When Jesus finished the tirade that fills this chapter of Matthew, you can almost imagine him walking out of the temple to the sound of the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden”.
It takes little imagination to understand that this is a tirade, though. The entire chapter is one long unrelenting indictment. Jesus declares no less than seven ‘woes’ upon the religious leaders for the burdens that their expectations lay upon the faithful.
If you have been around churches (or, I expect, synagogues, or temples of almost any established faith) for any length of time, then you know what Jesus was talking about. You will also have come to expect the usual twist in the exploration of such a passage—that we are invited to apply Jesus’ words to our own hearts, to our own expectations of those around us, and to the unwanted, unfair and unbearable burdens that our expectations place upon them.
Only slightly less anticipated is the interpretation that we should examine our own expectations of ourselves. We not only try to carry the unnecessary burdens of meeting the expectations of other people, but we also stumble under the weight of our own self-criticism, collapse under the burden of our self-expectations, and go wobbly-legged from the unmerited idea that we have no intrinsic worth, value, or strength.
There is one over-arching trajectory to be found in Jewish and Christian scripture, and that is the movement of God toward humanity. From the Old Testament images of God as smoke and fire, untouchable, unfaceable, and unknowable, to the Christian revelation of the physical incarnation of God in the person of Jesus the Christ, Messiah, the only unwavering message is one of God loving, valuing, treasuring, restoring, and redeeming all of humanity, each one of the teeming crowd of humanity, and all that we have touched and that has touched us.
So let’s consider Jesus’ tirade from the point of view that it could apply to our cruel criticisms of other people, our unrealistic expectations of the people around us. There’s a lot to learn from that exercise. And let’s consider Jesus’ tirade from the point of view that it could apply to our own inner dialogue, the cruel criticisms and unrealistic expectations that we lay on our ourselves. There is a lot to unpack right there, and all of it is useful.
While we’re at it, let’s also consider the possibility—the slight, often overlooked possibility—that Jesus was yelling at precisely the people he meant to yell at. Maybe, just maybe, we ought to allow the Messiah, God incarnate, that much credit. God yelled at whom God wished to yell: the leaders, the teachers, the people with credentials. People like me who presumed to say something about faith. The people who claimed to know something about God. The people in charge.
Jesus is saying we should question authority. What? Did you think they thought that stuff up in the 1960s? There is nothing new under the sun. (Wait, did someone already say that?)
We get to question the people who claim to teach us and those people who presume to preach to us. In particular, we need to question the teachings of anyone who doesn’t like our questions. The ones who are worth listening to are the ones who will welcome your questions, even your differing views.
Matthew portrays Jesus, just prior to embarking on this scathing criticism of the religious leaders gathered around him, sharing the greatest commandment. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” That is not blind faith. It is open minded exploration. It is bare souled honesty. It is walking toward God with eyes wide open. It is tossing out all of the things we thought we knew about God in order to know God. It is realizing that our preconceived notions of God are rubbish. It is realizing that if God is real, if anything we understand about God is at all true, then this is a God who already knows more bad things about each and all of us than we ourselves realize or can admit, and yet who keeps loving us.
Relentless. That is what God’s love is. Relentless. Interminable. Unceasing. Tireless. Endless. Ruthless. And therefore it is also unfathomable. Incomprehensible.
Question anybody who leaves you wondering what you might do to get God to love you. There isn’t anything you can do. It is not about what we do. It’s about Who God Is.
Henry liked the sound small rocks made when he dropped them into the well. It had been there for a very long time, this well, with a stone wall encircling the opening and stone half walls on three sides to form a shelter around it. Finding pebbles and chips of stone to drop into the water was easy.
He never dropped many stones at a time, though. It seemed to Henry that were he to keep dropping the stones, one day he would fill the well, and he knew that everyone in the great house needed the water that the well provided. His father had told him so. The well was deep, reaching down to a river of water below the rock of the mountainside. There were not often wells on mountains. His father had told him that, too. Henry imagined that some of his stones were washed along under the earth, carried down to the sea in a river that never rose above the ground.
