Sunday, 12 October 2014

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
12th October 2014

Matthew 22.1-14  Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying:  2 "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.  3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come.  4 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.'  5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business,  6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.  7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.  8 Then he said to his slaves, 'The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.  9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.'  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.  11 ¶ "But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe,  12 and he said to him, 'Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?' And he was speechless.  13 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.'  14 For many are called, but few are chosen."

Isaiah 25.1-9   O LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.  2 For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt.  3 Therefore strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you.  4 For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat. When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,  5 the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place, you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds; the song of the ruthless was stilled.  6 ¶ On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.  7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations;  8 he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.  9 ¶ It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

I don’t know what sermon you were expecting to hear on this passage this morning,
            but possibly it might have gone something like this:
God’s kingdom is like a wedding banquet
            which is he throwing for his son, Jesus.
Those whom he first invited, the oh-so-religious and pious Jews,
            have declined to attend,
            and have even killed the messengers that God has sent to invite them.

So God has send his messengers to the highways and byways of the world
            to invite everyone else to the party instead,
                        from tax collectors to prostitutes,
                        from riff-raff to nobodies,
                        from the blind to the lame;
            God drags into his party the people who thought they’d been forgotten.

However, whilst God may have invited everybody,
            this isn’t a no-strings-attached invitation.
Because whilst God loves everybody,
            he doesn’t want them to stay as they are:
                        after all, who would want the serial killer to get in
                        without him changing his behavior?
The invitation might be for all, but people must still accept it,
            and must behave appropriately if they are to stay in the party.

So a person who comes, metaphorically speaking, in the wrong clothes,
            who doesn’t clothe themselves with garments
                        of love, justice, truth, mercy and holiness,
            is in effect saying that they don’t want to stay at the party,
            and so they are thrown out into the outer darkness.

That’s the sermon I’ve heard preached on this passage before;
            it’s the sermon with the established weight of interpretation behind it;
            and I think, frankly, that it’s a terrible sermon.
Let’s think for a moment about where this sermon takes us,
            if we follow it through to its logical conclusion.

Let’s start with the king,
            the one who is focussed on throwing a wedding banquet for his son.

What do we know about him from the parable?
            Well, to start with, he’s pathologically obsessed
                        with giving his son a magnificent party.
            It doesn’t seem to matter who the guests are,
                        just so long as the party is good.

He also keeps some very dubious company:
            let’s not forget that his preferred guests for the party
            are themselves hardly the nicest people:
                        they are, we are told, arrogant, landowning businessmen,
                        with a tendency towards murderous violence.

The king is also a military man of means;
            we know that he has slaves, and that he has troops,
            and that he is ready to use this power to its full capacity.
So he thinks nothing of putting to death anyone who slights him,
            and he’s happy to send in the troops to burn an entire city to the ground
            if they don’t give him the respect to which he believes himself entitled.

He is, in short a military, self-aggrandizing,
            capricious, despotic, dictator.
He looks very much like the Herods of the early first century,
            or possibly the more psychotic of the Roman emperors.
What he doesn’t look like, if we’re honest about, is God.

Or perhaps he does look like God,
            if you’ve got an image of God as a military, self-aggrandizing,
                        capricious, despotic, dictator;
            which is exactly how some people do picture God.

There are many who believe that God is just waiting to catch them out,
            to throw them out, to cast them into the place of darkness,
            where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.
There are many who believe that God’s gracious inclusion only goes so far,
            and that if we don’t respond properly,
            we’ll find ourselves on the receiving end of his sacred violence,
                        levied in judgment on us and the rest of the sinners.

But I want to suggest something
            which by now may seem obvious: this is not God.
What this is, is a huge case of mistaken identity.

So I’m going to suggest that we try to set aside
            the sermon we thought we might get on this passage,
and we try to put out of our minds
            the sermons we’ve heard before on this parable before,
and that we try reading it afresh,
            to see what might emerge from it if we read it a bit differently.

What if the king in Jesus’ parable isn’t God?
            What if his son isn’t Jesus?
What if the first-invited guests aren’t the Jews?
            What if the forced-in guests aren’t grateful to be there?
What if the man with the wrong clothes on isn’t a sinner?

What if people have been reading this parable wrong all these years,
            because they have been reading it through the lens of a wrong view of God?
What if God isn’t a violent dictator after all?[1]

Let’s try and her the parable as those listening to Jesus might have heard it…

‘There was a king who had a son,’ Jesus begins…
            And his hearers would already have been nodding along,
                        ‘wasn’t there just!’ we can almost hear them thinking….

Herod the Great had been appointed ruler of Judea
            by the Romans some seventy years previously,
and after a reign of nearly half that
            had died and handed over the kingdom to his descendants,
                        the Herodian dynasty, as they became known.
Through a careful series of strategic marriages,
            he and his descendants had ensured that they were able
            to continue their despotic rule of Israel for generations.

