Last Sunday the story of the parable was full of violence carried out under extreme provocation: people beating and killing and stoning servants, then killing the land owner’s son. When we went home, we saw images of death and violence in Israel and Gaza.
This morning the gospel reading does not get better. There is ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’. Is this the Gospel of CHRIST?
Today’s gospel story of the ‘Rich Ruler’s Feast’, as told by Matthew, is full of twists and turns and at times almost totally incomprehensible.
I must confess that when I realised this text is the one assigned my heart sank. This gospel reading comes around every three years. We cannot ignore it; we need to wrestle with the text. This text is hardly conducive to creating a new 21st century vision of what our church might become. “Bind this guest hand and foot, and throw the individual out into the darkness, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Many are called but few are chosen.”
Throw him out into the darkness for the crime of being badly dressed? What kind of vision is this for us, here, today? Are we not a progressive congregation? Do we not pride ourselves on being an inclusive community? “Many are called but few are chosen.” Is this the Gospel of Christ? I don’t think so. How can this be the Gospel of Christ? I struggle to respond to the traditional words ‘this is the Gospel of Christ’ with the traditional reply, ‘thanks be to God’.
Last Sunday I pointed out that the church has to take some form of responsibility for lack of empathy and hate crime that exists.
The truth is, this particular judgmental, exclusionary, text has been used for generations to justify all sorts of atrocities. The Church has been enabled by texts such as these to point judgmental fingers at the Jews for failing to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. The Church has been enabled by texts such as these to launch Crusades against Muslims because after all “many are called and but few are chosen!” The Church continues to be enabled by texts such as these to point judgmental fingers at our LGBTQ+ sisters, brothers and others and cast them out, and there continues to be much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Recently, a pink church on the West Coast has been daubed with antisemitic and homophobic graffiti. It has prompted calls for hate crime legislation to be enacted, as the men believed to be responsible are facing only intentional damage charges. The church – named Gloria – on Packer’s Quay in Blaketown, Greymouth is owned by poet and artist Sam Duckor-Jones, who said on social media the graffiti was scrawled across both sides of the building. His rainbow flag staked on the front lawn had also been set alight. One of the messages included a biblical reference to homosexuals being put to death.
Look at the story that has been presented to us as “gospel” or “good news”. A king sends out slaves to invite people to a wedding feast. Obviously, the king is God, and generations were taught that the wedding feast was the marriage of Christ to the Church. But the invited guests refused to come! So, the king sends out other workers to describe the luxurious feast that awaits. But the invited guests aren’t interested; some of them seize the King’s messengers and kill them.
This story was told by Matthew, some 50 or 60 years after the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth. The story reflects the tensions between the early followers of Jesus and their Jewish neighbours after the destruction of the Temple in the year 70. It is really a secular story about the use and misuse of power. It recalls the most savage of Hebrew and Gentile rulers in a frightening, and at times terrifying, world where old scores could be settled by savage, genocidal and destructive means.
Scholars surmise that Jesus probably did tell some sort of story about a man having difficulty getting guests to come to his party. Surely, we can relate to this. But are we to proclaim a gospel of inclusion or of exclusion? Do we have the courage to love God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our minds as we endeavour to love our neighbours as we love ourselves? Judgement and exclusion or inclusive grace? These are choices that have been agonized over by generations. Loving God with all our hearts, all our souls and all our minds, and loving our neighbours as we love ourselves, opens us to the pain and suffering of those who sit in darkness wailing and gnashing their teeth. It is not the most attractive party, but it is the party that we have been invited to attend.
Each one of us is invited to be LOVE in the world! We have been chosen to extend the invitation so that everyone is included in the LOVE which we call God.
So, what can we make of this parable? Jesus told stories to people about people in real, live, contexts. And most of his stories were told to those who lived in the back streets of a village or city… The tanners, the toll collectors, the prostitutes, the beggars, the homeless, the day labourers. Those who lived on the edges, rather than at the centre of the village or city. And in narrow, unpaved streets which were “choked with refuse and frequented by scavenging dogs, pigs, birds and other animals. [And where] shallow depressions in the streets allowed some drainage, but also acted as open sewers.” (Reid 2001:183)
Whatever the rich ruler’s strategy, the feast he ends up with is very different from the one he planned. “It is now a (feast) of the dishonourable, and he is shamed.” (Scott 2001:116).
So how might Jesus’ story have concluded?
Perhaps we can reimagine this parable. The reign of God is not about a feast where only the rich and the powerful are invited, so the host or his heir can be ‘honoured’… That would make the reign of God as nonsensical as a feast thrown by a powerful ruler, “but where all his powerful friends [are] absent and only strangers are present.” (Crossan 1975:119)
Jesus did not teach to make anyone religious, righteous, moral, or orthodox. He interacted and told stories to offer a re-imagined view of the world, this world.
Where every person can live life to the full.
Where every person can love wastefully.
Where every person can be all they can possibly be.
And as Jack Spong continues to say: to be the God-bearers of the world.
“The only way that God can be with us now and through the ages is for each of us to allow God to live and love through us, through our humanity” (Spong 2005:298).
The surprise of a (divine) feast where only powerless strangers rather than the rich and powerful ‘movers and shakers’ are present, is not out of the equation!
“The only way that God can be with us now and through the ages is for each of us to allow God to live and love through us, through our humanity” (Spong 2005)
Crossan, J. D. The Dark Interval. Towards a Theology of Story. Niles. Argus Communications, 1975.
Dodd, C. H. The Parables of Jesus. London. Fontana, 1961.
Reid, B. E. Parables for Preachers. The Gospel of Matthew. Year A. Collegeville. The Liturgical Press, 2001.
Scott, B. B. Re-imagine the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2001.
Spong, J. S. The Sins of Scripture. Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love. New York. HarperCollins, 2005.