Monday, October 10, 2011

Sometimes, a king is just a king: a reading of the parable of the wedding banquet (Matt. 22:1-14)

Where is the “kingdom of heaven-ness” in this parable?  We are going to have to look mighty hard to find it and, I suspect, reject much of the standard interpretation of this text in the process.  As we do so, we would do well to remember the dictum attributed to Freud, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Not everything in a parable is a metaphor. Sometimes, a king is just a king.[1]    

A king gives a wedding banquet for his son, and repeatedly sends his slaves to invite the guests, only to be rejected.  Most of the invitees just ignore the invitation – they have better things to do – but some of them actually capture, torture, and kill the messengers bearing the invitation.   Who are these people?  Do they know something about this king that we don’t?

And who is this king?  Sure, he gets understandably angry about it, but sending an army to destroy not only the murderers but burn down the whole city – presumably the city in which the king himself lives: isn’t that overreacting a bit?  Then, he sends his slaves back out again to round up everybody they find on the street (since they have been burned out of their homes) and “invite” them to the wedding banquet.  You can just imagine how comfortable everybody felt at that soiree.  While the wedding hall was full, I’m not sure you could call the people guests – more like prisoners at some kind of macabre fun house.

Then, to top it all off, the king comes in and immediately spots the one guy who didn’t dress appropriately for the occasion.  How rude!  Just because you’ve recently been burned out of your house, you think you can show up wearing just anything?  Off with his head!  Better yet, bind him up and throw him into outer darkness where he can really suffer. 

The kingdom of heaven is like this wedding banquet?  I think not!  With a God like this, who needs enemies?

I’m not trying to be cute or disrespectful.  The point is to underscore the severe deficiencies in the traditional allegorical reading of this text.  The king in this parable is not a stand-in for God.  Comparison can be made for the purpose of explicating differences as well as similarities.  When Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king,” the word “compare” is not used in the sense of equivalency, but rather of contrast.  Sometimes, a king is just a king.

But if not God, then who?  Who is the king referenced by Jesus in the parable?  How might his hearers have identified the king?  And how does that change our understanding of the parable?

Consider the setting in which this parable is told.  Jesus has just entered Jerusalem as Jews from all around the world are gathering there for the Passover Festival to celebrate their liberation from Egyptian bondage.  It is a festival that always makes their Roman overlords – and their Jewish collaborators – more than a little nervous.  So we can imagine how worried they get when Jesus arrives on a donkey being hailed by the people as a king.

Jesus gives them something to worry about.  He chases the moneychangers and merchants out of the Temple.  Jesus is attempting to shut down the sacrificial system upon which the legitimacy of the Temple, the Jewish aristocracy, and ultimately, Roman rule is based.   He then proceeds to teach and heal people as if the whole edifice of sacrifice is completely irrelevant to God.

Understandably, the chief priests and Pharisees confront Jesus about his behavior and ask him two questions:  “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matt. 21:23)  Jesus responds by way of telling three parables, concluding with the parable of the wedding banquet we heard today.  The chief priests and Pharisees expect Jesus to confirm the people’s acclamation of him as king.  In fact, they are trying to bait him into doing just that, so that they can charge him with treason (which, of course, they eventually do).  But instead, Jesus tells them this seemingly bizarre parable about another king.

The parable underscores that Jesus’ kingship, such as it is, will not meet their expectations, because the kingdom of heaven is not like the kings they have experienced.  Given the context of Jesus’ encounter with the Jewish aristocracy – in Jerusalem, in the Temple – the one king associated with that setting who would immediately spring to mind was Herod the Great.  Herod, now dead, made a name for himself by rebuilding the Temple and making it the cornerstone of his political dynasty.  The Temple was a monument to Herod’s rule.

Herod, who murdered several of his own sons for fear they might usurp his throne, was readily identifiable as the ruthless king in Jesus’ parable.  In fact, the parable would have appeared to Jesus’ audience as a thinly veiled reference a real historical event.  In 37 BCE, Herod laid claim to the Jewish kingship as a client of the Romans.  He “invited” the people of Jerusalem to accept this claim on the eve of his wedding to the granddaughter of the former high priest; a wedding to secure the legitimacy of his future heir’s claim to the Hasmonean dynasty.  Herod is throwing a wedding banquet “for his son,” as it were.

The current Hasmonean king, Antigonus, supported by the people, refused Herod’s “invitation.” Herod then laid siege to the city with the assistance of the Roman general, Sossius.  Antigonus surrendered to Sossius and pled mercy for the people of Jerusalem, who were facing mass starvation.  The city was sacked, Antigonus was bound and cast into “outer darkness” in the form of a prison in Antioch, where he was beheaded by order of Marc Antony, who had received a substantial bribe from Herod. 

The king in this parable is just a king: Herod the Great.  Jesus brilliantly evokes the essential brutality and illegitimacy of his rule, and the dynamic of violent competition in which the Jewish aristocracy had become engaged in their desire to control the sacrificial cult and the aura of divine legitimacy it provided.  The parable revealed how kingship currently understood and practiced was an exercise in domination, division, and death; and how little it had to do with the kingdom of God.

Jesus tells this parable standing in the symbolic center of the sacrificial system that ordered his world and justified its victims.   He offers this parable as a judgment on those who practice domination and upon those who seek retaliation.  To the former he is a threat and to the later he is a disappointment.  In this parable, Jesus identifies himself with the improperly dressed wedding quest:  by his refusal to wear a wedding robe he is a sign of opposition to the current order, but neither will he oppose that order with violence.  The kingdom of heaven lies elsewhere. 

Jesus opposes the sacrificial system and the authority it conveys.  God does not demand a sacrifice, but rather becomes a sacrifice for us.  Jesus exercises a different kind of authority: that of the suffering servant.  “The suffering servant receives his authority by taking onto himself the violence, the sins, and the suffering of others.  He is called into being by a broken world.”[2]

The good news is that God is nothing like the king in this parable or like any ruler whose authority is based on the exercise of lethal force.  God is not the source of legitimacy for our practice of sacrificing scapegoats in order to shore up unity and order.   The kingdom of heaven is the opposite of this: it is unity without any scapegoats; no “them,” just “us.”  It is authority without domination.  It is power exercised through compassion.  This kingdom glimmers on the horizon of our awareness.  We experience its reality fleetingly.  It is our hearts desire, but we draw back in doubt and fear. 

Yet, this heavenly kingdom is not some pie in the sky, by and by.  It is here and now.  There was, you see, a third group listening to Jesus’ parable: his disciples.  They would not understand it fully until after Jesus was raised from the dead.  It is only when their fear of being cast into outer darkness is broken by the power of the resurrection that they become free to claim the authority of the kingdom of heaven.  They recognize that the key to the kingdom is forgiveness.  It is the only force powerful enough to break the cycle of violence. 

After the Resurrection, these disciples will return to this very place, the Temple in Jerusalem, to proclaim the message of forgiveness to the very people who opposed Jesus.  Some of these disciples will be killed also.  Many are called, but few are chosen.  But those few are enough to bear witness to the reality of the kingdom of heaven, and to offer the only true hope for a broken world.

The parable of the wedding banquet presents the same challenge to us that it posed to the rulers and revolutionaries and ordinary people of Jesus’ time: what authority will we exercise, and where will it come from?  Will we exercise the authority of domination, of retaliation, or of forgiveness?  Will that authority arise from our insecurity, our resentment, or our compassion?  Where do we find the kingdom of heaven?

[1] I am entirely indebted to Marty Aiken’s brilliant exposition of this text in “The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence: Discerning the Suffering Servant in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet,” at

[2] Aiken, p. 26.