Crashing the Banquet
Scripture: Matthew 22:1-14
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Gosh I didn’t know what to make of this parable at first. The common interpretation compares God to the King - God AS the king, and teaches us that while we are all invited to the banquet, we’d do well to clothe ourselves in the trappings of a Christian life, or else we’ll be, in typical Matthew dramatics, “tossed into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth”.
And yet…every Sunday Kent and I, and everyone in this congregation affirm our belief hat God loves and forgives us no matter what. The God who throws out a seemingly ungrateful guest does not sound like the same God who offered the bread and cup even to Judas the betrayer. So what gives? Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt from Dancing with the Word flips this story on its head. She ponders isn’t it just as likely that the kingdom of heaven is the people who refuse to appease an anxious, narcissistic, insecure ruler?
“Jesus often turned things inside out and on their heads when he told stories”, she reminds us, “So why not with this story?”
If the kingdom of heaven is the un-robed wedding guest, perhaps we can hear the story this way:
A ruler, aware of vague unrest and various crises in his kingdom decides that throwing a big party is the answer to his worries. So he invites all his supporters, his big donors, the kingdom elite, the big names…the usual crowd of sycophants and yes men who can never say no to him and reliably bolster his ego whenever they gather.
But, this time around, they don’t show up. At first the Ruler assumes they must not know how wonderful this party is going to be. He instructs his staffers to explain to the invitees how his party will have only the best wine, the best caterer any ruler has ever had, the biggest dance floor of any party in the last decade…no one has ever thrown a better party…
And he soon discovers that his once loyal supporters are defecting. Some of them even take his messengers down with them. Embarrassed and unwilling to be seen as anything but the most popular ruler ever, he unleashes a violent fury on those who turned down his invitation- not only on them, but on their towns and cities- their communities, as well.
He changes his tune, adopting a populist message now. Of course the elites rejected him! He’s an outsider who is shaking things up, after all! He is a man of the people! Everyone is invited to the party!
And the feast is indeed extravagant and bustling with people who are desperate to be heard, who see themselves in this ruler, who are willing to overlook his fury and fragile ego if it means they might finally be celebrated and listened to.. They put on all the merch they are given at the door and instructed to wear, and are swept up in the festivities.
But, there’s one guest who doesn’t dress up, who seems ambivalent, even skeptical, of the whole ordeal. Who was there perhaps more to talk to and engage with the other guests, to interview them and hear their stories, than to perform adoration for the Ruler. He is singled out almost immediately and thrown out violently, to set an example for the other guests.
Janet poses the question: “I cannot help but wonder if Jesus is not the one without the wedding robe — the one who could not, would not pretend to honor a tyrant king by putting on a wedding robe - who in behalf of all of us was thrown into the outer darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth”
It makes me wonder about how seductive it is when, as on outsider, you suddenly find yourself on the inside. You know the storyline on those middle and high school shows, where suddenly the kid who was excluded by the “cool” crew is invited into the group, and starts to take on the same excluding behaviors they had found so hurtful when they were on the receiving end? They inevitably end up hurting someone they care about, have a “come to Jesus” moment, and end up standing up to the cool kids by the end of the movie or story arc. And honestly, if you’ve ever felt ignored, trod on, bullied, or belittled, suddenly being paid attention to- courted, even, by those in power can feel like ‘well its about time’…and, well, don’t we want our leaders, or even just those with influence to pay attention to including the little guy?
Let’s backtrack to the beginning of the parable, in this alternate interpretation: the King, rightly furious over the murder of his slaves (we’ll be generous and say he was upset over the loss of life and not the insult or loss of his property), not only has the murderers killed, but he destroys their entire cities, resulting in the loss of countless innocent lives - his own subjects- not to mention entire economies. It’s the casual, impulsive killing of his own people that makes me ponder if he’s truly trying to turn over a new, inclusive leaf, or if he is just trying to save face.
So where’s the good news in this?
Traditional interpretations of This parable emphasize how God invites everyone to the banquet- saints and sinners alike, and I think this interpretation, too, carries that message. If Jesus was the guest who refused to don the wedding robe, its nevertheless significant that he came to the banquet in the first place. If he wasn’t attending to appease the ego of an insecure ruler, why go at all? If he knew he’d get thrown out into the outer darkness, why show up in the first place?
Well, the Jesus I know likes to be right there with the crowd - press reporter, holy street medic, legal observer, chaplain all in one. Jesus was there because we are there. Jesus goes wherever the oppressed, the vulnerable, the forgotten, the hated go. It’s easy for us to be wooed by powerful rulers who say they’ll fix our problems, not even knowing what our problems are, and likely not caring….
And I don’t just mean human rulers, but any powerful system that promises to make our lives better in exchange for adoration and loyalty.: capitalism, white supremacy, religion that promises easy answers but forbids tough questions,..but none of those systems care about us, they are largely indifferent to our hopes, dreams, individual struggles, our doubts. They accept collateral damage as readily as the king destroyed the cities of those who destroyed his own property.
And yet, there Jesus is, following us into the fray, if only to get to know us better - to experience what we experience, to understand our pain and our elation. And showing us how to stand up to power, ho w to refuse to appease tyrannical egos. It isn’t always safe to do so - we may feel like we’re being cast into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, but just like grudges, the less you feed the ego of the tyrant or system, the less power and control it has over you. The less it is able to hurt others.
Jesus sticks by us even when we are swept up in the relief and excitement of feeling ‘important’- in the teen movie, he’s that quiet, unassuming but unabashedly non-conformist friend who finally confronts the protagonist and says
“hey, this isn’t you. This isn’t who you are. I know you have different values than this. I love you and it makes me sad to see you acting this way. You’ve pushed me aside, and I miss you. I’m worried that this crew will only be nice to you as long as it suits them, and that they’ll harden your heart in the process. We go too far back for me to let this friendship be thrown away so easily…I’m gonna stick by you but you need to know the truth”
Even when we get swept up in the thrill of being invited to the party, even when we are so sick of being the outsider that once we’re invited in, we do whatever it takes to stay on the inside, Jesus is there with us, reminding us of who we are, and whose we are. Jesus is there with us, to stand up to the ‘cool kids’ and say,
“this is my friend. they’re with me. we don’t care if you like us or not. We are beloved children of God and we belong to no-one but our creator. Our loyalty can’t be bribed, our adoration isn’t transactional. Our loyalty is to the One who is, and was, and always will be. Our adoration is abundant for the One who created us and saw that we were good, who forgives us with an ever-increasing mercy, the One who loves us unconditionally.” Amen