The great house was his home. They had come to the castle when Henry was very small, and he had explored every part of it, but he enjoyed being out here more. Every day he climbed the wooden beams of the shelter over the well and clambered out onto the slate roof. The house was enormous, and there were stairs and hiding places, but nothing compared to sitting on the roof of the well and looking down over the valley that stretched away below. If it rained, Henry needed only to slip under the shelter and listen to the raindrops landing on the slate tiles above him.
He was standing by the well itself, looking down into the dark circle that was like an eye in the face of the mountain. It watched him, not unkindly, as he weighed two small stones in his hands, trying to decide which one to drop first. Something moved, and Henry turned to see a girl walking toward the well. She was about his age. A wooden bucket was in her hand.
“Hello,” he said. She stopped a few feet away and watched him. Her skin was pale, made even more so by her dark eyes and hair. Henry remembered seeing her on other nights, coming here to draw water for the kitchen. She was quiet, much more quiet that the other people who came. Henry had not even heard her footsteps. He could not remember her voice, but he was sure that she had come to his well on other nights.
“Hello,” she said. Her voice was a little more than a whisper. Her clothes were clean, always clean, he thought. He had not learned her name, or could not remember it, which bothered him.
Henry glanced at her empty pail. He turned and took hold of the well bucket and let it fall into the water. They heard the splash far below, hushed by the stones. The girl stepped up to the stone wall beside him, and they both looked down into the dark circle although there was nothing to see but the rope trailing down until it disappeared in the blackness. The well was so deep that one could only see the circle of the water at midday when the most light found its way into the opening. With only the moonlight, there was no chance at all. If you fell in now, in the dark, there would be nothing but blackness at the bottom and the cold water flowing under the mountain. They watched together anyway, as though the light might change, and after a few moments Henry began to turn the winch handle.
The rope came taut, and he put more effort into winding the rope and raising the bucket. Neither of them spoke. He realized that they seldom spoke, and he wondered how long it had been since he last saw her. The night before? Longer? And he could not recall their words.
It was not that he did not wish to speak to her. He did. He could tell by the way that she stood by him, near enough that he could reach over and touch her, that she did not mislike him. When the bucket reaches the top, he thought, I will ask for her name. It is only courteous, after all, so surely she would not take it amiss, he told himself.
He could see the top of the bucket now. A few more turns of the winch and he reached out and pulled the water bucket to rest on the stone ledge. He knew that the girl was watching him.
“Henry,” he said. “My name is Henry. I mean, I just realized that I don’t even know your name. Mine is Henry.”
It was difficult to see her face in the moonlight. It seemed to him that it was always hard to see her, but that must be because they always met at night. They had always met at night, hadn’t they? Henry could not remember seeing her in the day. Perhaps she works at night. They must have cooks to work in the night, keeping the kitchen fire going and kneading bread for the next morning, that sort of thing. He did not often go to the kitchens.
“What is your name?” he asked. For a moment he thought that he had frightened her. He could see it in the way her eyes widened, and it seemed that she would turn to go. She didn’t, but she held tightly to her pail with both hands.
“Marguerite,” she said, her voice no louder than it had been before. “But you may call me Maggie. It is what people call me.”
“Alright, said Henry. Then, not knowing what else he might say, he reached out and took her pail. Her skin was so white that he could almost see the handle of the pail through her skin. “Here, let’s get you some water.”
Her put her pail on the stone wall that went around the mouth of the well, being careful that it did not tip over into the opening. The water sounded cool as he poured it from the well bucket. When the pail was full, Henry took the ladle that was always left hanging on the winch post and offered a drink of the cool water to Marguerite. The water shone in the moonlight, but she did not taste it.
“Thank you,” she whispered, “but I am not thirsty.”
Henry looked at the water and the way it swirled in the ladle. “Neither am I,” he said, and he poured the water back into the well. As the last of the water was pouring out, he lifted the ladle high in the air and brought it down again, once, twice, three times, so that the water looped on itself in the air before falling down into the shaft with a distant splash. Both of them laughed, more amused than seemed possible by the simple splash of water.
