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17 October 2011

God's love appears to have limits only when preachers fail ...

One day while St. Peter was manning the Pearly Gates he realized he needed to take a break. Since he saw no one approaching he thought it would be safe to leave briefly, but just in case, he asked Jesus to cover for him.  Now wouldn't you know it: as soon as Peter disappeared behind a cloud, along came an old man up to the gates. Jesus was a bit nervous because he hadn't done this before, so he took a look at the Pearly Gates Manual; it listed the questions he was supposed to ask the old man. "Well, old man," Jesus started, "tell me about your life." The old man thought for a bit and then said: "I worked as a carpenter. I had a son, but he didn't come to be in the usual way, if you know what I mean. When my son grew older he fell in with some bad folks, but later there was some odd transformation. I never really understood it all." Jesus was dumbfounded. He looked up in shock and said: "Is that you, Father?!" The old man suddenly looked up too, and said: "Is that you, Pinocchio?!"

The literary method used in the story above is called "misdirection".  When we hear the man say "carpenter", we think "Joseph", but it turns out to be Gepetto. Misdirection is a method Jesus often used in his parables. Jesus creates stories that pull us in. We cruise along, listening to Jesus’ story, watching the scenery of the parable as we ride by. Then Jesus slams on the breaks, turns the wheel hard to the left, and we find ourselves driving straight into oncoming traffic. It's called misdirection, and it works every time.

Jesus’ parables have a way of getting us turned around. Just below the surface of the parable is concealed a whiplash, a shock, a charge of dynamite -- and conventional expectations about God, religion, politics, vocation, status and class are thrown off kilter completely.

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come.  Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘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.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said 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.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 

But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.  (from Matthew 22)

As soon as Jesus begins, The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king ..., we hear "king" and think "God". But Jesus goes on and describes hideous behavior on the part of this king. When he throws a wedding banquet for his son, some folks don't come, so he blows them all away. He sends soldiers who kill them all and destroy their city. Well, when the folks who are left in his kingdom hear what this king does to people who turn him down, is it any wonder that the king's servants have success in filling his banquet hall the second time around? But the parable goes on with one more horror. The king comes in inspecting his guests and notices one who didn't fear the king enough at this point to dress in his best clothes possible, in his wedding garment. So the king throws the man out into the darkness, bound hand and foot, vulnerable to any creature that comes upon him. The part about weeping and gnashing of teeth (much as we Bible readers might be used to it), adds another scary note to this king.

With his parable, Jesus takes us to a nightmare world in which scores are settled according to old savage formulas. Yet, the universally accepted reading of this parable continues to hear the king as a reference to God; this makes it necessary to interpret the violence the king calls down upon the un-robed man as sacred violence imposed as punishment for this man's recalcitrance at accepting God's invitation.

Generations of preachers have dreaded having to preach on this parable because this king is incompatible with the One of whom we sing, "The King of Love my Shepherd Is".  The universally accepted reading makes it all worse, because it requires enormous intellectual acrobatics to make that king sound less scary. In a bizarre act of contortionism our sermons on this text have communicated to generations that somehow the love of God has limits.

Think back to my story of Jesus and Gepetto -- a story that's effective because it uses misdirection. What if Jesus used misdirection in our text?  Then the universally accepted reading is wrong, and so is our expectation to hear about God every time Jesus says "king". Sometimes a king is simply a king. If that is so, then it is easier to take seriously all the terrible details about how this king behaves.  Then we can see the king in this parable as the tyrant he is, a king who rules with the worst kind of brutality and terror.

When Jesus insists that the king is a symbol of something that greatly surpasses his own person (The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king), we need to remember that there are  two ways of comparing: the way of likeness and of contrast.  Could it be that in this parable he uses contrast rather than likeness? We know how things are done in the kingdoms of this world. When national honor or national interests have been violated, the reaction is always the same: honor and interests must be vindicated.

James B. Janknegt: Father Forgive Us
So, if we think that Jesus is telling a parable about the way in which our earthly, violence-based authority is on display, then where do we see the kingdom of heaven?  To find the answer, we need to remember who is telling the story. The One who tells the story knows both goodness and wickedness, because He is good, consistent and compassionate. He longs to see human beings standing in the orbit of God's love. He rejoices to see the speechless and poor, the nobodies, at His table. In our story, he condemns no one, not even the king.  In contrast to the worldly king, the storyteller will give His life rather than take life. For our part, we much prefer the Storyteller to the storied king.

Look what the storied king does to the man who stands silently before him at the end of the parable. It looks like what happened to Jesus when he stood silently in the face of his accusers and let them throw him out into the darkness of death.  We have wanted to hear about this king as God, but Jesus has painted the picture of a king which does not for a second fit the picture of the God we see in the Crucified One. In fact, the crucified Jesus looks much more like the guy at the end of the parable: the one who is silent before his accuser, then bound up and thrown out. What happens to that man in the parable is what is about to happen to Jesus, and the blueprint is the "Suffering Servant" of the Old Testament in Isaiah Chapters 52 and 53, who was "despised, rejected and acquainted with grief".

The servant figure in the parable with whom Jesus identifies is the man without the wedding garment who suffers expulsion, and at the hand of the king. The Storyteller has entered the story. The story is not the same any more. For the Suffering Servant does not rule like the shady satraps of this world who are subject to moods of violence, retaliation, eviction and torment of those who offend them.

The banquet must proceed. At the table are all those "whom the servants found ... both evil and good." Which is to say, you and I. Not the wicked on this side of the table and the virtuous opposite, as though two species of humans were seated there, well separated, known for whom and what they are. No, the evil and the virtuous are intermingled: Good and evil coexist within each guest.

Our host enters the banquet hall.  Not to scold, judge and punish, but to approve, rejoice and include. All are included. “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, Will draw all people to Me.” The only times God's love appears to have limits is when we preachers fail to think for ourselves. When we fail to let ourselves be stretched by the very same love we are called to preach, the People of God will leave our sanctuaries hungry!

Gently but firmly, we amend the story's conclusion: In its original form, the words that sum up the parable belong to the king who judged so harshly, who confused his status of host with his black mood of condemnation and retaliation. It is the king who says to himself in dour satisfaction, invulnerable and vengeful: "Many are called, but few are chosen." These are not the words of Jesus; they are the words of the worldly host and warrior, the one given to eviction and slaughter.

There is a far different summing up, according to the heart of Jesus. To the banquet, to life, to love. And all are called, all are chosen.  As we read in Isaiah 25,

O LORD, you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat. When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm, the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place, you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds; the song of the ruthless was stilled. On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

Matthew 22: 1-14; Isaiah 25: 1-9

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