Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying …Matthew 22:1, NRSV
It’s that dreaded parable. In this week’s gospel lesson, Matthew captures our attention with images of destruction and despair, and leaves us longing for Luke’s not entirely parallel version. This telling feels out of tune with what we want to hear from Jesus.
We may move reflexively to assign roles in the parable as we try to make sense of what makes no sense. Of course, we think, the king is God and the son is Jesus. The death raining down feels like the end of the world, and that may have felt like a familiar image to the original audience for Matthew’s gospel, who were most likely followers of Jesus from a Jewish background, living in diaspora, away from their homeland and spiritual home base of Jerusalem, now destroyed by the armies of Rome. Resettled, they continued to worship together with their fellow Jews. Conflict between those who followed Jesus and those who did not led to a separation. Devastating loss piled onto devastating loss. The images of destruction in the parable painted a picture of violence familiar to them.
But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, "Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?" (Matthew 22:11-12)
Scholars say the word “friend” as used in this gospel really isn’t all that friendly. It’s not cajoling, or winsome. It’s more of a “Now, look here, Mister!” Or a “What do you think you’re up to there, Buster?”*
Why is the King picking on Mister Buster? Why would he expect a last-minute guest to have the appropriate garb?
A parable doesn’t always hold up to one-on-one comparisons; it isn’t meant to, and the end of this story is no exception. “Many are called, but few are chosen” bothers us, because we may have heard it used to exclude people, to our minds, unfairly. Alternatively, it may please us and make us smug. Neither is the right response. It refers to an old saying, likely familiar to Matthew’s Jewish Christian audience, which we might read as saying, “God wants everybody at the party, but not everybody wants to come or knows how to behave when they get there.”**
As we get to the last few weeks before the U.S. election and reflect on our current situation, we’re not exactly singing a harmonious tune about COVID or immigration or Black Lives Matter or climate change. I have a meeting scheduled soon with people recently whose point of view felt so anti-Christian when we last met that I have to consciously remind myself to look for what I know is good in them. We’re feeling the tension of disagreement even when we’re not sitting across the aisle or the table from people who take the other side. How would we talk to each other if we could be in the same place physically? Do we know how to behave when we get there?
Sarah Smarsh, author of Heartland, writes in the Guardian about how we talk to people we disagree with in order to win them to our ideas that we need to be “a defiantly open heart who protects and bolsters valid information systems required for people to truly decide for themselves.”
That sounds like an in-tune gospel message to me.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)
*Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 398. Long, Thomas G. Matthew. (Westminster Bible Companion) Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, p. 247.
**Long, p. 247.