As Henry turned to place the ladle back on its hook, he noticed a man walking with a boy through the courtyard. The man had not glanced at Henry and Marguerite, but the boy was looking at them. Henry waved, wondering who the boy might be and whether he could play with them, but the father was leading him into the great house. The boy did not wave but only stared at the the well.
“Bedtime for you, my boy,” the father was saying. “We can see more stars tomorrow evening.”
The boy said nothing. Just before they entered the main hall of the castle he turned to look at them once more, and then he vanished inside. The great door closed and the light that had poured out onto the paving stones was gone.
“Where does the light go?” It was just a whisper in the night. Henry realized that Maggie was still beside him. She pointed to where the light had poured from the open door. “Water would still be puddled on the stones,” she said. “Where does the light go?”
“I don’t know,” said Henry. “I never wondered that before.”
Henry stepped out from under the roof of the well and looked up into the sky. The stars and moon filled the sky except for where the castle blocked his view.
“You should not look at them,” said Marguerite, beside him again.
“What?” asked Henry. “Why not?”
“People look at the stars, and then they rise and are gone,” she whispered. “You must keep your eyes on the place you wish to stay.”
Henry looked at her, then he smiled. “You are teasing me,” he said. “No matter. Here, I will help you with your pail.”
He stepped back under the slate roof to the well and lifted her pail. Walking toward the great house, he saw that Marguerite lingered. He held out his other hand.
“Come on, Maggie,” he said. “I don’t bite, and you will help to balance me out against the water.”
She lifted her hand and placed it in his. It did not feel like Henry had thought it might, but then he had never held hands with a girl before this night. He was surprised at how the idea had come to him, as though he offered his hand to ladies all the time. Maggie’s hand was not like he remembered his mother’s hands being. Maggie’s hand was soft, like the softness of his favorite blanket when he was little, but not so warm as his blanket. He could have been holding a handful of damp cotton or a part of a cloud, but what did it matter? Maggie could be his friend now, and Henry had few of those. None, he realized.
“Will you be my friend, Maggie?” he asked as they walked toward the house. “I can come and help you fetch your water every evening, and we can play around the well and tell each other stories.”
For a few steps the girl said nothing, but then she answered. “Yes, I would like that. I will bring the pail, and we can fetch the water each night.”
Her voice was as quiet and soft as her hand, but Henry thought that both were firmer now. Still her hand remained as cold as the water and the night air.
Henry pushed open the door to the castle. The entire structure was built of stone and wood, with wooden floors and great fireplaces in the large rooms that flanked the entrance. There was light in the hall, much more light than the moon had given them, and Henry saw that Marguerite’s clothes seemed grayer and softer in the house light than they had under the moon.
“We are going to the kitchen?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Marguerite. “We can go this way.”
They went along a hallway wide enough for them to walk together, Henry carrying the pail on one side and holding Marguerite’s hand on the other. They met no one. It was late, and Henry supposed that the rest of the people in the household had retired for the evening. That was how his father had always said it, that it was time to retire for the evening. He remembered that he had not seen his father and wondered where he might be.
Ahead they heard voices and the sounds of kitchen work, knives chopping and the rattle of pans. They walked in, Marguerite leading the way to a large trestle table where a woman stood kneading bread. The woman did not even glance at them, which suited Henry fine. He put the pail of water on the end of the table where Marguerite pointed, and they walked back toward the kitchen doorway still holding hands. They paused, Marguerite holding back a little, and Henry looked down and shuffled the toe of one boot across the stone floor where it left a wet mark. His clothes were damp. He supposed that he must have spilled the water when he poured it, though it did not seem that he had. Marguerite still held back holding to his hand, and he knew that she would need to remain in the kitchen for her work.
“Bless my soul,” came a voice near the table. They looked back to see the woman who had been kneading bread. She was standing away from the table, one floured hand held to her chest like a ghost. With her other hand she was pointing at the pail.
“See that,” she said. “It’s that girl, she’s brought the water again in her pail.”
