Proper 23A Sermon (2008)

Proper 23 (October 9-15)
Texts: Matthew 22:1-14;
Phil. 4:1-9; Isa. 25:1-9

WHEN A SQUIRREL IS JUST A SQUIRREL (1)

There’s the story of the pastor giving a children’s sermon, where every week the children anticipate him making a new point about Jesus. This particular week he begins by holding up a stuffed squirrel and asking, “Boys and girls, do you know what this is?” Silence. The pastor asks again. Silence. Finally, one little boy is bold enough to shyly raise his hand and offer, “Gee, I know I’m supposed to say Jesus, but it sure looks like a squirrel to me.”

I want to suggest that something like that is happening for us in our hearing of the parable from Jesus this morning. We are accustomed to Jesus, in his parables, using kings or lords as symbols for God. So as soon as he begins, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king…,” we immediately hear this king as God. But Jesus goes on and describes hideous behavior on the part of this king. Some folks don’t come when he throws a wedding banquet for his son, so he blows them all away. He sends soldiers who kill them all and destroy their city to boot. One even might wonder what city that is — hopefully, a different one than the one he himself lives in — or I get this picture of his castle standing in the ruins of a city. Well, when the folks who are left in his kingdom hear what this king does to people who turn him down, is it any wonder that the king’s servants have success in filling his banquet hall the second time around? Knowing what he did to the last invitees, would you turn him down?

But that’s not all. The parable goes on with one more horror. The king comes in inspecting his guests and notices one who didn’t fear the king enough at this point to dress in his best clothes possible, in his wedding garment. This crazy king goes off again and throws the man out into the darkness, bound hand and foot, vulnerable to any creature that comes upon him. The part about weeping and gnashing of teeth adds a good effect to the character of this king, don’t you think?

So here we are, wanting to hear about this king as God, but proceeding to hear instead the picture of a king which doesn’t one iota fit the picture of the God we see in the Crucified Jesus. In fact, the crucified Jesus looks much more like the guy at the end of the parable: the one who is silent before his accuser, then bound up and thrown out. What happens to that man in the parable is what is about to happen to Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel emphasizes Jesus’ silence before his accusers more than any other Gospel. (2) We think of crucifying as a hanging, but it was such an excruciatingly slow way to hang someone that it was almost more a matter of binding them up and leaving them “in the outer darkness” for the animals to pick away at them. Yes, we started by hearing the king as God, but by the end of the story, as disciples of the crucified Christ, we are generally more sympathetic to the guy thrown out of the party.

What do you think? Is this a case like with the Children’s Sermon of expecting to see Jesus but instead seeing a squirrel? Is it a case, in other words, of expecting to see God when we hear “king” but Jesus instead giving us something very different? I think that it is, and I’ve become increasingly convinced that this is the only way to take seriously all the terrible details about how this king behaves. Sometimes a king is simply a king. In fact, in the human world of authority, this is the king we expect to find because all human reigns are based on the authority of violence. Even at “peaceful times,” the “peace” is maintained through the threat of an army or police force. We can see the king in this parable as the tyrant he is, a king who rules with the worst kind of brutality and terrorism.

But then what about Jesus introduction to the parable, comparing what follows to the “kingdom of heaven.” If Jesus is telling a parable about the way in which our earthly, violence-based authority is on display, then where do we see the kingdom of heaven? It looks like what this king does to the man who stands silently before him at the end of the parable. In short, it looks like what happened to Jesus when he stood silently in the face of his accusers and let them throw him out into the darkness of death.

I have one last bit of evidence that this is what’s going on in this morning’s parable. It goes back to the verse in Matthew’s Gospel that I think is most important, especially when trying to understand the so-called parables of judgment, like the one in this morning’ Gospel. It is a verse towards the beginning where Jesus tells us straight out, without using parables or riddles, how to identify the kingdom of heaven. “The kingdom of heaven,” he tells us, “suffers violence, and the violent bear it away” (Matt 11:12). Human, earthly kingdoms operate by the threat or use of force; they dish out the violence. But Jesus here is telling us straight out that the kingdom of heaven is about suffering the violence instead of dishing it out. It believes steadfastly, in other words, in the power of love and forgiveness as the greatest powers on earth. So, if we keep this clue in mind from the first part of the Gospel, it helps understand these strange parables at the end of Gospel, which Jesus tells in Jerusalem just as he himself is about to suffer their violence in love and forgiveness. This morning’s gospel about the violent king and the man not dressed in a wedding garment is about the collision of a typical earthly kingdom and the kingdom of heaven.

So does that mean you and I will suffer the same fate? Not exactly the same one. But we should probably expect to suffer for standing up to this world’s violent ways. The Book of Acts shows us the apostles spending quite a bit of time in prison for standing up for God’s way of love and forgiveness and healing. St. Paul, in our reading from Philippians today, was written in prison [extemporize]:

  • rejoice in the Lord always
  • follow his example — Euodia and Syntyche should be in the same mind in the Lord

Where do we see such examples of the kingdom of heaven today? Through those who stand against the evil, violent ways of human kingdoms.

How can we rejoice in the Lord always, like St. Paul? Because each week as we are able, we are invited to a banquet celebration of the victory of God’s kingdom: the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ….

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, October 12, 2008

Notes

1. I am indebted for this sermon to the brilliant work of Marty Aiken in his groundbreaking essay, “The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence: Discerning the Suffering Servant in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet” (given at the 2003 COV&R Conference in Innsbruck, Austria).

2. See, for example, Matthew 26:62-63: “The high priest stood up and said, ‘Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?’ But Jesus was silent.” And Matthew 27:11-14: “Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus said, ‘You say so.’ But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, ‘Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?’ But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.”

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