The brutality of the king in the Parable of the King's Son's Wedding is a serious problem for the non-violent interpretative tendencies of mimetic theory. In 2002 I was really struggling with this problem. And the key to the problem is whether or not one makes the allegorical reading that sees this tyrant king as God. The vast majority of interpreters, mysteriously to me, seem resigned to such a reading and try to make the best of it. I refuse to make such a capitulation for a king whose behavior resembles someone like Saddam Hussein.
Colleagues were struggling with me as we debated this parable on the Girard listserve (no longer active). Marty Aiken came to the rescue, inspired to finish a paper on this passage that was presented at the COV&R 2003 Conference in Innsbruck. I consider his paper well on the way to the definitive interpretation of this troublesome parable. Link to Marty Aiken's "The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence: Discerning the Suffering Servant in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet."
Here are the two key points of Aiken's interpretation:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. (Isaiah 53:7)Matthew's Gospel emphasizes Jesus' silence before his accusers more than any other Gospel. 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."
1. James Williams, The Bible, Violence, & the Sacred, Ch. 4: "Covenant and Sacrifice," pp. 121-123. Both Williams and the following Bailie citation present Ex. 32 as an account of the origins of the Levitical priesthood. Our lectionary text presents only the story of the golden calf and ends with God repenting of doing any violence in response. But questions then remain concerning why the aftermath of this account is so violent. The sons of Levi are enlisted to carry out divine wrath and 3000 people are killed. Williams lays out a wider history of violence on the part of the Levites: Gen. 49 and Judges 19. Whether the Levites actually were more violent or were made to look so, they "become scapegoats for the atonement of Israel, and they in turn are redeemed by animals or money." Another feature of this story is the apparent rivalry between the two brothers, Moses and Aaron.
2. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, Ch. 7: "A Text in Travail," pp. 146-149. This is the episode which causes Bailie to wonder if Moses, like Cain, tried to move away from blood sacrifice too swiftly. The result is sacrificial violence and the institution of the Levitical priesthood. Link to an excerpt on "Moses and the Commandments."
Reflections and Questions
What do we make of the ending of this particular lectionary passage (concluding at vs.14)? A God who repents of violence? Yet divine command gets mixed in with the Levitical slaughter that follows. Which is the true God? Can mimetic theory, along with the Gospel, help us to sort through such issues by cluing us in on the nature of human idolatry?
1. Frederick Niedner, “Bride and Groom from the Dungpit”; see the full details under the Gospel Lesson below. Niedner writes of this passage:
The banquet scene in Isaiah 25 stands out in the lectionary as a favorite depiction of consummation. It appears as the First lesson for The Resurrection of Our Lord in Year B, Easier Evening in all three years, and All Saints, Year B. It also joins another favorite consummation scene, the parable of the wedding feast, during Pentecost of Year A. This last juxtaposition of texts offers a most fruitful combination for demonstrating a cruciform method of working with eschatological texts.That juxtaposition, as the reader can see below, turns on sharing what comes immediately after this stirring passage of celebration, in 25:10b-11: a gloating over their enemies, the Moabites. In other words, it ends up being a party typical of our human celebrations as coming at the expense of others. Link to Frederick Niedner's "Bride and Groom from the Dungpit."
1. Andrew Marr, "Giving
to God" (online article).
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from October 13, 2002 (Woodside Village Church).
Reflections and Questions
1. Note especially the phrase "be of the same mind in the Lord" (vs. 2). As we have noted in previous weeks (see Proper 21A), the letter to the Philippians emphasizes what we might call positive mimesis more than any other. Paul raises a concern at the outset (1:15) about some who proclaim Christ "from envy and rivalry." So he will be concerned to remedy this. The great hymn in ch. 2:6-11 is prefaced (vs. 5) with an exhortation to positive mimesis: "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. Envy and rivalry cannot reign in the heart where Christ reigns. Three similar exhortations follow: "Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind" (3:15); "join in imitating me" (3:17); and the verse from our lectionary passage (4:2). When we are of the same mind of Christ, we live that life of kenosis instead of envy and rivalry; the result is that we can also begin to come together with others in Christ. We can live in peace, being of the same mind in Christ.
