Sunday, October 12, 2008

Those Other Guests: A Sermon on Matthew 22:1-14

“Those Other Guests”
Matthew 22:1-14
October 12, 2008

One day not too long ago I looked out my office window and saw that a fight was about to break out. A large group of teenagers had gathered, and in the middle of them, two boys were approaching one another with rigid, angry postures, as they threw their baseball caps to the ground and buffeted one another on the shoulders. I watched fascinated… it was like something out of “Romeo and Juliet.” An insult had been hurled, and for someone, the figurative gauntlet had been thrown down. Someone’s honor had been insulted, and there was only one perceived way to remedy it.

Honor and shame: these values are still active in our society, even though we might think of them as quaint relics of a bygone era. Those angry boys have been schooled in a culture in which their honor must be protected; if they believe they have been shamed, they will violently defend themselves.

The culture of honor and shame was active in Jesus’ day as well, even more dramatically than in our own. In fact, these may well have been the most important cultural values of that era: everyone, from the fisherman next door to Caesar in his palace, was working overtime to get honor, to avoid shame. This has to do with the structure of society in New Testament Palestine. In 2008, we all know there is a great disparity between the haves and the have nots, between those who are at the top of the human food chain and those who are at the bottom. In Jesus’ day, it was even more pronounced. Everyone knew that the world was ordered with a tiny few at the top and the vast majority at the bottom, and it was of great concern to everyone to know precisely where they fell in that ranking. It was also of paramount importance to them that they maintain their rank—at the risk of their honor. If their rank fell—it was a source of devastating shame.[i]

Honor and shame are key (if unnamed) characters in our parable this morning. In the version Matthew tells of this story, a king decides to throw a lavish wedding banquet in honor of his son. Here’s how it worked in the days before eVites and the US Postal service: an invitation would be sent by messenger, and delivered orally. “His majesty the king requests the honor of your presence…” etc. To be invited by a king was a great honor; normally, anyone invited would immediately say, “I would be delighted to be there. See you on the 12th!” But don’t forget: the king’s honor is on the line, too. The way people respond will either honor him or shame him. In order to protect everyone’s honor, on the day of the party, servants would be sent around again, with a reminder. That way no one accidentally shames either themselves or the host by forgetting to attend.

Here’s where there’s a hitch in the story. Those who have been invited suddenly, inexplicably, refuse to come. And the fact that this is not just one guest, but all the guests, suggests some sort of conspiracy… an uprising…an unimaginable assault on the honor of the king. But the ruler is patient; he sends around more servants, to entice the guests with the details of the party… Look, he tells them to say. The fatted calves are roasting. The oxen are turning on the spit. Can’t you almost smell the aroma? All is ready. Come on over! Who could refuse such an invitation?

These are no ordinary invitees, evidently. Not only do they refuse the second invitationa, they “make light of it,” Matthew tells us… and some of them even, shockingly, seize the slaves and kill them.

Something is wrong here. The people in this parable, frankly, are not behaving very realistically. The idea that a king’s servants would be treated in this way… that they would be killed… that the king would, by implication, be so dismally and shockingly shamed by the actions of all those he invited… this is a very big clue for us that something else is going on here. There’s no other way to say this: Matthew has hijacked this parable, and turned it into an allegory. Remember: A parable is a story about everyday matters that transcends its everyday meaning. A parable is not an allegory… in which every character has a not-very-well-concealed identity. Matthew clearly wants us to understand that the king is God, the son is Jesus, and the first guests, who treated the servants so appallingly, are the people of the covenant, God’s chosen people of Israel. Matthew, who is himself Jewish, is using a parable of Jesus, also a Jew, to throw punches in an ugly family fight of the early church, a fight between those Jews who follow Jesus and those who don’t.

The story continues. After the king has exacted vengeance on the rude guests… by not only killing the murderers but also destroying their whole city… he sends his servants to invite anyone and everyone… men and women on the streets… Matthew tells us, the good and the bad alike. And they come.

