Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Dividing Line (Matthew 22:1-14)

This parable gives us fits. It's so violent, for one, and the violence seems so extreme given the circumstances. We have a king who destroys a whole city because some of the people who live there rejected his invitation to a wedding feast and themselves murdered the messengers sent to collect the RSVPs. We've got a fellow who shows up at the feast who gets thrown out into the outer darkness because he doesn't answer a question about his wardrobe quickly enough -- talk about What Not to Wear!

That'd be not such a huge problem if it wasn't that Jesus starts telling the story with the well-known line, "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to..." In other words, this whole "Conan the Barbarian's Guide to Wedding Feast Etiquette" is supposed to tell us about the Kingdom of God! Wait, what? How does that work?

Well, in a lot of people's minds, it doesn't. Many Christians simply overlook this story when they talk about the Kingdom of God, because they can't reconcile the violence of the story with the coming of the Prince of Peace. If they talk about it at all, they suggest that we have the story wrong, that at some point, someone copied Matthew wrong or they added in their own thing and so what we have is garbled. I sympathize with their confusion but I believe God intended for all of Scripture to be used by his people and I'm very leery of leaving pieces out just because I don't like some of the things they say. Wouldn't be long before I had about two or three pages left, and if you were doing the same thing you'd find yourself in the same boat -- probably with a different set of pages, too.

Of course, one of the reasons we get ourselves tied up in knots about this story is that we forget at its roots it's exactly that -- a story. I believe Matthew reported faithfully what Jesus said, but that doesn't mean I believe Jesus meant us to take the story literally -- he wanted us to see its meaning and take that, instead.

As Christians, we understand the first part of the story just that way. The "messengers" represent the prophets, sent to the people of Israel to remind them of God's invitation to them. Far too many of the Israelites ignored and rejected the message, and some of them did assault and murder the messengers. This part of the story represents the story of God's outreach to Israel, but it doesn't tell it literally.

This rejection and murder outrage the king, who sends his soldiers to take justice from the murderers and burn their city. In one afternoon? Well, if we take the story literally, yes, but I think that's the point where Jesus starts to hint to us that we need to stretch our brains a little when thinking about what he says. No city could fall in just an afternoon, not even to a Caesar. While this move satisfies the king's desire for justice, it leaves him a little shy in the feast guest department. So out go his messengers into the streets to gather up the poor and the leftovers, "whoever you can find." Again, see how the story is representational and not literal? We understand God's invitation is given to everyone equally -- in fact, some Christians suggest that the poor and needy hear it before the rich do. I don't know if that's true, but I do know that God's invitation goes out to the whole world regardless of wealth, privilege or status, because the whole world regardless of wealth, privilege or status needs to hear God's message.

I think that's one thing that Jesus wants those who hear or read this story to understand. I also think he wants us to understand that there is no difference between passively ignoring God's invitation and actively rejecting it. We can't abstain from the vote. Jesus himself tells John in Revelation that he would almost rather one of the seven churches he addresses would be cold instead of lukewarm, because the lukewarm makes him sick. Those in the city who just turned their back on the messengers but who didn't attack or kill them lost their homes just as surely as did those who responded violently. A theologian named Rudolf Bultmann said this was the "existential question," meaning a question that dealt with our very existence. We accept that God is real and calls us back to him or we don't, and our choice influences everything about our lives.

The incident with the unfortunately clothed guest shows the same idea. Without a wedding garment, he obviously didn't belong at the wedding feast. We either follow God or we don't. We can't half-follow him, just like the wedding-garmentless man couldn't pretend to be a wedding guest. The story is less of a description of the fate of people who get caught sneaking into the Kingdom of God -- because that isn't going to happen -- than another reminder that there is no middle ground.

Now, there might be plenty of people who follow God even though they're not aware that's what they do. In Romans 1, Paul suggests that God has given people what they need to know how to do that, and it may be they don't recognize they're doing so. But they're still following God or not following him, no matter what they know.

And in any event, that's them. We know what God requires, so we have our choice clearly outlined for us. God has invited you, and me, and everyone, to the wedding feast of his son and his bride the church. Let us make our way there together.

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