Henry looked around to see two other women walking over from their tasks. He had not seen them earlier. He had been following Marguerite’s lead and taking care not to spill the water.
The three cooks stood together, back from the table, and they looked up from the water pail to gaze around the kitchen. It seemed to Henry that the women looked straight at Marguerite, but they did not notice her or speak to her. Perhaps they are looking for someone else, he thought. After all, he and Marguerite were young, and grownups seemed seldom to take notice of children.
“It may be as we should use the water,” said the youngest of the women, though her hair was already as white as the first woman’s floured hand. “The child brings it to us, perchance we should use it.”
“I would not,” said the third woman. She was the oldest of them, and Henry saw her glance at Marguerite and at him as she spoke. “Let it be, since she brings it, but do not use it to cook or pour it to drink. Leave it for those as brought it. Come morning it will be gone.”
Henry thought her words were odd.
“Why will they not use the water?” he asked.
Marguerite only smiled and squeezed his hand. It felt as though he were touching the soft wool of a sheep, cool and damp from having been under the moonlight all night. She leaned forward and kissed Henry on his cheek.
“Thank you,” she said, her voice a little stronger than it had been beside the well.
“We are friends, then,” said Henry.
“Tomorrow evening, come to find me by the well. Bring your pail, and we shall fill it and bring it once again, whether these ladies like the water from the well or not. It is great fun.”
“I will meet you,” she whispered. “At the well.” Then she took her hand from his, and with a small wave she turned to walk back into the kitchen. She did glance back at him. Henry had waited to see, then he turned and walked into the hallways of the old castle. He whistled to himself as he walked, and he stopped at one of the great fireplaces to enjoy the warmth. There was little heat from the fire, he found, and he remembered how his father always said these old castles were open and drafty. Though they were made of stone, the walls may as well be dry leaves for all the cold they kept out. The heat must be going up the chimney, he thought. It may be that the moon will get some warmth from it.
Then he remembered that he had not asked Marguerite where she stayed. She might have a room in the servants’ hall of the castle, or perhaps she lived in the village below. They could play in the morning when her work was done, he thought. It would be warmer than in the moonlight, and they would be able to see the water at the bottom of the well, though it made him uneasy to think of it.
When he reached the kitchen, Henry was astonished. The women were gone, and their cooking fire was out. Even the ashes were cold. There was no sign of the bread they had been making for the morning, no pans or pots out on the tables. Marguerite herself was nowhere to be seen.
“Maggie?” he called. “Maggie, where are you?” There was no answer, but her pail was still placed on the trestle table. Henry peered inside, but it was empty.
“They found a use for her water after all,” he said aloud, to no one. The old women must have been teasing her, he thought, though it did not seem very amusing to him. He did not understand how everyone could have vanished in such a short time, with even the fire burned down to ash.
“I must have lingered longer than I knew,” he said. His voice was like Marguerite’s whisper in the huge kitchen. “Father always tells me I stay so long by the well that he fears I will fall in.”
He wandered through the kitchen, touching the spoons that hung on the wall, letting his hand run along the edge of the tables. At the window he saw that there was a pale grey light, and Henry realized that it was nearly sunrise.
“I have been up all night again,” he said, once more whispering aloud to himself. He turned and walked out of the kitchen, back along the hallways to the main rooms of the great house. He followed a stairway up to where the sleeping chambers were found.
Some of the halls were bare, he noticed, as though no longer used, doors drawn shut against the cold. There were not so many people living here as when his father ran the castle, it seemed to Henry. This part of the house, though, did seem to have more life to it, more signs of people. In the hallway that led to his room he saw that someone had placed fresh flowers on a table. He touched them, and a petal fell away.
Henry stopped. Something small and furry was staring up at him from the floor where it joined the wall. It was a stuffed animal, he realized, a small bear. Henry picked it up, wondering where the child might be who dropped it. The fur was much warmer than Maggie’s hand, he noticed, but then this bear had not been out drawing water from the well in the moonlight. Perhaps it had fallen from the table.
