Christ Church, New Haven, Connecticut
Year A, Proper 23
October 12, 2014
“Tell those who 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.’”
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I don’t suppose I will be going out too far on a limb when I guess that for many of you our Gospel passage is your favorite Bible story. “Yes, Matthew, my mother used to tell me this story of the king killing the people and sacking their cities when I was a small child.” Or, “yes, Fr. Larsen, I too, like the king in the parable, have a highly developed sense of haberdashery and fashion propriety. Many times have I wanted to throw someone out of my party for improper attire. The courage of the king to do just that! Wow!”
No, on second thought, I rather doubt many of us have ever given much thought to this passage, if for no other reason than it’s a really uncomfortable passage for us modern folk living in the West to think about. But that’s just what I invite us to do for a few moments: to think about this passage in its contexts as a way of both understanding, appreciating, and critiquing our own.
To begin, let’s talk about the wedding. This, I suspect, is a part that we think we can understand—we all know what marriage is and what it means to throw or attend a wedding reception—, but in fact we are far, far removed from their world. I rather doubt that anyone who says they believe in “Biblical marriage” has ever honestly read the Bible on its own terms.
In the context of our passage, marriage was not sacramental, but a legal contract, not between a woman and a man, but between two men: the father of the bride and the groom. It was a legal transfer of the woman from the father to the groom. Praise the Lord we have developed in our own views of marriage! Please, Lord, help us—we still have so much to learn!
With the wedding came a huge party. Maybe not as fancy as a blow out party at the Metropolitan Club in Manhattan, but it was still a pretty big deal: a several day party with lots of wine and lots of meat. It took up a lot of time on their Google calendar.
This was no ordinary wedding. This was the wedding of the King’s son. The King would have invited the ruling class to come and celebrate with him. Yet none of them come. Some of them, as in our Gospel reading last week, beat and kill the messengers. But in this passage we get another detail: some couldn’t come because they needed to tend to their farm or to their business. In Luke’s version of the story and in the Gospel of Thomas, many other excuses are given: need to go collect debts, just bought a village and need to go collect rent, just bought a house, just married. Many of these excuses are mentioned in Deuteronomy 20 as valid Biblical reasons for avoiding military service. If they got you out of military service, surely they excused you from a wedding, right? The point is they had good Biblical excuses.
Yet in the parable, it is clear that this is not a normal wedding feast. This is the messianic wedding feast along with its concomitant battle and victory over evil. The King is unimpressed with their good Biblical reasons. Something new has happened. Inclusion in the messianic feast trumps all Bible proof-texting. “No excuses, not even scriptural ones, can justify refusal when Messiah calls,” and, as the rest of the story makes clear, no scriptural proofs or excuses justify refusal to those whom Messiah calls.
Trumps the Bible? Can that be? This is one place where this text can critique ours. In case my bibliophiles friends are worried, I’m not saying suggesting we downplay or disregard the power of the bible. I’m just saying that this should give us serious pause to reading the Bible in spite of God’s call of radical inclusion, instead of through it. Of course, the Bible is God’s word to us, but remember there are things that predate the Bible: the liturgy, for instance, or tradition. There are some things that both predate and outrank the Bible, like Jesus or the Gospel.
But don’t we hold the Gospel book over our head in the liturgy? Doesn’t that symbolize something? Yes, it does. The scriptures, especially in their corporate reading, are God’s word to us. But there is something that we hold even higher over our head: the cross. There are some things that we revere even more than the Gospel book: the altar, in which God’s invitation to all his own is “come!” It is through the altar that we read the Bible.
But what about the King destroying those who refuse him? Sure, it is a bummer to throw a party and have people cancel at the last minute, even if for valid reasons, but isn’t his reaction (to put it mildly) a bit strong? Or, what about the poor chap who comes in off the streets at the last minute and is wearing the wrong clothes and gets thrown out?
Well, if anyone could understand the need for fussiness over proper clothing, you might expect it would be a high-church Anglo-catholic, right? Nonetheless, from my position it still seems bizarrely harsh. Perhaps just as strangely, how was everyone else off the street wearing proper wedding clothes?
The king told the slaves to call “the evil and the good” in from the streets. This maps onto Matthew concerns with wheat and tares or sheep and goats among the Church. Later Church Fathers mostly read the lack of wedding clothes as a lack of the righteousness that comes with baptism in Christ.
I won’t pretend like I can solve the tensions in this passage. I can’t. But I want to ask us to use this parable to think about our own position as readers. Our position feels the right to sneer at the king’s “grumpiness” or “meanness,” but what if we viewed this from another position. Instead of viewing it from our privileged and, globally speaking, very rich position, what if we viewed it from the position of a oppressed class of people, who day by day and moment by moment experience oppression from a ruling class? What if we read it, say, in the slums of Rio de Janeiro? Would this passage trouble us in the same way if we weren’t hearing this story as a part of the class that is not dominated, but in fact complicit with exploitation of those in less privileged places in society and in the world? I won’t answer this for us, just leave us with a perhaps troubling question.
God is allowed to trouble us. God often does trouble those in power, and comforts the poor and poor in spirit. Perhaps this is an opportunity to reflect on ourselves, our place in God’s world, and God’s preference for those in need, for those who are humble, and for those who humbly come to the feast when he calls.