October 15, 2023
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “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.” ***
When I was a kid, my parents had me and my twin brother singing in the church’s “Junior Choir.” The pastor’s wife was the director and I adored her. We practiced every week and sang in worship periodically, adorned in white dress shirts with big, colored bows that corresponded to the liturgical color of the season. On those Sundays, a team of moms would be down in the fellowship hall armed with straight pins to put the bows on dozens of fidgety children.
Some of the songs we sang I still remember clearly. “There is a Balm in Gilead” which left me wondering why we would sing about bombs in Gilead and where was Gilead anyway? “Onward Christian Soldiers” had a brisk march like feel to it and all I could think about was an army in rank carrying rifles slung over the shoulder. I really did enjoy choir. Thankfully, literature for children’s choirs have come a long way since the mid 1960’s.
This parable of the king and wedding banquet formed the basis for another song we sang. It was written by American Roman Catholic Sister Miriam Therese Winter, and originally published in 1966. Maybe you know it:
I cannot come….
I cannot come to the banquet, don’t trouble me now.
I have married a wife; I have bought me a cow.
I have fields and commitments that cost a pretty sum.
Pray, hold me excused. I cannot come.
It was a cheery song and after practice, my buddies and I changed the lyrics to “I have bought me a wife, I have married a cow.” Boys.
Truth be told, I am pleased Sister Miriam Therese used for the lyrics the gentler version of this parable which is told by Luke (14:16–26): A king is throwing a wedding party for his son. Everything is ready; all the guests have to do is show up. They don’t have to bake the bread, or slave over the grill, or bring the beer. They just need to show up. But they don’t come. They’re busy, they’re indisposed, they’ve got other commitments; with one excuse after another they decline the invitation. Alas, the king will not be undone by the rudeness of the guests; so, the servants are sent back to the streets to bring in anyone who will come ~ the good, the bad, and the ugly ~ until the great hall is filled.
But of course, the good Sister used Luke’s version of the parable describing the kingdom of heaven because Matthew’s version would have parents yanking their children out of church choir.
A bit of context. The parable is one of three that Jesus shares in response to the chief priests and elders who had questioned him about his protest in the temple (earlier in Matthew 21) when they asked: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (This being after Jesus’ arrived at the temple and saw the corruption causing him to overturn tables and chase out the money changers). At the end of the parable, the chief priests and elders realize Jesus has aimed this parable at them.
Matthew’s version of this parable is problematic. The king invites the “A” list to his son’s wedding, but these invitees don’t show up. The king sends his slaves to fetch them, but they not only make light of the invitation — they kill the messengers, which so enrages the king that he puts the roasted ox and the fatted calves back in the oven while he rallies his troops to go and kill them all, burning their city to the ground.
Next, the king sends his slaves to bring in the B list, which also includes some people on the C, D lists, most of whom were occupied with their smartphones, changing the oil in their pickup trucks or just sleeping in the bushes until the shelter opened when they were summoned to the king’s wedding banquet. “Cool! I must have won the lottery!” they thought. So they go to the wedding banquet. And you know what happens. The king notices one of them who is not dressed appropriately, acts as if that is some kind of big surprise, and — when the guy has nothing to say for himself — orders him bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
If this parable lays out what the kingdom of heaven is like, then I’m not interested.
Who needs God’s kingdom — at least as Jesus describes it here — when we already have more than enough leaders throughout the world who are abusing their power, when violence is perpetrated on a daily basis, when people’s lives are being destroyed, when cities are burning from bomb drops, when some are excluded and told they don’t belong? We don’t need God’s help to bring that about, we are increasingly good at it by ourselves.
The parable is a collage of contradictions and inconsistencies: a wedding banquet and a blood bath; messengers of good news and truth, and killers of those messengers; an enraged king that sends troops to destroy his own citizens; an open invitation to all and the exclusion of one who accepts the invitation.
I wonder if Jesus tells the parable in such an extreme and offensive way precisely because people often do believe in a God as harsh as the king who turns his armies loose on his own people — and we need the help of hyperbole in order to recognize it. Is it possible that Jesus is offering us a critical description of how God’s kingdom is often depicted by God’s own followers? What if the king in the parable isn’t God at all? What if the king is what we project onto God? What if the king embodies everything we’ve learned to associate with divine power and authority from watching other, all-too-human kings and rulers? Kings like Herod. Conquerors like the Roman Empire of Jesus’s day. Leaders in our own time and place who exercise their authority in abusive, violent ways, compelling their followers to gleefully celebrate in circumstances that call for lament.
This parable sounds more like today’s headline news than good news. And yet we can’t just turn away from it because it is asking something of us.
To ignore or gloss over the contradictions and inconsistencies is to ignore or gloss over the contradictions and inconsistencies in each of our lives and the world. They are telling us that something has been lost, that things are not right, that we’re sabotaging the life we say we want and the values we claim to hold. We are betraying ourselves, one another, and the kingdom.
Try this — think of this story like a mirror holding before us all the contradictions and inconsistencies of our lives and the world. What contradictions and inconsistencies is it showing you about yourself, about our country, about the ways in which we treat each other. What’s missing? What’s not right? What is it asking you to wrestle with? What is it asking us as a nation to wrestle with? What is it asking us as a Church to wrestle with?
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son,” Jesus says by way of introduction to his parable. Okay, what will happen if we take him at his word? What might we learn if we attempt an honest comparison between God’s coming kingdom, and our current one?
I wonder if Jesus is telling this parable and hoping to shake us up, hoping to wake us up. I wonder if he is hoping that we’ll say, “No, Jesus. We’ve followed your life. We’ve listened to your words. We’ve seen what you do. We know there is more to the kingdom than that.”
Don’t you look at the world today and think, “There’s got to be more than this?” I hope this week you have been struck by the cries of innocent Palestinian and Jewish people and say to yourself, “This should not be.” Don’t you look at the brokenness, the injustice, the hurt and say to yourself, “We can do better?”
If you do, you are absolutely correct. We all want that kingdom. I think that’s why we struggle with such a parable. I think it’s why we say our prayers and weep. We’ve heard the calling of something more.
What is that “more” amidst violence and killing that we hear of every day? What would “more” be when power is abused and people are hurt and oppressed? What would “more” look like when we turn on one another? How would “more” respond when we say things like, “That’s not my problem,” “He got what he deserves,” “Why should I care or get involved?”
What would the “more” of that kingdom look like in your life, your relationships, in the conflicts and struggles you have with others? What does the “more” of that kingdom ask of you in the criticisms and doubts you have of yourself and others? What would that “more” sound like in your attitudes and convictions?
I think that “more” would be the real kingdom of heaven, the one that’s been lost, the one that needs to be recovered. It’s the kingdom that speaks of and enacts love, compassion, forgiveness, mercy, kindness, beauty, hope.
If that’s truly what we want, if that really is what we seek when we pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” then you and I must become those things. It’s up to us to become the “more” for each other and for the future of the Church and the life of the world.
Bethany Lutheran Church, Rice Lake, WI Childrens Christmas Program circa 1966
The Wedding Feast Sandro Botticelli 1483