It’s All Wrong

Message for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (10/15/2023)

Philippians 4:1-9

Matthew 22:1-14



If ever there was a parable to teach us that parables are not meant to be taken literally, this is it. Imagine royal wedding invitations that meet not only with regrets, but also fatal violence toward the king’s messengers. Imagine that same king reacts so rashly that his former guest list instantly becomes a hit list. Imagine the absurdity of going ahead with the wedding reception as the bodies pile up and the city burns all around. Finally, imagine the injustice of a surprise invitation that comes with such unreasonable strings attached– how could that poor guy have known he’d need a wedding robe on such short notice?

No, parables like this one aren’t necessarily logical, but that’s not their purpose. As one interpreter puts it, “Realism [in the story] is sacrificed to… meaning.”[1] That is to say, Jesus provokes us by shocking our sensibilities, not by conforming to them. So, if this parable throws you a little off balance– if you’re wondering what on Earth Jesus is trying to tell us– then it’s working.

I’m especially mindful this week of the outrageous violence in the parable, which predictably begets more outrageous violence. What place is there for so much killing and destruction in a story about a wedding? What place is there for judgment and expulsion in a story about inclusion? It’s all wrong.

If Jesus’ parable is a little out of joint, maybe it’s because the world is out of joint. As I was trying to explain to Alex what’s happening in Israel and Gaza this week, she stopped me to express her bewilderment. “Wait, why is there a war in Israel?” she asked. “What do you mean?” I replied. “Well,” she said, “I guess I thought Israel was sort of like… heaven, like a special place where people feel peace.” As I struggled to respond in a way that made any sense, it occurred to me that, at nine years old, Alex already grasps the tragedy of intractable conflict in the Holy Land. What place is there for such appalling violence in a part of the world that is so deeply loved by so many people? What place is there for such hostility between spiritual and geographical neighbors? It’s all wrong.

Jesus’ parable hits home for me this week in a terrible way. And truthfully, so does the Apostle Paul’s famous teaching in our second reading from Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice…. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Rejoice? Don’t worry? Pray? How can that be Paul’s appeal amid conflict and suffering? It’s all wrong.

Or, at least it seems that way until I recall that Paul writes those words to the church at Philippi from a Roman prison cell. If anyone can prod me to find a reason for joy, to relinquish my worries, to pray, I suppose it’s someone who knows the pain of political repression, who is cut off from his communities, who can’t be sure he’ll ever see the light of day again.

Still, what does it actually mean to confront the world’s enormous suffering with rejoicing and prayer? Hear this reflection from Kate Bowler, a theologian who knows a thing or two about affliction herself:

[Excerpt from Good Enough, pp.135-6]

Life, of course, is a tangle of griefs and joys. One is not the enemy of the other, but they are strange bedfellows. And for its part, prayer is the sacred invitation to loosen our grip and hand it all over to God. Friends, the Lord is near. Rejoice. Surrender your worries. Nonetheless, continue to seek “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just,” to quote Paul once more. And, even as the peace of God passes our understanding in the meantime, may it also guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

[1] M. Eugene Boring, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII, 418.

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