The part of this story that makes most of us wince, that makes us shake our heads, that has caused interpreters throughout the ages to do back flips to come up with theories to excuse the behavior of the king… that part comes next. In the last three verses of the story, the king becomes angry with a partygoer—someone whom we know was invited at the last minute. The king has the unfortunate man bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness for the almost bizarre reason that he does not have the proper attire. The king does not like what he is wearing.

If that sounds capricious, if that sounds randomly cruel, if that sounds… well, not like something that either Jesus would say or God would do… well there’s a very good reason for that. Matthew has created this part of the parable himself. These three verses are not a part of the original story as Jesus told it. How do we know this? We know this because the parable exists in two other places. It is told also in the gospel of Luke and in the Gnostic gospel of Thomas. In both those instances, the parable ends with the vision of the banquet of misfits and outcasts, those most of us would judge as unworthy, all enjoying the lavish hospitality of the host: a giddy vision of life in the kingdom of heaven. Scene, Curtain. End of Story.[ii]

In Matthew’s version we seem to have a king who is double-minded. On the one hand, he throws a great feast and invites many people. On the other, he kills, not only those who refuse his invitation and kill his servants, but their whole city. On the one hand, he invites everyone without discrimination, “both good and bad” to come and enjoy the feast. On the other, he kicks someone out for coming casual when the dress was formal. (This last piece has inspired the most creative excuses throughout the years, including the idea that the wedding garments were actually handed out at the door: not true, there’s no evidence for that theory). In other words, this king seems to be as caught up in the whole honor/ shame game as the surrounding culture. And if there’s anything we know about Jesus… it is that he rejects this game completely. Backtrack a few chapters and read the Sermon on the Mount. Read almost anything else in Matthew except for these few verses. Jesus rejects this way of looking at the world. Jesus specifically praises those who refuse to play by these rules. One scholar, talking about all three versions of the parable, puts it this way:

It is the random and open commensality [table fellowship] of the parable's meal that is its most startling element… And the almost predictable counteraccusation to such open [table fellowship] is immediate: Jesus is a glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and sinners. He makes, in other words, no appropriate distinctions and discriminations. He has no honor. He has no shame.[iii]

I think it’s fair to say that Jesus wants us out of the honor/ shame game. He wants us to know that, if there is honor, it belongs only to God. And he has shown us the things that give honor… the crazy, counterintuitive, countercultural things like divesting ourselves of wealth and possessions, rather than accumulating them. Things like serving the poorest and neediest at a soup kitchen, rather than being served at the fanciest restaurant. Things like quietly working behind the scenes to help, to heal, to encourage, to comfort, rather than grabbing the headlines. Honor and shame are not what we think they are. They are not what those boys think they are. We all have to learn a new way to play and be together.

This is a story whose original purpose was to encourage people described as “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” It was designed to give hope and heart to those who had no clothes whatsoever, let alone fancy ceremonial garments. It was told by Jesus to those who believed themselves helplessly and hopelessly on the outside, never to get in, to give them the radical and startling message, “Hey, you. Yes, you. The other guests. You are invited. Yes, you.”

You, who believe you are too full of despair or anger to be close to God. You’re invited. You are welcome. You, who do not fit in with the in crowd, with the magazine-cover models or the Wall Street moguls. You’re invited. You are welcome. You, who have received the message… maybe even from the church… that you are unacceptable, that you are wrong, that you are a sinner… You’re invited. You are welcome.

So, let’s hear the original words, the words that we know came from Jesus, the words that tell us… whomever we think looks like they belong on the outside… we’re probably wrong. Jesus chooses the least and the lost, the outcast and the outrageous, those “other” guests. So you, whomever you are, if you feel that you are not worthy or not ready or not right, hear this good news: You’re invited. You are welcome. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] J. Paul Sampley, “The First Letter to the Corinthians: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. X (Nasville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 782.
[ii] Luke 14:15-24; Thomas 64:1-12.
[iii] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 1993), 261.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your last 2 paragraphs would be an amazing invitation to the table...

Thanks for sharing!