Incitement to violence?

Pentecost 18

Matthew 22:1-14

Marian Free

 

Holy God, may we so strive to understand your word, that we are not blinded by our own prejudices or limited by our own ignorance, and that we are always on guard against complacency and self-satisfaction. Amen.

As radical Islamists are rampaging though northern Iraq and Syria, wreaking destruction and committing atrocities against innocent civilians who do not hold their world view, the last thing that we want is to be confronted with on a Sunday morning is the violence of our own texts and the possibly that they might be used as an incitement to violence against others. And yet that is just what we appear to have this morning. Sure, the original wedding guests did kill the king’s servants but the king’s reaction does seem excessive. He sends his troops against the offenders and not only kills them but burns their city. It is a parable and not meant to be taken literally, but if it were literal a lot of innocent people would have been killed along with the guilty. If that were not enough, the parable ends with what many think is a second parable – that of the man without a wedding garment who gets cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. There is just no getting around the aggression in these two parables.

Before we condemn all Muslims and their holy texts, it is important to understand how easy it is for our own to be twisted or distorted. To recognise how easily they can be used as a justification for violence and exclusion and to exercise some caution before we point our fingers at others.

In recording the parable of the banquet both Matthew and Luke have used it to further their own distinct arguments. Luke’s emphasis on the inclusion of those on the edges comes through loud and clear in his placement and re-telling of the parable while Matthew’s agenda of demonstrating that the Jesus-believing Jews are the true Israel is obvious in the way in his placement and telling.

Luke’s setting is that of a series of banquet stories. In response to a dinner guest who says: “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God!” Jesus says: “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’

In Luke’s story someone has a banquet, there is only one servant, the guests who refuse to come are ignored. The servant is sent out again, not once, but twice. Luke makes it very clear that the replacement guests are the poor, the crippled and the lame – in other words the vulnerable and those who would usually be excluded. As Luke perceives it, the Kingdom of God will include all these outsiders.

Both writers are trying to explain why it is that those to whom Jesus was sent have not embraced him and others, the outsiders (Gentiles), have. Those who were invited did not come and others invited in their place did.

The author of Matthew’s gospel makes this point even more strongly to demonstrate his claim that the new believers have supplanted the old. The Jesus-believing Jews have taken the place of the Jews who do not believe. We see this in the preceding two parables (see Pentecost 16). The vineyard is taken away from the wicked tenants and the son who initially says he will not go, is the one who does. Matthew uses hyperbole in his retelling – it is a royal wedding banquet, there are several servants, not just one, the servants are killed and in retaliation the invited guests are killed. Whereas Luke describes the replacement guests Matthew simply points out that they have been invited indiscriminately – the good and the bad together.

It is possible that as well as using exaggeration Matthew is employing Old Testament allusions to make his point. There was a tradition that Israel killed the prophets sent by God and also a belief that Israel’s faithlessness led to punishments such as defeat by their enemies and being taken into exile. Matthew’s listeners may well have understood the servants to be the prophets and the destruction of Jerusalem as a consequence of the king’s (God’s) anger.

That leaves us with the man without the wedding garment. Why does Matthew append this detail? One explanation is that he is warning his community against complacency. The man without the wedding garment represents those who think that their inclusion is the end of the matter and do not understand that it comes with certain responsibilities. This parable makes it clear that just as easily as they have been included, they can be excluded. They must be on their guard and not take their invitation for granted.

When we go to the trouble of grappling with Matthew’s telling of the story, we can see that it is NOT an incitement for us to use violence against or to destroy those who do not believe what we do. Rather it is a parable, a story (and an exaggerated one at that) to explain why it is that we, who are not Jews came to be included in the people of God. It is also warning that we should look to ourselves. At all times we should be on our guard against smugness and self-satisfaction. If we treat God’s invitation with disdain it can always be extended to others.

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