Pentecost 19 A 20
At our Zoom book group on Tuesday we had an interesting discussion about Sunday School and about teaching kids. I don’t think any of the participants will mind me mentioning this. I was, and am always critical of Sunday school when the teacher begins, ‘Now girls and boys, here is a story about God…’ and ends with…’If you do the right thing you will go to heaven.’ This parable is a perfect example of a story that Jesus tells that we can misunderstand and can use to misrepresent God. The difficulties are many: first, if we take Isaiah and David seriously we know that the one who gives the banquet is our generous and amazing God. We read that wonderful passage from Isaiah today that describes a banquet that is beyond money and price, a banquet that will defeat death itself. In the very familiar Psalm 23 we are told directly that our Lord and Shepherd will spread a table which has become for us a symbol of all that God wants to give us.
So is every one who gives a banquet God? I don’t know about you but the first thing that comes into my head is Herod’s birthday banquet at which Salome demanded the head of John the Baptist on a platter, so the answer is clearly ‘NO’.
Jesus has been talking about the John the Baptist in the verses preceding this parable, so perhaps it is Herod that Jesus is referring to here, as the one giving a banquet? Do you recall me saying last week that this series of parables is all about authority? The chief priests and elders are in a difficult relationship with authority themselves. They are subject to Herod, and to Pilate, representative of the Roman Empire. They, however, have a limited amount of power, of their own, in relation to the Jewish people. It is complex and they are always conscious of the fact that they don’t have as much power as they would like in their colonised country.
Jesus is disruptive, he has the ear of the people, and has the potential to cause a lot of trouble, so they are trying to rein him in.
One of the disadvantages of reading the words of a Hebrew-speaking prophet, recorded in Greek, in a completely different cultural context, and two thousand years later, is that we miss cultural references. If I said to you, ‘there were two princes, the older one married a very good girl and always did what his family wanted but the younger one married a very bad girl and his family didn’t like it at all,’ you wouldn’t presume that I was talking about God, but rather something much closer to home and this is the mistake we make with this parable.
Jesus gives us a clue right at the beginning by saying, ‘the Kingdom of heaven has been likened to…’ He is setting it up to be one of his ‘You have been taught… but I say…’ constructions. This is unlike the other two parables in this set. Jesus is drawing a picture of Herod the King and his behaviour that everyone would have recognised. (Just as an aside, something I read written by an American, D. Mark Davis, drew a direct parallel between this parable and an event concerning D Trump- political satire is not dead.)
This is the story of a vicious and violent man who wants to be treated with honour at any cost and is prepared to kill people and burn cities to get it. And right at the end we have a man who has come in to the banquet but refuses to toe the line and is silent before his accuser. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
I’ll just give you a potted history of Herod the Great (the father of Herod Antipas of Jesus’ time). Herod was seen as a usurper of the Jewish Throne illegitimately placed there by the occupying Roman Empire.
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 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 tells this 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. His 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. As I said last week Jesus has entered into Jerusalem as a king on a donkey. Then Jesus cleansed 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 these parables. 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.
Jesus’ parable is saying that Jesus is a 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 the hell of human violence just like the figure in the parable.
So, what does all this raise for us now, in our present situation? I am sure, like D. Mark Davis we can see things that remind us of the situation in the US at this moment. But perhaps we should ask ourselves whose banquet we are going to dine at? What does that mean for us in the light of the pandemic? What does the Kingdom of God look like here in Australia right now? And under whose authority do we act? Who is invited to the banquet?
The kingdom of God is here and now, just as real as the Australian society that we simultaneously inhabit. We are called to be citizens of both but it is our status of citizens in the Kingdom of God that must determine how we live in our Australian society.
And perhaps we should turn back to Isaiah and the great banquet promised by our God where all are called to come and eat and drink without cost, in a kingdom that is characterised by peace and the end of death? That is the banquet that we are called to bring in. That is what the Kingdom of God looks like and our God is the loving Host at the banquet.