And there’s nothing like a royal wedding to reunite the population
            behind the fading appeal of an aging monarch, is there?
And royal weddings, as we all know, lead to royal babies,
            and so fresh life is breathed into the tired old family firm,
            and everyone is won over for another generation.
Or at least, that’s the theory.
            Some of us are not so easily seduced.
            But that’s another story…

The Herodians had been ruling Judea for generations,
            their power-base carefully propped up by strategic alliances and marriages,
            supported by the world class Roman military,
                        and legitimated by a string of propaganda exercises
                        designed to keep the people happy.

What’s interesting, in Jesus’ story,
            is that the invited guests to the latest Royal Wedding choose not to attend.
We know what kind of people they are:
            they’re exactly the kind of people you’d expect to find at a Herodian wedding
                         – one of them owns a farm, another one is a businessman.
            They’re the elite, and they’re turning against the king.

Perhaps his popularity is running out, perhaps it’s time for a change,
            there’s always a pretender to the throne waiting in the wings
            if the current incumbent oversteps the mark.
The king pushes them a bit harder, and they push back,
            seizing the king’s slaves and killing them.
It’s insurrection time, civil war is only moments away now…

So the king sends in the crack troops,
            to utterly destroy those who have defied him, burning their city.
A response worthy of any dictator in any age.

But there’s still a party to have.
            There’s a succession to secure.
            There’s a population to be wowed with wedding cake and bunting in the streets,
                        and God help anyone else who doesn’t want to play monarchist.
Come in, come in, come to feast…
            And don’t you dare say that you’ve got somewhere else to be…
This is political royalist propaganda at its most blatant.

And, of course, the people play ball.
            I mean, who wouldn’t?
Everyone loves a royal wedding,
            if they know what’s good for them.

Except for one, who doesn’t play ball at all…
            He’s there, along with everyone else who’s been forced to the party.
                        But he’s not joining in.
He’s wearing the wrong clothes,
            he’s silent when he should be singing,
            he’s still when he should be shouting.
He’s the party-pooper,
            he’s the one who makes everyone else feel uncomfortable,
            because he’s showing their forced jollity for what it is:
                        a lie inspired by fear.

‘The kingdom of heaven is like this…’
            said Jesus, introducing this parable.
And we may well now ask,
            ‘in what way is this story like the kingdom of Heaven?’

After all, we’ve just established that the Kingdom is not the banquet,
            and the king is not God;
this is a very earthly story,
            one familiar not just to those hearing it from Jesus,
            but to those in any generation who have looked at their ruling elite
                        and seen self interest and violent corruption.

So where in this parable is the Kingdom to be found?

The Kingdom of Heaven, as we know from some of Jesus’ other parables,
            is not always to be found in the places one might expect.
Sometimes it’s a mustard seed, small, almost invisible,
            fragile, and waiting to be discovered in the most unexpected of places.
I think it’s there in this parable,
            we just need to look for it…

When faced with a murderous regime or a despicable dictator,
            this parable points us to three possible responses.

The first is the path taken by the initial guests;
            it is the response that plays the political game,
            which seeks to effect regime change and resorts to violence if necessary.
The problem with this, of course, is that not only is it a high risk strategy,
                        as the landowning businessmen in Jesus’ story discovered,
            but even if it is effective, you only end up replacing one Herod with another,
                        and so nothing really changes.
This is the path that will most readily appeal
            to those with a vested interest in the status quo,
            to those who have previously been cozying up to the dictator
                        and diligently attending all his parties
            right up until the moment when the wind changed against him.

The second response is that taken by those
            who actually ended up at the feast thrown by the king,
                        and this is the path of least resistance.
It is the path that says,
            ‘I know he’s a dictator, but what are you gonna do?’
It is the path taken by those who feel disempowered,
            by those who live in fear or apathy or both,
            who just want to be left alone and allowed to live their quiet lives.
If others take a stand and die for the trouble,
            that’s very sad, but at least we still survive for another night.
And really, is there anything so wrong with a bit of partying on demand,
            even if it does represent capitulation to state propaganda?

The third response is that taken by the man in the corner
                        who is wearing the wrong clothes.
            In a world of violence and enforced capitulation, he stands apart.
This, surely, is the kingdom of heaven personified.
            This is the kingdom of heaven as the suffering servant (Isa 52.13-53.12),
                        the one who remains silent before his accusers
                        and who goes to his death in defiance of the forces
                                    that seek continued and unfettered reign
                                    to diminish, distort, and demean humanity.

In the world of the prophetic book of Isaiah,
            written some six hundred or so years before the time of Jesus,
            and speaking to a time of military occupation and enforced exile
                        at the hands of the Babylonian empire,
we find the origins of this suffering-servant counter-testimony
            to the ideology of empire.

