Pentecost 18 A Matthew 22: 1-14
So here we are for the third week, a third parable in the series that is in answer to the controversial question of from whom does the authority come for Jesus’ actions. It is a few days before Jesus death and things are building to a confrontation, the confrontation that will lead to Jesus’ death on a cross. And for a third time Jesus tells them a little story, this time to illustrate something about the kingdom of God- but also, of course, something about authority. In fact, each of the parables has a reference to the Kingdom of God, because that is what Jesus’ authority is about, his power to establish the Kingdom of God and his place as the ruler of it.
This third parable is not at all easy, however. Have you always thought that this parable was a picture of God? That is how it is usually taught. So here we have a king who gives a wedding banquet for his son, who is remarkably absent for the whole thing. He sends his slaves to tell those who are invited that it is ready but nobody comes, so he sends other slaves with the menu but people make light of it and still don’t come and the slaves are mistreated. So the king gets enraged and sends troops and wholesale slaughter ensues even to the burning down of the city, and still he wants his room full of people so he sends the slaves again to drag in anyone good or bad out of the smouldering remains, and the hall is filled. But then the king comes in and sees a man not in his wedding robe. He questions the man, but he is speechless and so the king has him bound and thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
This is a charming picture that Jesus paints of his loving father God isn’t it? And in what sense is the Kingdom of God like this? Is it a place where God is going to get angry and burn down our homes every time he is thwarted? Is this the God of love that throws people who don’t conform into the outer darkness? How comfortable are you with that? When I came to prepare this sermon I wasn’t at all comfortable and nothing I read satisfied me until I found a monograph by Marty Aiken, The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence: Discerning the Suffering Servant in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet. After I had read all 12,000 words that Aiken wrote I followed the paper trail- luckily electronic these days- and found an excellent sermon by Jeffrey Bessler called Who is King and Whose Kingdom is Like Heaven? which I am quoting extensively here.
It seems that there are lots of us that are not comfortable with the idea that Jesus would paint this as a picture of God.
So what does Aiken and Bessler suggest it is about? Well, if I told you that it was a picture of a king that Jesus’ listeners would immediately identify as Herod the Great, would that surprise you? Well, no, it certainly sounds much more like Herod, doesn’t it? A tyrant who has no hesitation in killing people who don’t do what he wants, and what about the man who stands silent before his interrogation? Does that ring any bells? And suddenly we can turn this parable on its head.
There is a thing called social knowledge- like the fact that everyone of a certain age knows where they were at the moment of the assassination of JFK. I can tell you all about the day I heard of the death of Princess Diana and if I started a story about an unhappy young princess who was running away from the paparazzi you would know exactly where the story was heading. This story is like that.
I don’t have time to explain in detail everything about Herod the Great who was seen as a usurper of the Jewish Throne illegitimately placed there by the occupying Roman Empire. But let me summarize it all like this. In 40 B.C., Herod is named King of the Jews by the Romans and comes with Roman troops to Jerusalem to claim the throne. He plans to marry a Jewish princess, hence a potential wedding party put on by the king. Outside the walls of Jerusalem he pleads with the citizens of Jerusalem to accept him as their king. But the people refuse to accept Herod in place of Antigonus II who is the rightful king currently on the throne.
Herod withdrew for a time, while fighting Jewish Zealots who were first century terrorists fighting against Roman occupation. Just as in Jesus’ parable the servants of the king are killed by the inhabitants of the city. Herod later returns to Jerusalem with his Roman army and lays siege to the city conquering it, killing many citizens and burning the city. Afterwards, King Herod the Great would have held a victory feast to celebrate his marriage to the Jewish princess and the citizens who had not been killed but whose city had been burned would have been compelled to attend. This all sounds just like the parable, doesn’t it?
