I don’t know when bifocal spectacles were invented? I do remember when I was young seeing people with two pairs of spectacles – one for short and one for long sighted purposes. You sometimes still see the older style of bifocals -you know, the ones with the clear line across the middle, separating short and long sighted lenses. Most of us who are able to tolerate the initial disorienting effect until our vision adjusts are thankful for the invention of varifocal lenses. Varifocals enable the wearer to move seamlessly from short to long sighted zones in what otherwise appears to the naked eye to be one undivided lens.
I offer this as an analogy for reading scripture. This analogy is particularly useful in learning how to read the Gospels. The Gospels are the foundational narratives of the Christian Faith, in that they weave accounts of the earthly life and ministry of Jesus. From Gospel to Gospel, these accounts are similar, and yet quite different in emphasis. They spin the story of Jesus.
I feel we need to rehabilitate the word spin. We tend to use it pejoratively today because we live in a world where mass means of communication bombard us with catch phrases and sound bites, which it seems are often designed to obscure rather than clarify truth. Yet, when it comes to story, there is no objective independent story telling. There is only the story as a construction of experience. Stories make sense of the complexity of our experience of the world. It is this process of constructing meaning, rather than obfuscation that I mean when I use the word spin.
All stories contain spin, even our own life stories, as I explored in my entry – If to err is human- so too is to forgive. This is also true of all Scripture. We need a good pair of varifocal lenses, firmly planted across the bridge of our noses when we come to read the Gospel texts.
Through the close-up lens
Matthew 22:1-14 through the short-sight zone of our varifocals appears as a quite extraordinary tale. It assaults our sense of credulity at more than one point. In last week’s reflection- Might Jesus have been a Pharisee, I described the parable medium that Jesus used as his primary teaching tool as a story of the everyday life that suddenly whacks you in the side of the head. Today’s parable of the royal wedding feast not only whacks us in the side of the head, it delivers a punch or two to the gut.
It’s a story about a King who invites people to the wedding of his son. When he finds out that his selected guests have not only declined his invitation but they have killed the servants bearing the invitation. He retaliates by sending out the militia and not only killing them all, but devastating their city, as well. Now it’s not lost on us that the king is clearly a representation for God. So it’s particularly difficult for us when we read that God behaves vindictively to such devastating effect – whack!
The King then sends his servants out to invite anyyone they encounter in the streets, regardless of their station in life or the morality of their lives. Aahh, we sign in relief, as God seems to have recovered and is acting back in character. For over the last few weeks in the parables of the vineyard we have been presented with images of God as a reckless practitioner of generosity.
All seems well. The wedding hall is full to over flowing and a beaming King makes his entry only to discover that one of the guests has gained entry without the seemingly required wedding garment – where did that requirement suddenly spring from? The King a.k.a, God seems to lose it again and has the man cast out of the feast and condemned to outer darkness – i.e. damnation – whack, whack, punch!
In short sight this is not a story that inspires in us much confidence in being able to safely predict God’s behavior. After all, our feeling safe as a condition for being able to trust one another rests firmly on our being able to reasonably predict one another’s behavior. We get really nervous when someone starts acting unpredictably, God included.
This leads me to the question: so is this parable helpful in any way? What on earth is Jesus’ point here? The moral of the story seems to be: be careful when refusing invitations, and if you do accept, make sure you have the right clothes for the party.
Through the long distance lens
As we lift our eyes towards the long-sight zone of our varifocals we begin to discern the outlines of a different story. To put it boldly, this original Jesus parable is being spun by Matthew for his own purposes.
Matthew is telling a related, but quite different story from the one Jesus tells in the context of his confrontation with the Temple authorities. It’s related in that we can still discern Jesus’ teaching, but this core teaching of Jesus is overlaid with the events and concerns that are dominating the lives of Matthew and his community.
Matthew’s story is that God invited his beloved Israel to his royal banquet, but Israel declined to come. Not only did Israel decline, but it acted violently towards God’s servants, a.k.a, the Hebrew Prophets, and ultimately towards the fulfillment of the prophets, Jesus himself. God punished Israel by sending the Roman Legions against Jersualem, killing and scattering its populace and laying waste to the great Temple. The Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 AD takes place a good 40 years after Jesus death. With hind-sight Matthew, writing around 90AD inserts this event into the original parable of Jesus with the line about the King’s retribution. This becomes clearer to us as we look at the text through our long-sight lens.