2. In 1996 John Troyer shared these reflections:
The last two verses of this passage remind me of the conversation I had with Rusty Palmer at the COV&R colloquium in Chicago in 1995. We were responding to a presentation that had put a rather negative spin on splitting, labeling the good and the evil. Rusty's point was that with our psychology, splitting is inevitable. There is either attention or inattention. The classic "don't think about pink elephants" illustrates this. You were not thinking about pink elephants until a mimetic influence brought it into your sphere. If you continue to focus on this influence, you will be unable to get it out of your mind. If you decide other models are more deserving of your attention, you will forget about it instantly.
This passage calls for a pure, radical focus on a nonviolent, monotheistic model. The splitting that happens in this focus is not the violent casting out of the evil within us, but rather the inattention that comes because our desires are too consumed with "whatever is honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent or praiseworthy." And the "God of peace will be with you." Mimesis again.
Unfortunately, evil is rather demanding. And before Jesus Christ we had no model that gave us the motivation to continue to give inattention to evil even through death. Yet still we want to do the violent form of splitting, the casting out, as the one without the robe in the Matthew passage illustrates.
By inattention I do not mean never talking about evil. I think evil needs to be named, along with the natural consequences of participating in it. But when we take the next step, threatening or feeling threatened by some action, we begin to function within the sphere of pagan religion. This fear of retribution is pagan religion's best and only known defense against evil. Jesus does not cast out this defense, but simply shows its inadequacy in comparison to his way.
A year ago I illustrated this to my congregation by using the metaphor of a jar of dirty oil, with the contents being a symbol of our desires. The way of the pagan religion is to "cast out" that oil by sticking our hands inside and trying to scoop it out. Unfortunately our pagan mimetic influences continue to pour in more dirty oil and the mess simply gets worse. The way of freedom is to model ourselves after Christ which is like pouring clear water into a jar of dirty oil. The water will drop to the bottom, bumping the oil completely out of the container. As we pass on that water to other people (the nature of mimetic desire) we will again be emptied, prompting the need for the continual in-filling of the Spirit of Christ. This description of spirituality was helpful for many in my congregation who still have never heard the term mimesis. In my sermons I continue to emphasize the central meaning of spirituality as being the transformation of desire.
1. Following last week's parable, we begin by noting the literal opening of this parable (22:2): "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man, a king...." Some commentators say that the use of anthropos before "householder" is a typical Aramaism. But what if Matthew is trying to tell us something? That this king should simply be seen as a man and not as God? Last week's parable (the Wicked Tenants) begins the same way, with the addition of anthropos in introducing the householder (21:33): "There was a man, a householder...." The argument is even more important here to regard this brutal king as not representing God. Is Matthew tipping us off to simply consider these characters to be human, and not as representatives of God?
2. The context of these parables begins this way:
When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" Jesus said to them, "I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human [anthropon] origin?" (Matthew 21:23-25a)In other words, the context is a controversy over authority, and Jesus himself poses the parameters in terms of a contrast between heaven and things human. I would like to suggest, then, that "a man, a king" is meant to steer us away from seeing this character as God. This frees us from a long history of going through all manner of hermeneutical gymnastics to find some good in this king. We can read him as I think Jesus meant us to read him: as an example of the worst kind of brutal dictator, who would even fill his banquet hall for a joyful occasion by using lethal force and terror. He doesn't just kill the first invitees who turned him down. No, he makes a big show of it by also destroying their city. Of course the second round of invitees come! They've just seen what this king does to those who turn him down! Freed from trying to see how this king could represent God, we can finally see the picture that Jesus paints for us of a Saddam Hussein like king -- a king who, if you cross him, will kill you, terrorizing the next persons into not crossing him. (See #2 below under "Reflections and Questions.")
