The Parable of the Wedding Banquet

Yesterday our opening worship in the park began with a welcome:

welcome

to what you cannot see
to what you cannot control
to what you cannot ignore
to what you cannot hide from

welcome

the welcome is universal
the entrance is free
the invitation is open
the hand is extended
the time is now…..

welcome

to overflowing generosity
to gentle nourishment
to unspoken prayer
to inarticulate longing

welcome

to actions beyond words
to help without asking
to provision without measure
to hospitality without price
welcome

take hold of the unknown
accept the unconditional
let go of limitation
trust what you cannot question

god welcomes you

welcome

whether you deserve it or not
whether you think you deserve it or not
you are welcome
they welcome you to their mystery
their depth from which all creation springs

god welcomes you

 the creator of everything….

the word that no-one recognised….
the spirit bringing tenderness without words….

they welcome you……

adapted from jonny baker –  worship trick 67 in series 4

 

Bible readings:  Matthew 22: The Parable of the Wedding Banquet 

1Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.

“Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: my oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’

“But they paid no attention and went off — one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite* to the banquet anyone you find.’ 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.

13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

* The Greek translated ‘invite’ in the NIV can also be rendered as collect, call, & get.

Isaiah 53 The Suffering Servant 

 Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.

The parable of the Wedding Banquet  has troubled me for some time, so I asked people to consider the following questions & thoughts:

I find this parable disturbing! (Matt 22:1-14) Do you?

It has dead servants, a destroyed city, and guests who feel compelled to attend.

It ends with a man humiliated, tied up, mistreated, thrown out and probably killed just because he wasn’t wearing the right clothes.

How is this story a picture of the kingdom of heaven???

If it is about salvation, then it’s a type of salvation that seems to include coercion rather than free-will.

If it is about grace then it appears to be a grace that burns a city because of the transgressions of a few people.

If it is about the messianic banquet, then it appears to be a banquet without a bridegroom, a bride, and any hint of celebration.

It is a strange banquet where violence is so at the fore with food never mentioned.

If the king in the parable is meant to be God, then it seems to be a god who does not behave according to the values of the kingdom of heaven.

This parable ought to disturb us – there is something seriously wrong if it doesn’t.

Is the parable about final judgement or heaven or hell?

Or could it be about the world – about kings, emperors, despots, tyrants, dictators, presidents, politics, violence, coercion and injustice?

Are we open to being provoked, challenged and disturbed by Jesus’ parables?

Are we open to new interpretations and new understandings?

Does Jesus’ way of teaching challenge us: to think about what really matters in life, and to think about how we can live the life that God wants us to live?

While searching the internet for alternative interpretations of the parable I found a very interesting paper by Marty Aiken. The following is just a  brief resumé.

Marty Aiken: “Discerning the Suffering Servant in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet”.

Aiken proposes a new reading of the parable of the Wedding Banquet in Matthew (22:1-14).  His proposal is that Jesus uses this parable to declare to the world, that his authority will be the authority of the suffering servant.  Jesus does this by structuring the parable so that he can introduce the figure of the ‘suffering servant’ from Isaiah 52 & 53.

Instead of seeing the king as making Jesus’ audience think of God, Aiken argues that this king would have sparked in Jesus’ audience thoughts of kings much closer to home, the Herods, especially Herod the Great. Drawing from Josephus, Marty Aiken shows how the Herods actually behaved in ways very similar to the king in this parable. With a king so brutally dictatorial, does Jesus really mean for us to think of God rather than the many petty kings and dictators, such as the Herods, who have littered human history with their victims?

Aiken points out that when Herod first approached Jerusalem he had a fiancé waiting in the wings.  He had taken as his fiancé the granddaughter of Hyrcanus, the High Priest of the Temple, and a descendant of the Hasmonean line, the most prestigious in all of Judea.  I proposed that we could envision their wedding as the culmination and symbol of the political reconciliation that could have occurred if Herod’s offer had been accepted.  Herod’s offer was rejected, and he then came to Jerusalem a second time.  This time he makes no effort to negotiate with the people.  Instead he immediately proceeds to begin military preparations, bringing his army “…near that part of the wall where it could be most easily assaulted, he pitched that camp before the Temple….” And now, clearly intent on battle, what does Herod do:  “…even while the army lay before the city, he himself went to Samaria, to complete his marriage, and to take to wife the granddaughter of Hyrcanus, for he had betrothed her already….”

Aiken thinks it very likely that Herod would come to mind, and I also think it very likely that his marriage on the eve of the battle by which he conquered Jerusalem would be a part of the popular imagination.  In fact, given the parable’s immediate reference to a king and a wedding banquet, the thought of Herod’s pre-battle marriage would be more likely to have been the first association anyone made with the parable’s wedding banquet setting. This makes the parable’s focus on the guests as the crucial actors. Jesus presumably has in his audience not just those who fear his challenge to the established order; he also likely has a second audience which has been awaiting a challenge to that order.  Both are looking for vindications of their position, and Jesus allows neither to find it at the expense of the other.

Why would Herod leave an army on the eve of battle to finalise a marriage?  Herod the Great was a man of considerable sophistication, even if he was impetuous, tyrannical and brutal.  He was sophisticated enough to realise the wisdom of having legitimacy precede his conquering. Marriage into the Hasmonean royal family would help to legitimise his kingship.

So who is the positive figure in this parable that makes us think of the kingdom of heaven? Could it be the person without a wedding garment who seems to intentionally take on the king’s brutality? (The business of not ‘wearing a wedding garment’ cannot be read as a reference to someone’s moral behaviour. It is also important to note that the custom of the age and place was to provide tunics to place over a guests street clothes so as to participate in the wedding party, and which would have been at the disposal of all the guests on their way in.)

