A new look at the parable of the king’s banquet

One of the most persistent struggles I have faced in my faith life, is trying to reconcile the places in scripture where it seems as though God is being portrayed as using violence, and yet Jesus’ entire life and ministry bears witness to a God of grace, mercy, love and peace, who will reluctantly and with sorrow allow human beings to make choices that bring violence into their lives, but who does not use violence against people, the very ones created in the image of God. God’s non-violent nature revealed by Jesus remains consistent and unwavering even as humanity used deadly violence against God, when God took on vulnerable, human flesh in the person of Jesus.

So in light of that, this morning’s parable is a deeply troubling one. What do we do with a king, whom we usually assume is God in this parable, who wages war against those who refuse his banquet invitation and who banishes another invited guest to outer darkness because he isn’t dressed properly?

Well, what if the king isn’t God? That might be seen as a convenient reinterpretation to manipulate the story to fit our preferred image of God. But it may also be a very profound truth that we miss seeing because we don’t hear the parable in its original, cultural context. The parables of Jesus are meant to challenge listeners to shift from a human perspective to a God perspective. Knowing that Jesus is telling this parable only days away from his own arrest and death, what if he wants his hearers, including us, to see that God’s place in this parable is actually the wedding guest who is deemed inappropriately dressed, unworthy to be at the banquet, and who is bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness for his failure to conform? Let’s look at how that could make any sense at all.

Father Jeffrey Bessler, an Episcopal priest, shared an example of a modern parable in a sermon about this text in 2011, that helps modern US citizens understand how context shapes understanding.

Imagine for a moment that I was going to make up my own parable, and I started off my parable like this: “The kingdom of heaven might be compared to a man, a religious man, who flew planes into buildings.” All of us would immediately know that my parable would be a set up to deal with Osama bin Laden. And we would also expect that my connection between bin Laden and the kingdom of heaven was not meant to be the point of the parable. Rather we would expect that the point of my parable would be to show how bin Laden is not connected to the kingdom of heaven and that bin Laden is not the basis for a violent image of a God. (At least I hope you would!)

However, just by starting out my own parable with those few words, already in your minds you have an idea of what I mean and where the rest of the story is going. We call this social knowledge. Those of us living in 2011 share a common social history of experience, a common story about 9/11 which gives an instant meaning to the beginning of my parable without my ever saying the name bin Laden or using the expression 9/11. But such social knowledge fades over time.

The people who heard Jesus speak today’s parable were hearing it in their own social context. In the NRSV translation Jesus starts out his parable saying the kingdom of God may be compared to a king- but translators, for some unknown reason, have left out the word that precedes “king,” the word “man” (the word used generically to mean a human person). So literally, Jesus begins by saying that the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man- a king… This man or human person who happens to be a king invites people to the wedding of his son and they refuse, then attack and kill his slaves. In response the king sends his troops to murder these people and burn their city. Everyone listening to Jesus would have immediately known Jesus was talking about King Herod the Great.

A violent coup

Just as you immediately understand my referring to “a man” who was clearly bin Laden without ever mentioning his name, Jewish social knowledge in the time of Jesus knew exactly who Jesus was talking about without saying Herod’s name.

Herod the Great had a violent and bloody history. Placed on the throne by the Roman government, he was not recognized as the legitimate king by the Jewish people. About 40 years before the birth of Jesus, Herod the Great led a Roman army into Jerusalem, laid siege to the city and conquered it. He held a victory feast to celebrate his marriage to a Jewish princess and the citizens who had not been killed but whose city had been burned were compelled to attend. Sound familiar? 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, surrendered himself as a sacrifice to save the symbol of God’s rule, the Temple and he was taken prisoner. Herod the Great paid 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 was beheaded, an act so shocking to the ancient world that even pagans wrote comments about it.

In the parable of Jesus, Antigonus can easily be recognized as the figure bound up and sent to hell by Herod the king. Remember that in the not-too- distant past, John the Baptist had been beheaded by the current King Herod, son of Herod the Great.

And then, people were waiting to see if Jesus would claim his right to the throne, and challenge Herod’s power.

At the end of the parable, Jesus shifts the focus to the rebellious wedding guest who is inappropriately dressed. In Jesus’ day, wedding guests who did not have wedding clothes were given a tunic to wear so that they were dressed appropriately. This rebellious wedding guest did not wear the prescribed attire, and when challenged refused to answer or defend himself (just as Jesus refused to answer when he was challenged with blasphemy during his trial) and the rebellious guest is bound and cast into the outer darkness, just as Jesus was bound and executed.

Like Antigonus, Jesus is the legitimate king who allows himself to be bound and killed, for the sake of the people of his kingdom.

Here’s another piece about parables that’s important-you have to listen past the first line! In this one, the kingdom of heaven is NOT entirely about the man-the king, first mentioned. The kingdom of heaven is revealed through the whole story. In all the parables we have been hearing these past weeks, and indeed throughout Jesus entire ministry, is the message that the kingdom of heaven is not revealed in the ways that people expect.

The kingdom of heaven, revealed in the person of Jesus, breaks into a world where human values divide people into those with power and those who are subject to that power. Human assumptions are, that of course, God will come as a powerful figure and will align with human figures of power to establish God’s kingdom.

And then Jesus shows up, and proclaims a kingdom of God based on grace and love, and with the intent of making the rough places into plains-leveling out the inequalities created by human cravings for power and control. Jesus shows up as a God who refuses to wear the tunic of “religious righteousness” that can be earned through an individuals’ performance of righteous acts.

Jesus reveals a God who refuses to divide people into categories of “worthy” and “unworthy;” a God whose invitation into the kingdom is delivered through forgiveness, grace, acceptance, and slave-like service and suffering.

His image of the kingdom is so threatening to those who cling to one that is based on power, that a few days after telling this parable, he will be arrested, accused, bound, and cast into the outer darkness of death.

So which king will we choose to embrace now? The king with the power to banish and cast out anyone who threatens the status quo? Certainly being part of the circle of power and control is tempting.

And even in this 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation, we still struggle with the idea that surely, somehow, our deeds earn us a place- or perhaps, at least a better place- in the kingdom of God.

But Jesus makes it clear that it is God’s intention to eventually draw all people to himself through Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. God’s gift is life, as our creator always intended for us. The invitation to THIS banquet is for all people, has no conditions and it’s for eternity.

So come. Eat and drink. Taste the goodness of God.