The Babylonians had declared that the world must bow down before them
            or else face terrible consequences.
Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the Babylonians,
            had declared that all must worship him, and him alone.
And it was in the midst of this world
            that Isaiah started to articulate the dream of a new world.
In the midst of oppression, Isaiah wrote of a hopeful future,
            of a time and place where tears would be wiped away,
            and people would be free to feast with their God
            in joyful celebration of their liberty from subjugation.

The kingdom banquet dreamed of by Isaiah
            is a world away from the wedding banquet of the king in Jesus’ parable.
But there is a common thread…
            and it is the figure of the suffering servant.
The insight of the prophet Isaiah was that the new world of justice and equality
            could only come into being through the suffering of the innocent
            who take their stand
                        in defiance of the inequalities and violence
                        that otherwise dominate the world.
So Isaiah personifies the nation of Israel as the servant of the Lord,
            and speaks of the people of God as the faithful servant
            who is wounded and marred and killed
                        for the sake of the new world that is coming into being.

In Isaiah’s time, this was clearly referring
            to the sufferings of the nation of Israel
            at the hands of their Babylonian oppressors.
And of course the New Testament writers
            used this same ancient image of a ‘suffering servant’
                        to describe what they saw in Jesus,
            who went to his cross to take upon himself the violence of humanity,
                        opening the way through death to resurrection and new life for all.
And it is this figure of the suffering servant
            that we meet in Jesus’ own story of the wedding banquet.

The silent man, who has refused to put on
            the appropriate garments of celebration for the royal wedding,
is seized by the king’s attendants, bound like a sacrificial victim,
            and thrown into the outer darkness.

This is the crucial moment in the parable,
            and it is here that the Kingdom of Heaven finally comes into view.

The guests at the banquet in the parable are in all sorts of trouble.
            They live in world of violence and fear,
                        they are asked to accept propaganda
                        that legitimates their own oppression and coercion,
            and they are in no position to challenge the king,
                        because those who have already tried that are now dead
                                    with their city burned to the ground.

The guests at the king’s banquet are a people with no hope.
            And it is to those who live in the land of darkness
                        that the unrobed man comes.
            Standing there in their midst, one of them, yet not one of them.
                        With them, but not the same as them.
            He takes onto himself the wrath of the king,
                        and becomes the sacrificial victim.
He interrupts their victimhood
            by making himself the victim for all.

So what about us… ?

We, like the prisoner-guests of the tyrannical king,
            live in a world of violence.
There is horror being played out before our eyes in Syria and Iraq.
            And our leaders don’t know how to respond
                        except by trying to bring peace by violence,
            which just perpetuates the suffering to another generation,
                        at best deferring it to another year.

And we might well ask, in the midst of the complexities of war and suffering:
            Where is the kingdom of heaven to be found?
Where is the counter-testimony to the dominant ideologies
            of retaliation or compliance?
Where is the Kingdom when those who were once our friends are now our enemies?
            Where is the Kingdom when those who were once our enemies are now our friends?
Where is truth and justice
            and righteousness and forgiveness and peace
            in a world of terrorism and bloody murder?

Where are those who are taking a stand?
            Where are those who will not bow to the king?
            Where are those who will not comply?

Where, in the midst of the spirals of violence that define our world,
            is the kingdom of Heaven to be found?
Where in a world of dictators and despots,
            of ideology and propaganda,
            is the kingdom of heaven to be seen?

Tomorrow I’m representing the Baptist Union of Great Britain
            at an event in Westminster
            called the National Caucus for the Persecuted Church.
This meeting will draw together various senior political figures,
            members of the house of Lords,
                        political analysts, clergy,
            the Foreign and Commonwealth office,
                        the Refugee Council,
                        and the Canadian High Commission for Religious Freedom.

We will be talking about how best to help those Christians in Northern Iraq
            who have been displaced from their homes
because of their refusal to capitulate
            to the demands of those who hold power over them.
Should they stay put, be granted asylum,
            or should we try to create ‘safe havens’ for them?

Many Christians in Northern Iraq,
            as in so many other places around the world,
have chosen to stand with the suffering servant,
            to stand with the quiet man in the wrong clothes
            at the wedding banquet of Jesus’ parable.
And they are bearing the marks of suffering in their own bodies,
            for their refusal to join the party of capitulation to the dominant ideology.

And by so doing they are bearing faithful testimony, even unto death,
            of their refusal to be conformed to the demands of this world.
They are refusing to be intimidated by the violence of the king,
            refusing to bow down to the system of domination that seems to control all.
They are holding fast to the cross of Christ.

And, Jesus might ask of us:
            Where will we be found standing at the king’s banquet?
Or, to put it another way,
            where are we going to take our stand?

[1] See Marty Aiken "The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence: Discerning the Suffering Servant in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet.”

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