He took the bear and walked down the hallway to his room. When they had come to live here, his father had let Henry pick out any room he liked in the entire castle to be his own, and he had picked this one. From the window he could see the well in the courtyard below and the village beyond it. Everyone who came and went had to enter the courtyard through the gate in the wall, and Henry could see them all. He had his own fireplace, room for all of his things, and a sleeping space in an alcove in the wall.
When he entered his room, Henry was surprised to find that a young boy was sleeping on the bed, in Henry’s alcove. He stood for a few moments and watched the boy sleep. Henry knew that he should be angry that someone had taken his bed, but he did not feel angry, and the boy was so small. No, Henry decided that perhaps the boy was new and had been afraid, and this was the best place in the castle to sleep after all. Besides, Henry had met a new friend at the well tonight, Maggie, and he was not going to let anything spoil that.
Remembering that he was still holding the stuffed bear, Henry realized that the toy must belong to this child. A toy wolf and fox were in the alcove with him. Perhaps the bear had been left to guard the passageway? Henry stepped over to the alcove and placed the bear next to the sleeping child and pulled the covers up to the boy’s chin. Henry remembered being cold when he was that small, especially when the fire had burned low in the night.
The light coming in the window was a little brighter now. The sun had not risen, not in the valley, but daylight was already creeping over the hillsides to lighten the windows of the castle. Henry stood looking at the light reaching the highest treetops and roofs. Yawning, he turned and looked again at the child sleeping in his alcove. Henry let him sleep, and instead lay down on the soft rug in front of the fireplace.
Something hard and sharp pressed into Henry’s back. He felt underneath the rug and found a small red thing, shaped like a tiny brick with small raised circles on the top. Looking around the room, he saw piles of the tiny bricks of different shapes and colors, making strange machines. There was even a toy castle made entirely of the same pieces.
Henry reached over and put the tiny red brick on top of the castle gate. Small holes on the bottom of the little box fit neatly onto the circles of the bricks beneath.
I will bring Maggie here tomorrow, he thought, and show her this castle. There were plenty of other bricks, and they could build a well like the one where he played, with walls and a roof, where one could draw up water in the moonlight. It was Henry’s room after all, and this boy would not mind.
Thinking about the well and the cold water and Marguerite, Henry lay back down on the rug and slept.
A little while later, as morning was just beginning to brighten the walls of the room, the boy sleeping in the alcove woke up. He found his bear beside him, and he rose on an elbow to look at it. He was sure it had not been here when he had gotten into bed. Looking around, he saw another boy, a little older and dressed all in grey, asleep on the rug by the fireplace. It was the boy from the well, he knew, the one he had seen when his father had brought him inside from gazing at the stars.
The morning sun poured into the room, the light flowing across the floor. The young boy in the alcove sat up with his bear and watched the sunlight wash across the rug. The shadows faded, and then he was alone with his animals. The rug was damp where the other boy had been sleeping.
“Perhaps he will come back tonight, and we can finish the castle,” he said to the bear. He saw the red brick on top of his castle gate, and he knew that the other boy had put it there. And he did not mind.
He did not mind at all.
Silly God Tricks | Matthew 22:34 – 46 | Lectionary Project
The team wearing Sadducee T-shirts (“Gone is Gone” with a silk screen likeness of James Dean — the irony eluded them) had already embarrassed themselves. They had put their heads together and come up with what they thought was a real resurrection conundrum. If all of this life after death stuff was real, there must be practical ramifications, right? A woman marries seven men in her lifetime, so who gets her in the hereafter?
Pretty slick, they thought. Riddle us that one, Jesus. Let’s hear some brilliant carpenter theology now.
And they did, of course. Jesus told them just how wrong they were, and Peter made the sound of an airplane crashing, complete with hand motions and explosions at the end. The disciples were all wearing “We’re with Him” T-shirts, robes pulled open at the chest so that everyone could see.
Now it was time for Team Pharisee to have their turn. They all had on new Leviticus robes, not the cheap knockoffs with the shellfish rules printed under the arm where no one could read them, but real brand name robes from Fine Print Finery in the Temple Mall. One of them was carrying a Moses plush toy—pull the string and hear a different law each time. It was only for marketing purposes though. None of them were still playing with Moses dolls, not really.
