Earlier this week I met a woman for the first time and she said to me, I hope you’re not preaching on Matthew! I’m not totally sure why she said this, but I think there are a number of reasons why we’d rather not look too closely at this text.
First, let me tell you a story. When I attended Virginia Seminary, we were required to attend chapel at least once a day during those three years. Which left a lot of time to inspect the various plaques on the walls honoring deceased faculty, time to look at the various hues and sorts of wood that had been gathered since 1881 to make the pews, the altar rail, the pulpit, and other parts of the ecclesiastical architecture. And it left a lot of time to look at the various windows in the place. The chapel was known for being a sort of mish mash, with a traditional Tiffany window of Paul preaching in one transept and opposite some recently installed mission windows honoring VTS graduates who had become missionaries throughout the world.
However, the window that often caught my eye as I walked into or out of the chapel was one that portrayed the betrayal of Judas. It was striking because it was quite offensive. The window was a constant reminder of Christianity’s sordid history of anti-semitism, of persecution, and downright violence toward Jewish folk. In it, Judas is portrayed holding a bag of money, his forty pieces of silver gained for betraying Jesus to the chief priests. And, as he grasped the money, you could look at his face, with green-tinged skin and a hooked nose. All of which made him appear part human and part goblin or demon.
And this was not unusual in Christianity, especially European Christianity. In those days, Judas was a stand-in for all Jews, who were blamed for betraying Christ. This fear and hatred towards a religious minority is one of Christianity’s great sins. And this morning’s gospel lesson from Matthew is one of the texts that has been used to justify this anti-semitism. So we may be tempted to look away from it for exactly that reason. We may want to look away from this text because of the way it has been used, wrongly, to justify anti-Semitism.
However, this isn’t a story of judgment of all Jews at all times. It’s not judgment of all Jews in Jesus’ time. No, this is a story of judgment about a particular people, who collaborated with the Romans, the imperial power dominating the Jewish state. This is judgment aimed at people who enriched themselves at the expense of the poor, who tithed mint and dill but neglected the weightier matters of the law. Jesus is speaking directly to these folks as he tells this parable. It is a parable of judgment for the way they ignore God’s summons and instead embark upon their own work, their own interests. Now, if you haven’t noticed already, let me tell you that Matthew has a lot of parables of judgment.
Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor once said, if Matthew and Luke both had churches in my town, I’d want to go to Luke’s church. Some of us in the room may be unaware of this text and the sordid history of its interpretation. We might want to look away from it for another reason. We might simply be appalled at the violence conveyed in the action. Despite the invitees dismissive response and then their murder of the king’s slaves, we might be disturbed by the image of an angry king burning down their city. Because a simple reading of the story might lead us to believe that the king is God, and we don’t believe God is a murderous bully. I think we are right to be disturbed by this violence on some level. For our God is not a murderous bully.
At this point it’s helpful to remember that this is a parable. Jesus says, the Kingdom of Heaven “is like.” Parables give us a vision of the kingdom, but it is fragmented, liked looking through poorly made glass. We get hints, but never the whole picture. God is no murderer, any more than he is a farmer, sowing seed on thorny ground. These are only images, meant to convey a larger truth. Now, this could have been a relatively straightforward story. I’ve heard that some of Jesus’ parables, like the lost coin and the lost sheep can be summarized as: lost, found, party. And this story is a sort of distorted version of that. Some people are lost (and end up being killed). Some are found, out in the streets. And then there’s a big party.
Imagine if the parable ended with verse 10: 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. We could close the book right there and end on a relatively happy note. But then, there’s more, a sort of parable within a parable. For suddenly this story that was about expecting God’s invitation changes. Suddenly, it’s a story about what happens after you show up.
And this is perhaps the third reason why we want to look away from this parable. For the first part really isn’t about us. We’re here at the feast, after all. But this last bit, it seems downright unfair. Here is this guy, grabbed off the street, and now he’s being punished for not having on the right clothes. It seems not only unfair, but mean-spirited. And I wonder if maybe this is the part of the parable that makes us truly uncomfortable. Maybe we fear being called out. Our lives aren’t totally together. Sometime we struggle to love our partner, to love our children, let alone loving our neighbor. We don’t always say or do the right thing. And the idea of all this being revealed publicly fills us with shame. So we can’t help but feel sorry for this wedding guest when the king sends him away for not having on a wedding garment.
And yet, there is something about this story you might not know. It was not unusual for the host to provide the wedding garments. Everyone else has been dragged off the street as well. How else would they have arrived properly clothed? They showed up and put on the garment they were given. And this is the good news of this parable. Our task is not to sew, to own, or to otherwise be ready with the proper clothing. Our task is to receive what God offers us. Whether we have been changing the oil in the car, caring for an ailing parent, or working double shifts, God has brought us to this feast. We’ve all found our seats this morning. And our only task is to open our hands and our hearts and receive what is offered to us. May we live into this life of forgiveness and grace.