Ducks that won't line up

Gospel: Matthew 22:1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again 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.” 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so 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 a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless.13Then 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.” 14For many are called, but few are chosen.’

15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’

There's a member of my bible study who will be disgusted by this reading. I can hear her now: "How can this be God? This is a tyrant. He is merciless. He is no different to any other king." And I join her in this protest.

Indeed, this king is a man bound up in human categories of honour, and shame, and violence. If this is God, then this God should be resisted. If this is God, then God is simply to swap a Herod for a Stalin. The gospel has done its work on us if we are revolted by this king. Perhaps that is enough.

So why do we make this king out to be like God? Perhaps it is because the son of a king is killed, and we are reading back from the crucifixion, imaging that God is vengeful and filled with rage like us, when things don't go his way. We like to think of God as a king— after all, he speaks of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Actually, this is the only interpretation of this parable that I met for most of my life. Leaving it means to find a whole new way of seeing things.

If Jesus thought God was like this, I wonder if Jesus is worth following. For this Jesus is in such contrast to the one who teaches and acts out love that he is unbelievable! How could one so loving believe such violence was defensible? If Jesus was thinking like this I wonder if he is simply one more tyrant with an iron fist who wears the velvet glove when it suits him, and claims a divine justification for his actions.

Could it be possible that Matthew has a problem with violence, that Matthew did not "get it?" After all, the violence is absent in Luke's telling of this parable. (Luke 14:15-24) Was Matthew still growing in his understanding of Jesus? This is the only way to rescue the parable as something in which the king is some kind of representation of God and in which there is yet some good news. So Derek Flood says,

My take on Matthew is that he does see God's violence as good, and I think Matthew's understanding of God is lacking. That does not mean I don't like the Gospel of Matthew. In fact, I love it. I have grown in Christ tremendously because of it.  I still look to it as I continue to work out how to live in that way of Jesus. But the more I learn to walk in that, the less I relate to the violent image of God I also find in Matthew. I feel that my walk has taken me beyond this understanding of God … Can I embrace some things in Matthew and reject others? If so, how can I tell which to reject and which to embrace? On what basis can I make that call, separating the "wheat from the chaff" so to speak?

Is this "picking and choosing"? Yes, it is. As I have maintained, we absolutely must pick and choose. It is not possible to read the Bible morally without moral discernment. To read the Bible and not pick and choose is to read immorally. Picking and choosing is a mark of moral maturity that we must develop as we grow morally. So there is no question whether we should pick and choose. To fail to do this will lead us towards an immoral reading, and hurtful and immoral application. The only question is how can we pick and choose well? How can we pick and choose faithfully? (Derek Flood)

There might be a simpler way in all this (which still involves picking and choosing.) And that is simply to abandon the idea that the parable is allegorical; that is, God is not being compared in any way to the king in the story, but is being contrasted. I am being persuaded that something like James Alison's thesis is afoot:

Jesus took the language, images, and hope of the apocalyptic imagination but subverted them from within to be reconstituted around a God who suffers our violence as the way of redeeming the world from violence. God paradoxically lets God’s Messiah get expelled from the world’s regimes as the means of launching God’s reign on Easter. (This is Paul Nuechterlein's condensation of one of the major themes of Raising Abel.)

Paul Nuechterlein says

this is the fourth of four consecutive major parables in Matthew that begin with a double designation to introduce the main character:

  18:23: anthrōpō basilei — “a man, a king” — Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (18:23-35)
  20:1: anthrōpō oikodespotē — “a man, a housemaster” — Parable of the Generous Vineyard Owner (20:1-16)
  21:33: anthrōpos ēn oikodespotēs — “There was a man, a housemaster” — Parable of the Wicked Tenants (21:33-46)
  22:2: anthrōpō basilei — “a man, a king” — Parable of the King’s Son’s Wedding (22:1-14)

Some commentators say that the use of anthropos before “king” or “housemaster” is a typical Aramaism. But what if Matthew is trying to tell us something? Very often in history an allegorical interpretation is applied to these parables in which this main character is interpreted as God. But what if Matthew is using the double designation to make sure we don’t do that? That this king should simply be seen as a man and not as God? This reading is most crucial for this fourth of these parables where the king is downright brutal and vicious.

If Paul is correct, then "the kingdom of heaven may be compared to" is not so much a statement that "the kingdom is similar to this kingdom," but a statement which says "compare and contrast the kingdom of heaven with the kingdom in this story."

What does the story become then?

It is one of four pericopes which follow on from the cleansing of the Temple and the withering of the fig tree, where the elites of Israel, particularly in their control of the temple, are found wanting. The chief priests and Pharisees understand his challenge, and in return, challenge Jesus' authority. He refuses to tell them the source of his authority, but continues to engage with them until 22:22 and the question of the paying of taxes. There is another recent parable which also fits the pattern of the parables which follow the cleansing of the temple. It is the parable of the unforgiving servant in Chapter 18.