In Matthew’s story the guests at the banquet are now the rag-tag collection of odds and sods, forced into a new community as a result of being outcast from their community of origin, i.e. the fledgling Jewish Christians who are now outcast from their synagogues. This new community needs to construct its own story to help it make sense of the new situation it finds itself in. Matthew, in continuity with Jewish tradition is their scribe. Like all scribes throughout Israel’s history, his job is to reinterpret the faith story in the light of current events.
Matthew tacks onto the end of the parable about the royal wedding a quite separate story about the wedding garment. If this is original to Jesus, it must come from a completely different context and so its original meaning seems unclear. What Matthew intends it to mean however, is clear. Within this rag tag band of odds and sods, that is the emerging Church, while many differences must be tolerated, there are some fundamental standards that are to be enforced to ensue good order. The wedding garment is a metaphor for correct behavior.
What might correct behavior mean in Matthew’s community? Correct behavior in any community is more than obeying the by-laws and reflecting the socially accepted norms. Correct behavior is behavior that strengthens the bonds of affection, friendship, relationship, and commonality. Maverick and unpredictable behavior that sows seeds of discord and corrodes trust in the members of a community’s ability to communicate effectively with one another is the equivalent of being found at the banquet without the right clothes. Matthew is saying, in his new and vulnerable community this kind of behavior cannot be tolerated. I might add that no community, fledgling or otherwise, is able to tolerate for too long the behavior of individual members when it corrodes the bonds of relationship and trust.
Taking our varifocals off
Taking our varifocals off for a moment we now begin to reflect on the parable of the wedding feast and its appendix, the story of the wedding garment, from our own contemporary perspective.
When we interpret this parable within the wider message that Jesus teaches concerning the expectations of the kingdoms, what kind of story do we receive? This is a story about invitation and response to invitation. Like the Hebrew Prophets who precede him, Jesus issues God’s invitation for us to return to the covenant, which God established with Abraham and has renewed again and again throughout history. So when the king a.k.a, God, finds that those he longs to invite to his banquet decline, he reissues the invitation again and again. Maybe the original invitees do or don’t accept, but over time many who initially were regarded, or may have regarded themselves as not among the invited, with joy receive and accept the invitation.
The theological nature of acceptance
You and I are the recipients of an invitation to come into covenant with God, made new through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Like Matthew, we too are scribes of the Kingdom and in our interpretation of God’s invitation, the covenant with Israel has not been superseded. It has simply been extended so that it now include us. Perhaps we have not seen it that way?
The personal nature of acceptance
Perhaps we have assumed that we are not included in the invitation. Or perhaps we have taken our invitation so much for granted that we have neglected to actually accept. As we come into covenant with God, there is a clear sense that each party to the covenant bears an appropriate responsibility. When one party fails to discharge their responsibility then the covenant is rendered inoperable.
Jesus is saying to us that the primary expectation for the coming of the kingdom is that we will respond to God’s invitation and take up our responsibility to collaborate with God in the Kingdom’s coming. A fruit of that acceptance is the fostering of deep and meaningful bonds between us within the context of our community (ies). It is to us as a community that God speaks, and it is from and through us working together as a community that the expectations of the Kingdom will be advanced. Perhaps we have not understood it this way?
The banquet as a metaphor for the Kingdom
Having accepted God’s invitation to become co-creators of the Kingdom, it is important that our clothing reflects the gravity of our having been invited into covenant by God. At St Martin’s our response to God’s invitation means putting on our most festive clothes and throwing ourselves extravagantly into a celebration of our diversity, and the rich human potential of our members. We celebrate our enormous potential as a community to make a difference in one another’s lives. We celebrate with gratitude and thanksgiving the abundance of God’s generosity towards us. Through our celebration of our common life we work tirelessly to make a difference in the world around us, a world in desperate need of the celebration of the love of God.
Over the coming month, the month of our Annual Renewal Campaign, how might we as a community join together in affirming our acceptance of the invitation to come in covenant relationship with God? Might we not put on our wedding garments and celebrate with true joy our God’s generous invitation to make the Kingdom real in our own time? An invitation requires an acceptance to become effective. Let’s not overlook our responsibility to respond.