Amy-Jill Levine, professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School once said “the purpose of religion is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comforted.” If that’s the case the parable Jesus tells in our gospel this morning, is definitely meant to make hearers uncomfortable and perhaps to reveal what we may not readily be willing to notice. This parable is regularly softened to make it more easy to receive, even going so far as to leave off the final 4 verses to make it seem like this truly disturbing series of events sound like they have more of a happy ending.
Another way that this is done is to make the parable into an allegory, where God is the King, Jesus is the bridegroom, the A-List guests who turn down the invitation to the social event of the season are the Israelites, God’s chosen people, and the B-listers, the ones who seemingly get the chance of a lifetime to attend instead are the gentiles, us! It’s a convenient deal for us. We get brought into an exclusive party, one that was never intended for us, where those who turn up their noses at the privilege get what they deserve. We’re fine dining safely as the world around us goes up in flames.
It’s a traditional interpretation of this text, but if we slow down enough to read it without assuming we know everything in it, without glossing over the parts that are difficult to hear we can better notice the extreme violence in the parable, and what it implies about who we cast in each role. This interpretation automatically privileges us, our obedience in doing what it is that the king wants and the reward that we receive for doing it. It simultaneously embraces anti-semitism, where Jewish People are summarily punished because they chose not to attend the wedding banquet. Unfortunately, this has been used as part of a long, often bloody history between Christianity and the Jewish faith from which it comes.
One of the most alarming things about this interpretation however is how God is falsely and terrifyingly depicted when cast into the role of the King. Theologian Debie Thomas offers some questions that allow us to dig a little deeper. Do we believe in a God that is so petty, vengeful, hot-headed, and thin-skinned as this King is? Who burned an entire city to ashes when his ego was bruised? A king who forces people to celebrate while his royal guard lays waste to everything outside the walls of the palace? Do we believe in a God who publicly casts out an impoverished guest into the “outer darkness” for reasons beyond the guest’s control: lacking the ancient equivalent of white tie formal wear.
If we truly believe our faith is centered in the radical grace, mercy, hospitality, and sacrificial love of God, this image is a startling and vast departure. It makes me wonder if this image of a vengeful God is something that we are conditioned to believe. What if Jesus is telling this shocking, larger than life, parable to help us recognize that the King is what we project onto God? It tracks, when that’s what we’ve learned to believe divine power looks like, because it’s what we see in human rulers from King Herod and the conquerors of Rome to leaders throughout our own history who used their authority in violent and abusive ways as followers celebrated circumstances that were really causes for mourning.
It’s pretty easy for us to say no, that this isn’t what we believe, yet we are all surrounded by people who have been victims of weaponized religion, where God is depicted as the King. Some of us have friends or family who still carry deep wounds inflicted in the name of God. It’s the reason I decided to go to seminary…I’d seen so much of the damage done I dedicated my life to doing what I could to change it.
It begs us to reflect on what god’s kin-dom looks like compared to the one we’re living in now: Are our tables truly open to all who come? Does our love extend even to those who might refuse the invitation? Do we take offense when people shy away from our invitation? Are we willing to listen as they explain why the invitation is unappealing or frightening to them, and then believe what they tell us?
Jesus gives us a lot to think about in these parables.
But what if the God figure in this parable isn’t the King, but the one guest who refuses to accept the King’s terms? The one who refuses to wear a costume of forced celebration, the guest who would rather be bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness of Gethsemane, the cross, and the grave rather than submit to a loveless and tyricanical monarch.
What would we need to change to welcome the guest and honor them? What would it take for us to accompany them along their journey, not as a passive observer but as someone who works actively to change the systems of oppression that are at the root of suffering? That’s when the kin-dom of God transforms from the sham of a wedding banquet in our gospel reading today to a community of radical acceptance and hospitality.