The question of taxes ends the conversation: "When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away." (22:22) There are some things which must be given to Caesar, but God, and God's rule, is of a different order: "Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’" (22:21)

Three of the parables we have seen so far, present us with a highly unpalatable vision of God, if we take the traditional interpretations. They show human power at its best, but also at its worst. Kings and other powerful people could, did, and do, act with sometimes astonishing generosity— we can leave aside the motivations for such generosity, which may be quite self serving; the point is that such generosity is a fact.

But a fact which should never blind us to another: that kings and powerful people are also fallen humans. So their generosity is limited, and often self-serving and conditional. If we make a direct comparison— "the kingdom of heaven is the same as—" between God and some powerful person, it will fall apart: The king who forgave the unforgivable,  enacted savage revenge when his forgiveness was mocked.1 The man with the vineyard is remarkable in his forbearance of the recalcitrant tenants, but then falls into implacable rage and destroys them when they kill his son. He is no different to us, and an equally unworthy symbol of God.  The King in this week's parable, is a monster, burning the city and slaughtering its people when they will not accede to his desire for honour.

Where then is God in all these stories? The first answer is that God is not in them. The kingdom of heaven is not like this. When you are subject to Rome you are subject to something which is not of God; your arrangement with Rome in order to gain some religious freedom is subjecting the temple to something which is not of God. The corruption which flows from your compromise shows in the injustice of your money changing, and in the exploitation of people bringing sacrifice. And forget overthrowing Rome, you will only establish another version of the same thing. God is not part of our human systems.

So for the Christians of Matthew's day, and ours, perhaps the temptation to see God in the king and Jesus in the son who is to be married, is deliberately placed here as warning. Matthew knows we will be tempted to make this association; it fits with "the verbal logic of the sentence.  Jesus appears to be equating one identity with another, in order to use one entity to describe another." (Marty Aiken) But, in fact, Matthew is telling us not to go this way, because

This parable of the tyrant king represents the collision in history of two brands of authority: our earth brand based on violence and the heavenly brand which gives itself over to our violence but cannot be vanquished by it. (Nuechterlein Ibid)

Matthew wants us to see God somewhere else. Remember that all these stories are haunted by Jesus' words about Jerusalem.

17 While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, 18‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; 19then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.’ (20:17-19)

And this is the third time Jesus says this.

The second answer about where God is in these stories is, for me, still more of a question: Is God's Son present in the parable as the man without a wedding robe?

My mind boggles at this, and rejects it as ridiculous. But in another part of me, something is starting to make sense. And it is here that the Gospel humbles me. I like to have my ducks in a row. I like it neat. It has to be consistent. What I am learning, is that life and conversion are not like that. Conversion means change. It means reformation of my mind and being. Even finding sense in what once seemed non-sense.

In life so far, I have experienced a change from the fundamentalist paradigm which sees God as the author of the Scriptures: God said it. I have come, instead, to see that scripture is, in fact, a record of what we of the church, and what our elder sister Israel, have thought God to be saying over millennia. There is a development in our understanding of God which is obvious within the canon. This change has taken 25 years from my first suspicions until today, when I can no longer really understand the hold fundamentalism had upon me. What was once sense has now become non-sense!

But the change does not end. I am somewhere in the middle of complete re-understanding about the nature of power, especially the power of God, and what it means to be human in the presence of God.

God's power seems to be based in God's identification with the victims and the sinners. An identification which involves suffering with them. I'm reminded of words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering. (Bonhoeffer, quoted here)

Everything in the old world view is turned up side down.

How does this work out in the current parable? I think it's most likely simply a story of a king— any king. Marty Aiken argues that Jewish listeners would have identified the king as Herod the Great. I'm not sure that his argument works, although if Jesus told the story as Matthew tells it, especially since it's all happening in the challenge of Jesus to the ruling authority, the first king you would think of is the local ruler, one of the Herods. And it could be that Matthew took a story somewhat more like Luke's version of the parable (Luke 14:15-24) and overlaid it with a reference to a particular king.

In any event, the king wants a wedding for his son. The guests legitimise a wedding.

The excuses [of those who won't come] are an indirect but traditional way of signaling disapproval of the dinner arrangements on the part of the elite who have been invited. The shameful treatment and murder of the king's servants are a direct insult to the king's honor. Royal satisfaction would demand something as described in v. 7. (Malina and Rohrbaugh Social Science Commentary, Section- Textual Notes: Matt 22:1-14)

In not coming, the guests challenge the authority of the king, who makes an example of them by massacring the city; he proves he does hold the power. (This does have echoes of Herod the Great who, engaged to a Jewish princess, first of all made overtures of peace to Jerusalem after Marc Antony gave him the city.  And then sacked the place when Jerusalem refused to legitimise the kingship of this "half-Jew.")

