Thursday, October 06, 2011
As many of you know, October 15, 2011, is a big day in the life of my family. Our daughter, Ariana will be married on that day to Nathan Blumenfeld-James at the Will Geer Theater. It will be a festive and lovely day. The bride will be beautiful and the groom will be glowing and filled with strong emotions as he sees her coming towards him in procession.
This wedding will be like no other wedding that has ever been or that will ever be again. The joining together of Ariana and Nathan will bring together two families that stretch back in time to ancestors from all over the earth and Ariana and Nathan will join in that history on their wedding day.
Of course, I am excited, delighted, and overjoyed to be joining them as witness and presider of the vows they take that day. Please keep the whole of the wedding party in your prayers as they make their ways to Los Angeles for this wonderful day and celebration.
So, by now it should be obvious, I hope, that the title for my Gospel Reflection this week does not apply to Ariana and Nathan's wedding, but is about a rather strange tale that Jesus tells concerning a royal wedding. What makes this story most difficult is that Jesus introduces the story with the words: “Let’s talk about the Kingdom of Heaven.” As the story unfolds, I hope you begin to feel a sinking sensation inside of your stomach because this story is not the worst nightmare wedding story you have ever heard.
It starts off with a sense of normalcy. A certain man who is a king wishes to have a wedding banquet for his son. Apparently the king had already sent out invitations to those who supposed to attend this gala affair, but he had not heard back from any of them. So, he sends his slaves to them with this message: “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.’”
The response from these invited guests is categorically negative. Most of the invited claimed they had other business to which they had to attend. But there were others which Jesus calls “the rest” who did more than simply disregard the invitation. They seized the king’s slaves, “mistreated them, and killed them.”
So, this is the point in the story where things get very weird and out of control. What is up with the invited guests? Is that any way to show respect or to treat a king’s slaves?
The rejection of the invitation by some, no doubt encouraged the rest of the invitees to react in violence towards the king’s slaves. So far the party is not looking like it is going to happen. The king’s response is one of rage and you might think a bit over the top considering that only a few of those invited had mistreated or killed his slaves. The king sends his troops to hunt down the murderers, but he also orders that the whole city be burned down as well.
As the city smolders and burns, the king says to his slaves: “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Imagine throwing your son a banquet to celebrate his wedding and then populating the party with people who were simply there to fill the seats. If central casting had been around, the king might have simply put in a call for a certain number of people for the party and then even provided these “guests” with the proper dress for the occasion.
Those who show up for the wedding are described as “both good and bad.” But the objective of the king is fulfilled. The hall is full of guests.
But the story does not end here with this faux party for a royal son. The king discovers someone in the party who has not put on the wedding clothes he had provided the other guests. The king asks the inappropriately glad stranger: “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” Perhaps the man had not been given the wedding robe by the king’s slaves, but the man is described as “speechless” before the king. Having burned down the city of those who rejected his invitation and killed those who murdered his slaves, the king rage surfaces again and is directed at this poor, speechless wretch.
The king orders his slaves: “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Jesus ends this story with this strange and oft repeated phrase: “For many are called, but few are chosen.”
So what are we to make of this story that Jesus tells? Some traditional commentaries treat this as an allegory in which the king is God; the invited guests who reject his offer are the religious leaders of Jerusalem; the slaves who are sent by the king are the prophets; those who murder the prophets on behalf of those who reject God’s invitation are also part of the Jerusalem population (perhaps the zealots); the “guests” invited to the banquet from the main highways are the Gentiles who become the church; and the lone ill-glad guest is simply one more non-responsive person.
But I would suggest that such an allegorical interpretation contradicts the one picture of God in Christ that is the last picture the human race sees of the historical Jesus. Jesus dies outside the city of Jerusalem. When he is brought before those who question him and who are intent on killing him in order to keep the peace, he remains speechless, silent.
Jesus understood his life and his authority came from a very different place than the power that the king and those who murdered the king’s slaves exercised. in his story exercised. God’s power given to Jesus was the power of love, forgiveness, compassion, and mercy and Jesus seemed to find in Isaiah’s suffering servant what this God’s power and wisdom looked like when the power and wisdom that was based upon threats and the use of violence intersected. Here is a quote from Isaiah that the early church used to express their understanding of God as God became known in Jesus.
7 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.
8 By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
9 They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb* with the rich,*
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
So perhaps as we hear this story of the wedding from hell on Sunday, we will do well to see in the last character introduced, the man without the wedding robe, what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like in a world that seems to only find authority in the use of threats and violence.
We can always chose to believe that God is the king in this tale of violence and suffering, but then what shall we do with Jesus and the cross? And what sort of a party will the Kingdom of Heaven be if we are there under the threat of divine judgment and punishment?