But what about the second part of the parable which shifts focus quite dramatically to the person who comes to the wedding without the right clothes. Well, the remaining defenders of Jerusalem holed up on the Temple mount to prevent the Jewish Temple from being defiled by Roman gentile soldiers. The rightful king, Antigonus II, surrenders himself as a sacrifice to save the symbol of God’s rule, the Temple and he is taken prisoner. Herod the Great pays off the Romans to kill Antigonus to prevent the former king or any of his sons from challenging Herod or Herod’s own sons for the throne sometime in the future. Antigonus II is beheaded, an act so shocking to the ancient world that even pagans wrote comments about it. In the parable of Jesus, Antigonus is the figure bound up and sent to hell by Herod the king.
So Jesus uses today’s parable about the events surrounding King Herod the Great to give meaning to his own impending death. The Temple rebuilt by Herod and his sons became known as Herod’s Temple. Herod the Great has died and his son, Herod Antipas, is tetrarch of Galilee because he shares his father’s kingdom with his two of his brothers. This son Herod Antipas is the one who had Jesus’ own cousin, John the Baptist, killed. And in a few days this Herod Antipas will play a minor role in the crucifixion of Jesus.
It is in Herod’s Temple that Jesus is telling this parable about Herod and, by extension, Herod’s sons who now rule in his place. Listening to Jesus are the wary religious authorities who fear him and the crowd who have been stirred up by him. The day before Jesus enters into Jerusalem as a king on a donkey. Then Jesus cleanses Herod’s Temple in a parable of action rather than words just like people expected the Messiah to do. The Temple authorities question Jesus concerning his authority and Jesus refers back to his cousin John the Baptist, the prophet who had been beheaded in the last year by Herod’s son, just as Antigonus II was beheaded by the Father, Herod the Great. Then Jesus tells the parables we have heard these past three weeks. Everyone is waiting to see if Jesus will claim the Jewish throne as Messiah and challenge Herod’s sons.
So when Jesus suddenly shifts the focus of his parable away from the king to the wedding guest who refused to wear the proper clothes, Jesus points to a figure of resistance. In that time special tunics to cover your normal clothes were handed out to those who did not have one of their own to wear at wedding feasts. But this figure of resistance deliberately refuses to follow custom in defiance and becomes the focus of the king’s wrath. So this figure who crashes the wedding party is directly challenging the king’s authority in the parable just as Jesus crashing into Jerusalem and into the Temple is challenging both the political and religious authorities. And because this defiant guest remains silent and allows himself to be bound and thrown out into the darkness, Jesus not only identifies with Antigonus II who sacrificed himself, but this same image also refers to the Suffering Servant from Isaiah which we read during Holy Week to help explain Jesus’ death.
Jesus’ parable is saying that Jesus is a rightful king like the rightful king Antigonus II who gave himself up to save the people and God’s kingdom, and not a king of violence like Herod the Great. At the same time Jesus is showing that he is also the Suffering Servant of Israel who will take upon himself the violence that the citizens and the king are all caught up in. And so on the cross above Jesus are the words, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Jesus is thrown into the darkness of death, thrown into hell of human violence just like the figure in the parable.
Jesus says in Matthew 11, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force.” And so Jesus not only connects his impending death with the former rightful king who sacrificed his life, but the whole line of prophets. And of course this human penchant for violence will crucify Jesus in just a few days both as king of the Jews and as the one whom the prophet Isaiah portrays in the Suffering Servant Songs.
And so Jesus confronts us in today’s parable with some basic questions. Who is the real king in this parable: Herod or Jesus? And whose kingdom is like the kingdom of heaven: the violent kingdom of Herod (and indeed of all violent human kingdoms) or the kingdom of Jesus who comes offering God’s love, forgiveness, and acceptance through slave-like suffering? What image of God will we see in this parable: a violent God like Herod or a God of love who dies like a slave, like a common criminal, on a cross?
Jesus, the suffering servant, calls us into his kingdom, opened for us by his own death. Jesus even in his suffering is the authority needed for life. And we can confidently invite others to come with us into the kingdom of God’s great love.
Rev. Roberta Hamilton