Marty Aiken points to a verse in Matthew’s Gospel – 11:12: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force”. The kingdom of heaven as suffering violence is represented in this parable not through the figure of the king who dishes it out, but in the person who is subjected to violence. The fate of this guest is the same fate that Jesus himself suffers which had already been the fate of Antigonus.

Aiken identifies this person with the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52 & 53:

“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7)

Matthew’s Gospel emphasises Jesus’ silence before his accusers more than the others:

Matthew 26:62-63: “The high priest stood up and said, ‘Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?’ But Jesus was silent.”

Matthew 27:11-14: “Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus said, ‘You say so.’ But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, ‘Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?’ But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.”

If the man without a wedding garment is in fact a reference to the suffering servant, then the suffering servant has put us in a position to understand the answer Jesus gave to the chief priests and elders.  They asked Jesus: “By what authority are you doing these things?”  The answer, probably different from any answer they had conceived of, was the authority of the suffering servant.  The priests, and a great many others, expected Jesus to lead a revolution.  Jesus now tells them that instead of a revolution he will take onto himself the violence that already rules their lives.

Interestingly a literal translation into English from the Greek in Matt: 22 verse 2 would be “a man, a king” and not “a king” as is the usual translation.  Is Matthew trying to tell us something? Very often an allegorical interpretation is applied to Jesus’ parables in which the main character is frequently interpreted as God. But what if Matthew is using the double designation of “a man, a king” to make sure we don’t do that? Shouldn’t this king simply be seen as a man and not as God? This reading is surely crucial because the king is downright brutal, violent and vicious. He cannot possibly be God, can he?

What if Jesus tells parables that avoid the common convention of assuming kings and lords to be a stand-in for God? What if Jesus is inviting his listeners to compare the kingdom of heaven with human kingdoms? The history of interpretation means that it’s difficult not to make the connection between “God” and the “king”. But Aiken’s opinion is that Matthew gives us at least two clues of why we should not allegorise the parable:   in verse 2 he writes: “a man, a king”; and he uses “kingdom of heaven” to try to get us to compare God’s kingdom, the “kingdom of heaven,” with human kingdoms. Jesus then shows us God as King but not in the fashion of human kings. The kingdom of heaven suffers violence (Matthew 11:12), but never inflicts it. The Kingdom of Heaven, then, is not the banquet, but suffers violence in the person of Jesus. There could hardly be a more startling difference and Jesus highlights the difference through this story of a brutally violent tyrant. After all that had happened so far during Holy Week Jesus hearers would have been in no doubt that his message was a challenge to the established order – the Romans, the Herods, the Sadducees, the Pharisees. It is also a rejection of the violence of the Zealots. Could Jesus have been saying in the parable that once we forsake the values of the kingdom of heaven then violence will make us indistinguishable from others?

The parables are highly creative little stories sprung from Jesus’ imagination and have as their aim helping people understand what God is like. Although it is possible to interpret the parable in terms of a violent God, that interpretation only serves to reinforce what Jesus audience already thought, and therefore they are unable to truly understand Jesus teaching about God and his kingdom. It is also perfectly possible to read the parable as a challenge to this violent picture of God, and even to suggest that the kingdom of heaven never inflicts violence.

Luke’s version of the parable presents a positive view of a ‘certain man’ who invites in “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” (Luke 14:21). Matthew’s king carries out no such act of benevolence. He is simply insistent on having people obey his authority. When the first batch of invitees don’t come, he kills them all, and presumably many others in a lavish display of violence such that the next group of invitees – “both good and bad,” and not Luke’s “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” – cannot think of turning him down. The picture of the king which Jesus describes for us in Matthew’s Gospel is the worst sort of tyrant who rules by violence and terror. How can we so easily accept an interpretation that presents this king as God?

Aiken suggests that the real image of the Messianic Banquet in the Gospels is the feeding of the five thousand. Here is a generous feeding to all comers with no reprisals for anybody who decides to stay away. No coercion or violence is exerted in the invitation. Nobody gets thrown out for being badly dressed. The poor are not afterthoughts, invited only to replace the ungrateful rich and powerful. The poor as well as the rich are all invited right from the start. The banquet offered by Jesus shows up the king’s banquet in the parable for what it is. Instead of an offer we cannot refuse, we are made an offer that we do not want to refuse. This really is a cause for rejoicing and celebration.

Donald Trump’s decision to take the USA out of the Paris Climate Agreement and the refusal of the rich and powerful to tackle inequality inspired an alternative way of sharing bread and wine.

Our liturgy will talk of both bread and wine but we will only share bread and leave the wine as a symbol that the fruits of creation are not fully shared with everyone, where so much is taken by the rich and powerful everywhere that there isn’t enough left for the poor, both in the developing world and in the rich north. Due to the greed, denial and short-sightedness of the rich and powerful we seem incapable of tackling inequality and climate change, and appear to be determined to leave a desert for our children’s children’s children.

Should I deny people the wine this morning? One of the great things about ThirdSpace is that the bread and wine is offered to all unconditionally. Not sharing wine this morning is meant to be both a prophecy and a picture of what happens to much of the abundance of God’s creation.

Jesus took bread
grown from the earth
and broke it and said:
This is my body
when you eat of it
share it with all.

And Jesus took a cup of wine
pressed from the fruit of the land
and said:
This is a sign of my promise
when you drink
drink it with all.

We will share only bread
for still the world does not fully share what creation offers.
Some take so much others have little or nothing,
and through denial and greed a desert is being created for future generations.

The wine will remain here as a symbol
that the full promise of God is not yet shared by all.

Let us share bread together and the longing for justice and mercy and compassion.

Let us share this gift of the earth that is filled with Jesus.

 

We continued our fellowship by enjoying Fairtrade teas, coffees and hot chocolates at Cool River.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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