St. Philip Lutheran Church
11 October 2020 + Lectionary 28A
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
During sophomore year at Lutheran High School North, part of our curriculum included a New Testament class. When it came to parables, we would be taught how to “interpret” them – which meant, more or less, assigning real-life roles to the various characters in the stories – as though a parable were some kind of “code” to decipher. And every parable, we were taught, had only one correct “interpretation.”
So, in today’s parable, for example: The king is God (the king always seemed to be God in these exercises), his son is Jesus, the first round of invited guests are the Israelites who reject Jesus, and the second round of guests … well, that’s us, the Gentiles, the ones who “get it” and accept Jesus.
That seems like pretty good news … if you’re on that second guest list, aka, a Christian. From our perspective in high school New Testament class, there seemed to be no reason to question this interpretation of the parable.
But it’s a hard parable. And deeply problematic. There is violence at every turn. First, the invited guests seize, mistreat, and kill the king’s slaves. Then, the king in turn has the guests – “those murderers” – killed and their city burned and destroyed. And, when the next round of guests is invited and shows up, the king appears to play a cruel trick on the one guest who came without regard for the apparent unspoken dress code – binding him hand and foot, and throwing him out of the party, into the outer darkness.
It seems our neat little interpretation of the parable isn’t so neat and tidy after all. It’s filled with violence, a seemingly vengeful and petty God, not to mention a harsh anti-Semitism that perpetuates religious and ethnic discrimination against the Jewish people even to this day.
If there’s only one possible interpretation of a parable, then what do we do when that interpretation is harmful?
In a popular TED Talk a few years ago, Nigerian novelist and storyteller Chimamanda Adichie reminds us, as the title of her talk suggests, of “the danger of a single story” – the danger we risk when we pay attention to only certain details and overlook others that could paint a much different picture.
There is danger in the single story, as Adichie says, to “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” There is danger of the single interpretation, too – to understand a parable as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what it becomes – violent, vengeful, anti-Semitic, exclusionary, “good news” only for some.
The thing about parables is that they aren’t nice bedtime stories by Jesus. Parables are meant to make their hearers uncomfortable, to make us recognize something we don’t want to see.
This parable is the last in a series of three weeks of parables directed at the chief priests and elders of the people – the leading religious authorities of Jesus’s day. They begin by questioning Jesus’s own authority. The authority he uses to overturn the table of the money changers and drive out those who have turned God’s temple into “a den of robbers.” The authority he uses to cure the sick, cast out demons, and stand in solidarity with the oppressed. The authority that upsets the status quo enough to make the chief priests and Pharisees angry enough to want to arrest him and kill him just before this final parable.
The chief priests, elders, and Pharisees were confident they understood the way that God works. It was a way that privileged those in earthly authority (them) at the expense of those who had none (everyone else). It was an interpretation of God that made them feel comfortable, that was “good news” for them and them alone.
As writer Anne Lamott puts it, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
In response, Jesus tells this parable to upend the understanding of God that the religious authorities had come to expect – a vengeful, power-hungry king, like Herod or the Roman emperor, whose reign privileged the powerful few at the expense of everyone else.
Why would a king reject the very guests who showed up to his banquet, after explicitly inviting them? Wouldn’t he know that those guests he dragged in from the streets wouldn’t have the proper dress code?
Why would God, who makes for all peoples a feast of rich food, cast out one who comes to the table hungry? Why would God, the refuge of the poor and needy and those in distress, who wipes away the tears from all faces, who swallows up death forever, whose goodness and mercy follow and enfold us our whole life long, abandon us to weeping and gnashing of teeth?
It’s like Jesus is saying: That’s not God at all. The king is who we make out God to be… but God is not the vengeful one at all. God is the one who is thrown out because God refuses to participate in a worldview that privileges the few at the expense of the many.
What if Jesus is the wedding guest who shows up without the “proper” wedding robe? Whose authority to cure the sick, cast out demons, and stand with the oppressed is such a threat to the status quo that it’s enough to get him cast out?
The “good news” is not that we’re safely at the wedding feast while others have been killed or cast out. That’s not good news at all.
The good news is that Jesus is with the cast out and discarded people of this world because Jesus has been cast out too – cast out to the outer darkness of the cross and the grave.
The good news of this parable is that, because God knows what it means to be cast out, God is present with the cast out peoples of this world. God is with the LGBTQIA+ teen kicked out of their house or expelled from their church for coming out. God is with the parents of black and brown children who are afraid to let them leave the house out of fear they won’t come home alive just because of the color of their skin. God is with those who are told they are “too young” to have any experience to contribute or “too old” to be of use and value anymore. God is surely with the cast out peoples of this world.
Even there, even in the outer darkness – especially in the outer darkness – there is God. And that is good news indeed.
Photo by Nils Stahl on Unsplash