in if we want to make the king in this parable into God. Because the king in this parable is a brittle, vulnerable, volatile character. He is determined to get people to come to a wedding party which they clearly want to avoid. A man of force with an army behind him is trying to coerce the people into supporting him, peaceably, by offering them a place at his son's wedding feast. The people won't have it. And so when they do avoid his invitation - most of them by keeping their heads down and carrying on with their work, some of them by violently clashing with the king's agents - then the king's latent anger rises to the surface and he lashes out, sends his troops to kill those who have opposed him and burns their city.

    The next wave of wedding guests are more easily coerced. With the threat of violence against them having been unleashed and their city reduced to cinders, you can imagine that the atmosphere at that party wouldn't be too relaxed. You can imagine that the wine the king served them would have tasted bitter in their mouths, just like the wine produced in the vineyards of the landowner who thrashed his tenants to death in the previous parable of Jesus recorded by Matthew. If we want to make God out to be like a king - surely he's not a king like this one?

    And if we want to make God out to be like a king - surely he's not the sort of king who would go even further in his robust enforcement of his power, casting out the one guest who had turned up not wearing the required wedding robe, 'throw[ing] him into the outer darkness, where there [is] weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth'. This doesn't sound like the behaviour of a loving, gracious God at all. It sounds more like the behaviour of those who crucified Jesus when he didn't conform to their requirements or accept their power - the chief priests, Pharisees and their cohort King Herod.

    No, I suggest to you today that we discern more clearly what Jesus wants us to learn from this parable if we regard the king in the story as a king. A man with an army on a drive for power. And when we realise that behind this story is the real-life behaviour of King Herod on his rise to power, then we might begin to read between the lines of the story and see what God is doing in the gaps.

    To cut a long and complex story short - I can point you in the direction of the details should you want to read up on them [1] - the parable echoes the early days of Herod the Great and his rule in Jerusalem.

    At the time that the Roman rulers named him king of Judea, Herod lacked credibility in Jerusalem, where he didn't even live. The people saw him as an outsider, not valid because he didn't belong to the Hasmonean royal line. Herod's military campaign reached the walls of Jerusalem and was met by opposition there, but 'instead of loosing his army on the city he pleaded...'
    ...that he came for the good of the people, and for the preservation of the city, and not to bear any old grudge at even his most open enemies, but ready to forget the offences which his greatest adversaries had done him. (Josephus, The Antiquities, 14:402)

    Herod's plea to the people sounds remarkably similar in spirit to the invitation the king extends in the parable:

    Tell those that 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. (22:4)
    Herod's situation before the walls of Jerusalem begins to look identical to the situation of the king in the parable when we realise that Herod was at this time engaged to, but not yet married to, the granddaughter of the high priest Hyrcanus. As the writer Marty Aiken puts it, 'If Herod can consummate this marriage he will have associated with himself and bestowed upon his son the legitimacy and renown of the Hasmonean royal line.'

    This is a wedding which would make the king a proper king in the people's eyes. If the people accepted his invitations to the wedding party then he would have won their acceptance and taken power peaceably. If they opposed the wedding then he would have to step up his military campaign and win power by violent means. History records that they rejected it, and Herod took power in Jerusalem by force.

    The parable of the wedding feast is remarkably close to the story of Herod the Great's rise to power. But Jesus begins it by suggesting that we can find something of the kingdom of heaven in it. If we have eyes to read between the lines at where God may be appearing in it; if we have ears to hear the nuances of the kingdom whispering through the gaps in the story.

    So... what can we find in the parable to help us make sense of the kingdom of heaven and what it can mean for us today? Is the man thrown out of the party for not wearing a wedding robe, Jesus at the time of Herod - thrown out onto the rubbish-heap of Gethsemane for not conforming to the rules of the king and his high-priestly courtiers? Does the man who stands silently before the king at the end of the parable remind us of Jesus 'when he stood silently in the face of his accusers and let them throw him out into the darkness of death?' [2]

    Maybe: and if so we can perhaps see the story as showing us that the kingdom of God operates entirely outside the kingdoms of this world, that its leader and followers are likely to experience ejection from the parties which the world throws, but are free from the pressures and the violence which make such parties what they are - not pure celebrations, but events of coercion. Parties you feel you have to go to but which you would rather not be at. Outside the city walls, in an unexpected, unfashionable and unattractive place, is a party you would like to be at: a party thrown by Jesus, a pure celebration of completely accepting grace and love.
    Elsewhere in Matthew's Gospel Jesus tells us that "The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent bear it away" (Matt 11:12). Human, earthly kingdoms operate by the threat or use of force; they dish out the violence. But Jesus' parable tells us that the kingdom of heaven is about suffering the violence instead of dishing it out. The kingdom of heaven believes steadfastly in the power of love and forgiveness as the greatest powers on earth.
    These strange parables at the end of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus tells in Jerusalem just as he himself is about to suffer violence in love and forgiveness. This morning's gospel about the violent king and the man not dressed in a wedding garment is about the collision of a typical earthly kingdom and the kingdom of heaven. [3]
    Finally, we might have noticed some gaps in the story which Jesus told. One glaring gap in particular. For there are two key characters missing from this tale. Never seen at this party being held supposedly in their honour, the ones you'd most expect to be there are absent - the bride and groom.

    The bride and groom - missing from a party held by a king but given not really in their honour at all, but to serve the ruthless demands of his push for power. The bride and groom - there but not there, present but absent, probably somewhere else attending a party they'd much rather be at.

    The bride and groom - recalling other stories Jesus told about brides and grooms, which prompted John the writer of Revelation, and all God's people since, to be convinced that Jesus is the bridegroom and we his people together are the bride, to know in our spirits that while the kingdoms of this world go on straining and fighting and inviting each other to parties they'd rather not attend, we the church can celebrate each moment together in his everlasting kingdom of love, joy and peace.


    Notes

    [1] Source for the passages on Herod, and inspiration for the thesis of this sermon: a paper given by Marty Aiken, The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence: Discerning the Suffering Servant in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet [download]
    [2] Paul Neuchterlein, When a Squirrel is just a Squirrel, Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran, Portage, MI, October 12, 2008
    [3] Paul Neuchterlein, When a Squirrel is just a Squirrel, paraphrased