“What is the greatest commandment?” the Pharisees asked. That was their big gun, the trick question to end all trick questions: neat and simple and oh so dangerous. The fellow carrying the Moses doll pulled the string just for fun. It cranked up and a tiny Charlton Heston voice read off the rule about not eating rock badgers. Peter was a little side-tracked, wondering how big rock badgers grew to be, but Philip shushed him.
In the silence afterward, Jesus gave them their answer. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” he said. Then he added the second greatest commandment for bonus points. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The Pharisees knew that they were in trouble. They didn’t look as bad as the Sadducees, but Jesus had given the best answer anyone had ever heard to the Great Commandment Riddle. Most folk just wandered off and tried to sort out the ten commandments, but they always had a hard time picking out the best one. Some of the Pharisees began muttering that they should have worn Deuteronomy robes instead of their Leviticus ones.
Then Jesus announced that it was his turn to ask a question. It was a doozy. He read Psalm 110, then he asked, “If the Messiah is David’s son, why does David call him Lord?” It was the chicken-and-egg problem with a becoming-your-own-grandpa thrown in. The Pharisees were plainly stumped, and Peter didn’t even understand the question. John had to lean over and whisper that it was sort of a science fiction time travel thing, like on Doctor Who. Peter loved that show, but he didn’t really get how the characters could be in the future in one episode and travel to the past in the next one.
None of them really understood the riddle. Even the disciples didn’t grasp it. The point was not to figure out the answer but to realize who was asking the question. This was God in human form, if Christianity has gotten anything right at all. Nobody grasped that this person sitting among them, like one of them, was also God, who was not like any of them. This was God who was both inside of time and outside of it, within our reality and beyond it, the one who stands at the beginning and at the the end (and everywhere in between) at the same moment, because for God there are no moments. All of the moments already happened for God, and none of them.
We think that time is like sand falling through the glass, and so for us it is. To God, how do we know what time is like? Perhaps it is a flash of light, or an endless sea, or eternities resting between the beats of our hearts.
They had no answer for Jesus because the Messiah they expected was the one they had created in their own image. That God was small and predictable. The real God is sometimes small and predictable, but also large and wild, unbound, unknowable, except in whatever forms and times and ways that God presents God to us. Like the Pharisees and David and Job before us, we have no answer for God’s riddles.
Like the disciples, we are invited to hear the questions anyway. It is not our answers that matter; it is knowing who places the questions in our hearts.
The Coin We Pay | Matthew 22:15-22 | Lectionary Project
Taxes are as certain as death, we say. Those are the only two things we tend to say it about, death and taxes. Saying it may be more of a confession than we know. It may be that those are the things we believe are true.
Conniving tricksters came and asked Jesus whether it was right to pay taxes. They weren’t seeking clarity and insight, and they certainly didn’t have the courage to rebel and refuse to pay their taxes. They just wanted to throw Jesus under the express bus to Rome.
“Give to caesar the things that are caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus told them.
Separate what is God’s and what is of the world. That is the plainest meaning of what Jesus told the fellows trying to get him on the wrong side of the emperor. It is worth a second reading, though. Jesus saw through the deception, but he may have laid a trap of his own. What if there was another meaning to his answer?
Jesus asked what likeness was on a coin. The tricksters thought Jesus meant the one in his hand.
What if the point was to get us to recognize the coin we use? The old challenge is to put your money where your mouth is. Maybe this challenge is to recognize the price we pay. The trick is to see that the coin we use is stamped with our own likeness.
Everything comes with a price. Each day, each choice. Every yes contains a no, as the saying goes. For every choice, we pay the price in time, in thought, in energy, and in the effect on who we are and who we might become. That is the price we pay.
The coin we use is life. And we pay it either for something ephemeral or for something that lasts. When we look in the mirror and see someone wrinkled and spotty looking back at us, what do we have for the price we paid? What did our coins get us? Where did we invest our assets?