1. I recounted in the opening comments above that, as I prepared for preaching in 2002, I've had considerable trouble landing on a reading of this Sunday's Gospel that I feel I can live with. What follows is some of the process I went through in 2002 before being graced with Marty Aiken's first musings on the parable on the way to writing his brilliant essay, "The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence," which has subsequently become my standard for interpreting it.
It began when I went to my file for this week and found that I've never had to grapple with these texts. In fifteen years of doing team ministry, my partner must have always drawn this Sunday. Even with my Girardian lenses on, then, I have not been able to make headway on how to read the violence in the king. I consulted all my favorite authors on the parables (Robert Farrar Capon, Bernard Brandon Scott, and David Buttrick); I scoured the Internet; even the comments from Girardian colleagues (some of them below) haven't been completely satisfying. It has become one of those texts for me that makes me think of Jacob at the Jabbok: I want to wrestle it and not let go until I receive a blessing.
Well, the blessings finally began to come forth in finding a one page reflection that I had years ago tucked in my folder for this week. It's from a booklet of homiletic reflections called "Proclaiming the Cruciform Eschaton," by Frederick A. Niedner, from the Institute of Liturgical Studies, Valparaiso University, April 1998. These particular reflections are titled "Bride and Groom from the Dungpit," and it's such an amazing piece that it will take some courage to preach it. But it is the first reading of this passage that I have been able to experience as Gospel.
The key was to first consider the subsequent two verses in the Isaiah 25 text:
NRS Isaiah 25:10b-11 The Moabites shall be trodden down in their place as straw is trodden down in a dung-pit. Though they spread out their hands in the midst of it, as swimmers spread out their hands to swim, their pride will be laid low despite the struggle of their hands.I don't think I would ever have landed on that. He places Christ in the dungpit with the Moabites, not only as the Crucified one, but also literally as one who is descended from the Moabite Ruth -- which Matthew specifically points out in his genealogy. In turning to the Gospel, then, he takes his cue from the Isaiah text in trying to locate Christ in this passage. After considering the traditional readings, and one of his own that places Christ as the one thrown out at the end, he finally settles on the main character missing: the King's son, the groom. And we are the bride. His concluding use of the wedding feast imagery, with a bride and groom out of the dungpit, takes my breath away. Link to Frederick Niedner's "Bride and Groom from the Dungpit."
2. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 195. Similar to Niedner's method of placing Christ in the parable, Schwager draws parallels between characters in the parables and the Christ of the passion. The man without a wedding garment who is silent before the king and then thrown out into the darkness is similar to Christ’s fate, who in Matthew's Gospel is silent before his judge. Here are several paragraphs surrounding Schwager's citation of Matt. 22:12:
The sayings and parables of Jesus make extensive use, even though in a restrained way, of the vividly descriptive words of the prophetic judgment speech and of apocalyptic. However, there is here, as we have seen, a decisive alteration insofar as Jesus, by many subtle details, expressed the judgment as self-judgment. At first little is changed in the overall apocalyptic scheme, because in either case, whether God judges people or whether they do it themselves, there comes the moment of division between the sons of light and those of darkness.3. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 152-153. Last week I mentioned Alison's treatment of these parables in commenting on Capon. Here is Alison's treatment of this week's gospel:
But what new interpretation results from the further fact that the messenger of judgment is himself judged? In the synoptic Gospels what strikes one immediately is that the one who speaks of the driving out of hardened sinners is himself driven out. In this event we have before us not just an irony of history, for the fate of the one driven out is parallel to that of the kingdom of God. However, it would not be easy, purely from the synoptic Gospels, to gauge the precise consequences of this fact. But as Paul’s teaching points in the same direction and expressly contains the idea of the identification of the crucified one with all victims, what is only briefly hinted at in the synoptic Gospels (Last Supper sayings) can be clearly brought out. In the parable of the royal wedding feast the guilty one keeps silent (Matt. 22:12); Jesus