Then the king holds the marriage anyway. And brings in ordinary (read something like: despised and lower class) people, not the elite, rubbing everyone's nose in their defeat. "Of course the second round of invitees come! They’ve just seen what this king does to those who turn him down!" (Paul Nuechterlein) So the elite— those who have survived— are humiliated, and so are those forced to come. Except one person won't play ball. In a silent protest, he refuses to wear the wedding gown which made him ritually clean and which would have honoured the king. (Malina Ibid)

Here I have to part company with James Alison, who sees in this man, a picture of our self-judgement. He sees the man as someone who can't believe he is invited to a wedding, but can only see judgement. It's an ingenious reading of this vignette within the story, not least because of the truth it carries. We do read blessing as judgement; I remember miserably travelling far across the desert to a tribal meeting, convinced I was going to be expelled, only to find the men wanted me to stay on longer, and to expand my work among them! As I said in my sermon last week,

We will meet God and know either great joy— know that we are home at last in the presence of utter goodness,   or…  we will know utter fear. The great danger for us is that we may— still!— even in the presence of God— know only fear and condemnation. This is what the parable of the wedding feast— next week— tells us: the man has been invited to the wedding, but is so convinced, despite all the evidence to the contrary— wine and feasting— that he has been brought to condemnation2 that he does not even put on the wedding gown!

But that's not what's happening in this wedding; there is no blessing. This is terror— come or else! It is a taunting of people with their powerlessness, the flaunting of the power of the king. And the man who will not put on the wedding gown says, "No."

This is where I can no longer get my ducks in a row, but where my instinct is that they are all somehow part of the same plump.

Aiken says Jesus is acting out the role of the suffering servant of Isaiah.

I suggest we credit the victim with intentionality and take him literally, if not at his unheard word, then at his actions.  I propose we view the victim’s meeting with the king as intentional and done with foresight, and not accidental or through negligence…  When viewed in this way our victim now holds out the promise of being understood as the “suffering servant.” 

Would Jesus do this!? Are we not reading into the text? Well, no.

17 While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, 18‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; 19then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.’ (Matthew 20:17-19)

Aiken continues

There are at least three strands of the “suffering servant” tradition that Jesus could have drawn upon:  the tradition of the Maccabean martyrs; the closely allied visions of Daniel; and the fundamental source for these and probably all other references to the “suffering servant,” the servant songs of Isaiah, particularly Isaiah 52 and 53.  All share as a common denominator the belief that Israel will have servants whose “…sufferings will have the effect of drawing on to themselves the sufferings of the nation as a whole, so that the nation may somehow escape.”3 In Isaiah’s suffering servant verses the servant takes on the infirmity or the disease at the heart of the people’s suffering, and it is these verses that we will use to understand Jesus’ portrayal of the unrobed guest.

"The parable’s king and the wedding banquet for his son are an absurd portrait of kingship and its festive accoutrement run amuck.  The parable’s thrown-out-one is the one who reveals the farce." (Caitlin Trussell) He gives the lie to all the forced gaiety, and shows the farce for what it is. So he must be killed.

Paul Nuechterlein summed all this up in a sermon:

So here we are, wanting to hear about this king as God, but proceeding to hear instead the picture of a king which doesn’t one iota fit the picture of the God we see in the Crucified Jesus. 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. Matthew’s Gospel emphasizes Jesus’ silence before his accusers more than any other Gospel.4

He goes on to mention

the verse in Matthew’s Gospel that I think is most important, especially when trying to understand the so-called parables of judgment, like the one in this morning’s Gospel. It is a verse towards the beginning where Jesus tells us straight out, without using parables or riddles, how to identify the kingdom of heaven. “The kingdom of heaven,” he tells us, “suffers violence, and the violent bear it away” (Matt 11:12). Human, earthly kingdoms operate by the threat or use of force; they dish out the violence. But Jesus here is telling us straight out that the kingdom of heaven is about suffering the violence instead of dishing it out. It believes steadfastly, in other words, in the power of love and forgiveness as the greatest powers on earth. So, if we keep this clue in mind from the first part of the Gospel, it helps understand these strange parables at the end of Gospel, which Jesus tells in Jerusalem just as he himself is about to suffer their violence in love and forgiveness. This morning’s gospel about the violent king and the man not dressed in a wedding garment is about the collision of a typical earthly kingdom and the kingdom of heaven. (My emphasis)

So as my duck mill about on the pond, I begin to wonder about the New Testament all over again. Clearly its authors are not disciples of Rene Girard whose thinking informs so much of what I quote here. But I wonder— I am beginning to be convinced— if they had an insight into power and violence which the church has largely lost for many hundreds of years. I'd hazard a guess that in accepting the patronage of Constantine, the church came again to be subverted by the myth of redemptive violence. It is clearly a major theme, and sometimes the major theme of the penal substitutionary atonement of the fundamentalism of my youth, where the violence of God redeemed the violence of the world.

The myth of redemptive violence comes with its own reality; it has its own sense of things which finds Jesus' understanding of love and power to be non-sense.  It blinds us. And it is the way of the world and the way of every kingdom but one.

This new reading is certainly giving me a language to speak about what is happening in my conversion. Like my bible study partner, I am revolted by the image of God as that merciless king, who somehow, my fundamentalist past would have me believe, is still merciful. I am being given new eyes to see myself and to make sense of my God.

Andrew Prior (2017)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

1. One way to read the story is that the servant, in refusing to forgive another, shames the king. The servant shows everyone the king is a soft touch for a good story.

2. This is Alison's insight. Raising Abel pp153

3. Aiken is quoting: Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God.  Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1996. 491.

4. Paul: See, for example, 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.” And 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.”


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