The face on the coin is our own. The currency is measured in time, our time, our lives, and there is a hole in our sock. There is less in the bank every day, whether we buy anything with it or not.
Let the world collect its gold. It never was ours. If you don’t believe me, try dying and see what happens to the dollars you’ve got piled up. Our wealth melts away even faster when we move on than when we were alive, and after a couple of exchanges nobody remembers what hand held it.
Our lives are not like that. Even if we believe that after death there is nothing, there was still this life. We may feel that our lives are inconsequential, of no account, but we have a real effect, good or bad, on the people around us. Their lives are different because of ours, and ours changed because of them. We can’t see our own legacy. Perhaps that is God’s work.
And if we believe that life continues after death, then we carry that sum of choices with us, the transactions of our souls. Each moment continues to be an opportunity, a new investment.
No one wanted to come to the party, at least no one who had been invited. We don’t know why. The story doesn’t tell us. Maybe it had something to do with the guests themselves—perhaps they were not party minded people. Maybe it had something to do with the king—perhaps they didn’t like this king, and this was their rebellion.
We do hear that some of them went so far as to kill the messengers who came to invite them. We also hear that the king did not react well to the news. With a feast planned and a wedding party ready to start, the king killed the folk he had invited and burned down their city. That was bad enough, but the story gets worse. We hear that after the death and the destruction, this king sent his guards to force new people to come to his party. There must have been a killer dress code: one of the guests, having first been dragged to the feast, was then blamed for not wearing the right clothes. It was a fatal fashion faux pas.
The story makes us uneasy. This king seems unstable, capricious, and vengeful. If the king in this story is God, that just makes the tale more alarming. A city is burned down and people are killed because they don’t come to a party? A man is punished because he wasn’t dressed appropriately when he was kidnapped?
And Christians wonder why church attendance is down.
A story with a meaning is one thing. Making a story into an allegory, that is something else again. Making a parable into an allegory can have unintended consequence—making God as whimsical and vengeful as the king in this story, for example.
The idea of a vengeful God, judging and condemning people in reactionary, arbitrary ways, can worry even the faithful. There are thoughtful people who turn their backs on religion because they hear too much about rules of behavior and the judgment of God and too little about the reason for the feast. Presumably, the people shouting about rules and judgment believe that they have reserved seats at the table, and they are confident about their wardrobe. Meanwhile, they become the reason that other folks beg out of attending the party.
Another version of Matthew’s story is told in Luke 14:16-24. As Luke tells it, the people who don’t come offer pretty valid excuses, and nobody is killed. Presumably the story is based on the same source, the sayings of Jesus. The fact that the same story could be recounted so differently is interesting on many levels. For one thing, to tell the same story in such different ways, Luke and Matthew must have intended to make different points.
Matthew reminds his audience, and in the story Jesus is reminding the leaders of the temple, of a long history of rejected prophets. (If they went around telling stories like this one, it should have been no surprise that people didn’t listen.) Rather than trying to paint a picture of an angry God, one who condemns and kills, it may be that Matthew was making a heavy handed attempt to say something about grace.
Yes, grace, somewhere there in the midst of the burning and the killing. I said it was heavy handed, didn’t I?
The king sends out invitations to everybody and anybody, starting with the expected and ending with the inexplicable. The point may be that though the invitation is freely given, or even when it is forced upon us, the response still matters. Showing up means something. And freshening up our outfit may have more to do with our heart than with our shoes.
When I was growing up, I was taught that there were times and places where one was expected to ‘appear interested,’ as in, “You need to sit up and appear interested.” That meant that slouching and looking like I was bored was not going to be acceptable. Even if I was not interested, manners dictated that I try to engage.
Matthew is telling us that God is bringing everyone to the party, one way or another. Ignoring the invitation does not appear to be a good idea, not in Matthew’s Gospel. And what is on the outside in the story represents what is on the inside in our lives. God has already brought us to the party. This is it, all around us, from the moment we are born, shoved into it kicking and screaming. What matters is the response of our hearts. It’s time we sit up and appear interested.