Abuse of power. That is one of the most prevalent topics in our world today. We see it in the church sex scandals, the endless investigations of the White House, and the recent documentary on Leaving Neverland. I recently watched this video claiming that, in order to get elected to the U.S. Senate, a candidate must raise $45,000 every single day for six years in order to win an election. Only .05% of the population has enough money to support a campaign like that.
So, who controls the power in our country? The uber wealthy. That’s a lot of power for a small group of people.
Lord Acton is famously quoted,
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. (see more).”
The irony of the United States is that our founding revolution was against this type of corruption in the British monarchy.
Power and authority is tricky business.
How did Jesus feel about authority figures? This week the Narrative Lectionary brings us to the parable of the King’s Wedding Banquet in Matthew 22:1-14.
This parable, taken on its own, is both confusing and disturbing. The King invites people to his son’s wedding banquet. When the invitees refuse his invitation, he destroys them. Yep, he wipes out their villages. Then he sends his herald into the streets and invites everyone to come. Do you think anyone would refuse after they saw what he did to the first bunch that turned him down?
The people do come. They fill up his banquet hall. Yet, the King spots a person who does not have the proper clothing for a wedding feast. What does the king do? He throws the poor guy out on his ear, into utter darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Jesus ends the parable with these chilling words, “many are called, but few are chosen.”
What the heck?!?
Jesus’ parables are very hard to understand. That’s partly the point. Jesus very rarely spoke clearly and spelled out the mysteries of God and the universe. I think that’s the point.
First of all, it is impossible to spell out the mysteries of the universe. God, the universe, ultimate truth is an infinitely complex reality that is impossible for the finite human mind to grasp. The best we can do is to use metaphors to grapple with one tiny aspect of it at a time. Every time we use a metaphor, it sheds some clarity on one part of reality while creating a whirlwind of questions and obscurity in other parts.
Therefore, it is important to take every parable and view it in the context of the Gospel narrative in which it is spoken. The King’s Banquet is the third parable of three parables that Jesus spoke in the context of a particular conversation. Before we look at that conversation, look a this illustration to get the context from the beginning of Matthew 22 (this is page 15 of A Cartoonist’s Guide to Matthew).
Jesus rode into Jerusalem for the first time (according to Matthew’s narrative). The people are expecting at King who will come in with power and overthrow the corruption and oppression of the Roman Empire and the complicity of the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Instead, every action Jesus takes, and every conversation he has speaks to the kind of power and authority that Jesus brings.
He rides into town on a donkey, the symbol of a king in a time of peace (a horse would indicate war).
He cleanses the temple (a use of power) by clearing out the money-changers and healing the sick.
The children see him for what he is, but those in power cannot.
End of day one. (The following images are from page 16 of A Cartoonist’s Guide to Matthew)
Jesus enters the city on the next day. He wants to eat some figs, but the tree has no fruit. Jesus uses his power to wither the tree. This is an important foreshadowing of the conversations that are about to happen. This next section is all about bearing the fruit for which you were created to bear.
This is the key framing image for the three parables in chapter 22. The religious leaders ask Jesus, “By what AUTHORITY are you doing these things?” Jesus responds with a trick question. He knows that the leaders are afraid they are losing their control over the crowds. They refuse to answer Jesus’ question about John the Baptist because they know their answer will be unpopular among the crowd and will diminish their control.
Hmmmm…. imagine a public official betraying their own conviction for fear of a public opinion poll.
Then Jesus hits them with a triple whammy of parables.
Parable One: Matthew 21:28-32. The first son says “no,” but then actually obeys. The second son says “yes,” but takes no action. Possible meaning: actions are more important than words.
Parable Two: Matthew 21:33-44. Jesus tricks the leaders into condemning themselves. Jesus accuses them of mistreating their stewardship of God’s vineyard. The Nation of Israel was often referred to God’s Vineyard planted on the earth to be a blessing to the Nations. The Hebrew prophets continually warned the leaders that they were neglecting the vineyard and there would be Hell to pay for it. This is not a new message that Jesus is preaching. He’s simply applying it to the leaders at hand. Possible meaning: The religious leaders have dropped the ball.
The leaders were not amused.
This brings us to the key text of this week.
Parable Three: Matthew 22:1-14 in the context of this conversation.
We must keep in mind that Jesus is talking to leaders about the abuse of power.
Possible meaning #1: This parable often gets interpreted as an allegory in which the King is God, the banquet is our eternal destiny, and only a few people, who correctly accept God’s invitation and behave (are clothed) properly get to stay in Heaven forever.
This interpretation makes God look like the worst tyrant of all. He’s vindictive and petty.
Possible meaning #2: What if that isn’t Jesus’ point at all. What if Jesus is trying to show the religious leaders that they are behaving like this King? They have created hard boundaries and are more fixated on who is in and who is out than about the celebration of the wedding? What if Jesus is saying, “this is how you are currently running God’s Kingdom (Israel, the vineyard). Let me show you how it should be done.”
Parables are open to interpretation. They are designed to draw us into conversation and rethink our situation. I don’t know if my proposal holds water, but it is worth consideration.
I proposes it, because the context of this parable is not finished. We must keep reading until we hear the punchline.
Jesus’ parables elicit a heated debate with the religious leaders. They try to trap him with political, theological, and legal loopholes. Jesus retorts on every turn with a deeper understanding of Hebrew Scripture and theology.
Now here is the punchline.
Jesus turns away from the religious leaders and speaks to the crowd. This is crucial. No matter how we interpret the parables above, we must always interpret them in light of how Jesus spoke to people who have been entrusted with leadership of others. Leaders, shepherds, farmers, and kings have been given an important responsibility to protect and serve the crowds.
Here we can quote uncle Ben’s message to Peter Parker (Spiderman),
“with great power comes great responsibility.”
Jesus spends an entire chapter (Matthew 23:1-26) ranting and raging against the religious leader. “WOE TO YOU!” he says.
Then, in an exasperated sigh, he concludes his diatribe with a lament. He longs for Jerusalem, but he knows they are too far gone. He knows that Rome will destroy them, just like Babylon did 500 years earlier.
What’s the point?
My purpose for this post was not to craft a particular point for you. I simply wanted to frame the parable of the Wedding Banquet in its narrative context and get us all to consider our use of power. I am a pastor in a local congregation. The institutional church has a long history of abusing power. It is somewhat ironic that I will stand, as a religious leader, and preach this text to the crowd this weekend.
Lord, have mercy.
If you have any desire to use these images for your own preaching or teaching, you can download the PowerPoints and the images.