Originally posted Oct. 10, 2011, at Sarcastic Lutheran. Republished with permission of the author.
When my mom and dad returned from visiting Israel and Palestine, they told me that sometimes nice, unsuspecting Christians from the West fall for a little scam.
Apparently they buy tours of biblical sites that include a visit to the very road where the Good Samaritan helped the man beaten by thieves.
This seems like it would really complete a trip to the Holy Land until you realize that the Good Samaritan was a parable. It would be like selling tickets to see the childhood home of the Billy Goats Gruff.
But our desire to believe that there is an actual road we could visit where the Good Samaritan helped the beaten man points to our desire to domesticate parables into something understandable and unchanged that we can take snapshots of ourselves standing in front of while on vacation.
What is a parable?
But that’s not what parables are — they are metaphoric speech, part riddle, part joke, part fable and totally unsolvable. And they can be maddening, which is why throughout Christian history people have tried to define what each one means and neatly allegorize them so they are less mysterious — for the record, that’s like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree.
But I understand wanting to simplify parables into something small and understandable — preferably with a moral lesson tacked onto the end.
Yet what makes Jesus’ parables so powerful is that they are endless sources of meaning. But we have to be willing to keep tilting our head in different directions to see them anew. With this parable I just couldn’t seem to tilt my head enough.
My take on the wedding banquet
Here’s how I heard it: A king throws a wedding banquet and invites the other rich, slave-owning powerful people. Seemingly unimpressed by the promised veal cutlet at the wedding feast, the elite invitees laugh at the invitation and proceed to abuse and then kill the slaves of the king.
Well, then the king kills them back. But he doesn’t stop there. Not to be outdone, he burns down the city, and it is there amid the burning carnage of the newly destroyed city he sends more slaves to go find whomever they can to fill the seats.
After all, the food is ready and he has all these fancy robes for the guests. All he cares about is having every seat filled at his big party.
But who is left?
He burned the city. The rich and powerful have been murdered so it’s the regular folks wandering the streets looking for their dead, picking apart the charred debris of their burned city who are then told that they have no choice but to go to the party of the guy responsible. And it’s already been established that he doesn’t respond well if you turn him down.
So the terrified masses show up and pretend that this capricious tyrant didn’t just lay waste to their city.
Out of fear they all dutifully put on their wedding robes given them at the door and they pretend. Slipping on a gorgeous garment was what you did for a king’s wedding feast. And the guests got to keep the outfits, just a little souvenir of the king’s generosity — and a reminder to keep in line. You don’t get anything from the empire without it costing you a bit of your life.
Well, our story ends with these well-dressed survivors looking on as the king spots the one guy at the banquet who isn’t wearing a wedding robe. And when the innocent man has nothing to say for himself the king has this scapegoat hogtied and thrown into the outer darkness. “Many are called but few are chosen,” he says.
Now, that is clearly the Nadia International Version of the parable, but I think my hearing of it is really influenced by what’s happening in the world right now.
Meaning of parables today
Because this week — months after the Arab Spring, and after weeks of the growing Wall Street occupation — in this climate of discontent and dissent as we all begin to wake from our consumer-induced coma to see how multi-national corporations control so much more than we can imagine, in a season when tyrants are being over thrown, I simply could not preach a sermon in which I say that God is like an angry, murderous, slave-owning king. Maybe there is a way of finding good news in that, but I just couldn’t do it.
Instead, I started to wonder: Why is it that we want to think that in parables God is always the rich man, the ruler, the slave owner, the tyrant.
Maybe it’s because we’ve been told that God is on the side of victory and winning and power and empire. But that’s just not the God we see revealed in Jesus Christ. St. Matthew — whose Gospel this parable was taken from — is always contrasting the kingdom of empire with the kingdom of heaven.
So what if the hero is the guy who wouldn’t don the king’s wedding robe? What if the kingdom of heaven is like someone who shows up and says no to empire.
Who stands speechless before his accusers. What if the kingdom of heaven is like someone who is made a scapegoat for others because we are too scared to speak the truth?
What if the kingdom of heaven is like someone who is hogtied for not participating in the charade of pretending God is OK with the powerful victimizing the weak.
What if the kingdom of heaven is like someone who is thrown by the empire into the outer-darkness and what if the name of that outer darkness is Calvary.
Who is the king in this Gospel?
Because if there is a king in the Gospel that looks anything like the God that we gather to worship, it looks like the King called Jesus — the one who came not to be served, but to serve and to offer his life in exchange for our death.
If there is a king in the Gospel that looks anything like the God that we gather to worship, it looks like the King called Jesus — the one who was the unexpected embodiment of truth, the kind of truth that disarms the powerful.
All of the promises of empire — jobs, security, national strength, economic prosperity — all come with a cost.
I cannot even begin to examine the ways in which I am both victimized by and complicit in the ways of empire. But Jesus doesn’t play the games of empire.
He chooses a way that looks like complete failure through the eyes of empire but which is the way of forgiveness, mercy, peace and life. Jesus takes on the brutality of the empire and defeats it.
He defeats it for us, so that we can live in the way of life even amid the rubble of empire — amid all the ways we suffer on account of empire and all the ways we benefit from it.
Because the kingdom of heaven is like: a first century Jewish peasant who laughed at the powerful, kissed lepers, befriended prostitutes and ate with all the wrong people and whom the authorities and the powerful elite had to hogtie and throw into the outer darkness.
What if the kingdom of heaven is like Jesus? And what if it is from this place of outer darkness that everything is changed — in the outer darkness of Calvary where death is swallowed up forever?
Listen today to the words that will introduce the passing of the peace later in the liturgy:
He will not command legions of angels
nor ride the machine of holy war;
he will become a slave,
take our hate into his heart
and win us with forgiveness,
for he is God’s unexpected peace.
Find a link to Nadia Bolz-Weber’s blog Sarcastic Lutheran at Lutheran Blogs.