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Finding Jesus in the Middle of Violence

A sermon on Matthew 22:1-14

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Camila Quintero Franco on Unsplash]

I don’t think there has ever been a week when I would have been GLAD to have today’s parable as the designated Sunday gospel, but if so, it’s not this week!

This week, I don’t want to have to parse how Jesus saying “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…” is NOT the same thing as Jesus saying “the story I’m about to tell you is a one-for-one analogy of how God acts with human beings.” It’s not - just trust me on this one.

This week, I also don’t want to have to deal with the long history of antisemitic interpretations of this parable that link the initially invited guests to “the Jews” (as though that were a monolithic category), and then assume it means God has summarily abandoned the people of Moses because they weren’t prepared to accept the invitation to the party for God’s Son in Jesus. I’ll talk a little about where that comes from, but - again - this is just wrong.

Most of all, though, this week I don’t want a story full of violence…. Slaughtered animals, and murdered slaves, and burned cities, and the binding of a hapless wedding guest cast out into weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Not this week.Not when there is already far too much violence breaking my heart.

When there was news of a family in Plainsboro, not far from where I used to live, killed by the father in a murder-suicide…

And of a mass shooting at the community center in Indiana, Pennsylvania - my best friend’s hometown - where she was just two days before…

And Israel and Gaza…

I won’t list the horrors that are coming out about the devastating violence being perpetrated against innocents by the thousands.

I’m sure you all know at least the headlines.

It’s staggering, and heart-rending, and I am just NOT in the headspace to be able to roll with depictions of over-the-top, retributory violence as just a literary device to make a theological point! Not this week.

I know that Matthew had his reasons for telling the story this way.

From similar passages in the gospels of Luke and Thomas, we know that the parable originated with Jesus, but also that it gets retold by each gospel author in ways that fit the story they are telling (as was typical for their time).

For Matthew’s community, this means speaking to the trauma of the fledgling and persecuted Christian church - which sprang from the Jewish community, but had been largely rejected by it - followed by the devastating destruction of the Jerusalem Temple - that many in that time interpreted as an act of judgement by God.

These historical realities are clearly in the forefront of this parable re-telling, because - for Matthew’s community - the parable offers both an explanation and a source of hope.

For them it HELPS to say: “The Temple was destroyed because God’s first ‘invitees’ rejected the invitation to the Jesus party. But those of us who answered the call are safe as long as we are prepared to go all in with God’s plan.”

That story made sense for Matthew’s community. It was a nurturing and empowering telling of the parable for them.

But it does not work the same way in every context.

In fact, this perspective has fed dangerous narratives that have led to centuries of violent antisemitism… narratives and violence, and reactions to those narratives and violence, that have contributed to the complicated and seemingly insoluble power struggle in Israel and Palestine now.

For that reason, a Christian church in the 21st Century CANNOT embrace Matthew’s reading uncritically… not if we want to follow Jesus’s central mandate to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and we know that our Jewish and Palestinian neighbors are suffering.

But that leaves us with the question of what to do when this is the parable we get… and this is the week that we get it.

My answer is to ask a different question than we usually ask of parables.

Since parables are, primarily, a teaching tool, we usually look for the lesson we can take from the parable and apply to our lives.

But today, the question I want to ask is where we can find Jesus in this story.

In this account of mixed celebration and conflict, welcome and rejection… where would Jesus locate himself, based on everything we know of him?

Well, we know he was generally up for a dinner party, whoever the host, so he wouldn’t have been one of the invited guests who blew the party off because they had better things to do…

But he could be seen in the slaves sent with the message of invitation.

After all, the earliest Christian hymn that we know of (one recorded in Philippians 2, which we heard in worship just a few weeks ago) describes Jesus as taking on the form of a slave… emptying himself in order to join humanity in our vulnerability, and submitting himself so completely that he even submitted to death.

He came to humanity with a message of God’s welcome, and in return we mistreated and murdered him….

So, yes. We can find Jesus in the powerless slaves who were sent with the message that the feast was ready, and who were killed to silence that message.

Is there anywhere else we might recognize Jesus in this story?

Reading on, we hear of the king’s rage, and of the violent retribution he sent his soldiers to enact far out of proportion to even the horrible aggression of the would-be guests.

An-eye-for-an-eye was the approved punishment under the Mosaic law, so since some of the invited guests had killed the messengers sent with the invitations, the king would have been justified under the law in executing those murderers.

But the king’s orders go beyond… not only killing the murderers but burning their whole city… destroying the lives of countless innocents who had no part in the conflict.

Considering Jesus’s words about violence… his rebuke when Peter raised a sword to defend Jesus in Gethsemane… his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that instead of an-eye-for-an-eye we should turn the other cheek… He obviously is not to be found in the character of the king, or in the soldiers who enacted the king’s vengeance.

But Jesus DID suffer for the sins of others when he let himself be raised up on a cross to be reviled and tormented, although he had done no wrong.

So, maybe Jesus can also be found among the faultless townspeople whose cities was burned and lives were destroyed because others in their town had enacted violence.

But the story is not over. The vengeful king still wants to throw his party, so he sends more (brave) slaves out into the streets to gather anyone they can find to fill up the banquet hall. Good and bad together are welcomed in.

Now, we have already mentioned that this is the kind of party Jesus was known for attending. He ate with both pharisees and synagogue leaders and with tax collectors and sinners.

Jesus did not make distinctions about who was worthy, so he obviously would have gladly come along with the general gathering from the streets to join the wedding banquet.

But there is one final conflict in the parable that happens at the banquet:

The king surveys his unexpected guests and finds one who has not followed all the niceties of expected convention for a wedding banquet: he’s wearing the wrong clothes.

The king questions the guest, and when the man cannot defend himself, he is bound and thrown “into the outer darkness” at the king’s command.

And… this scene takes me back to all the times when the persnickety rule-checkers of Jesus’s time called him out for not observing all the specifics of the Sabbath laws, and not commanding his disciples to perform the ritual hand-washing before meals… and it all sounds a lot like questioning someone for not having the right kind of wedding robe.

Of course, when these local leaders questioned Jesus, he challenged them right back about the purpose of the Sabbath laws… exposing the shallowness of what they saw as important…

but there WAS a time when Jesus held his silence: when he was on trial for his life before the Jerusalem Council, and again before Pilate.

So… yeah. I also see Jesus in the man bound and cast out because he wasn’t prioritizing the things that those drunk on their own power were obsessed with preserving, regardless of all reasonableness.

In this story of conflict between the powerful… we find Jesus among the powerless.

In this story of escalating violence… we find Jesus among the victims.

In this story of obsession with pride and appearances… we find Jesus silent in the face of pride’s unreasonable demands and punished for it.

It’s not a story that offers us any solutions for a world that looks disturbingly like the violent power-struggle played out in the parable… but it does show us where to look for Jesus.

Jesus, as he always does, stands alongside those who are suffering.

Thanks be to God.


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