himself is silent before his judge (Matt. 26:63; 27:12-14). The unmerciful creditor is given over to the torturers (Matt. 18:34), and Jesus also was handed over to the soldiers for torture (scourging, crown of thorns). The man without a wedding garment (in the parable of the royal wedding feast) and the worthless servant (in the parable of the entrusted money) are both cast into "outer darkness." In a similar way Jesus found himself in the outer darkness of abandonment by God (Mark 15:33-37). Many parables speak of the evildoers being in different ways violently killed (Matt. 21:41, 44; 24:51; Luke 19:27), and Jesus too experienced such a death. Finally, the Son of Man, in his great speech about the final judgment, addresses the goats on his left side as "cursed" (Matt. 25:41); Jesus himself is condemned as a blasphemer, and made into sin (2 Cor. 5:21) and a curse (Gal. 3:13). Against the background of the whole dramatic structure of the Gospels and of Paul's explicit doctrine, these correspondences are far more than surprising or accidental details. They give expression in narrative form to what is contained in the fundamental statement that the one who was judged on the cross identified himself with all victims of sin. Those sinners who come under a verdict pronounced by the judgment sayings are not alone. The first act of separation of "the just" from "the rejected" is totally overturned again, as the judge himself steps in on the side of the rejected and takes over their role. It follows that the two groups which are separated by the judgment, the just and the rejected -- and each person belongs to a certain degree to both -- have a share in Christ, even if in quite different ways. People are called "the just" insofar as the justice of Christ is directly mirrored in their good works. The same people are "the rejected" insofar as they are victims of sin, and Christ, as equally a victim of sin, has identified himself with their fate.
Despite the inner character of the separation, the image of the external judge must be held on to. This is because the truth of self-judgment remains hidden to sinners insofar as they are sinners and deceive themselves; they must be told it over and over again from outside. Similarly, the irreducible responsibility which continues to belong to individuals in the process of redemption is not an immediate, empirical fact. They have to be told of this too -- through judgment sayings -- from outside. When we look at the crucified one, therefore, the unshakable hope remains that all people are saved. But when we look at ourselves, we must all work out our own salvation "in fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12).
From a purely subjective perspective, the image of a change of mind on the part of the divine anger turns out to have a certain justification, which also explains why the corresponding images in the Christian tradition have played so great a role. For, as long as people are trapped in sin, they can perceive everything only from the perspective of their own closed worlds, and God must necessarily appear to them as an alien and hostile power. Only after a genuine conversion does their capacity to see things alter, and thus also their picture of God. Now he no longer has to appear as the angry one, but can show himself as he is, the one who is kind above all others. (pp. 195-196)
If we look at Luke's account of the parable of the Wedding banquet which the King organizes for his son, it ends with the King's instruction to oblige all those who are found out there to come in, for none of those originally invited will enter in (Luke 14:23-24). In Matthew the story does not end there, but has an addition:4. It might also be helpful to glean some of Alison's overall strategy for the parables. Earlier in Raising Abel he speaks of an overall strategy for violence in the parables (pp. 83-84):
And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment: and he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And the man was speechless. Then said the king to his servants, Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt. 22:11-14)
Let us remember that this business of not 'wearing a wedding garment' cannot be read as a reference to someone's moral behavior, for Matthew has emphasized that all were called in, good and bad alike. Besides, it is known that the custom of that age and place was to provide tunics to place over one's street clothes so as to participate in a wedding party, and which would have been at the disposal of all the guests on their way in, without the slightest consideration for how good or bad they were.
Here there is something of what we had in the previous parable [of the wicked tenants]. The problem with the silent guest is that he does not imagine himself to be at a wedding banquet, but in a place of judgement, and for this reason does not dare to speak when he is addressed, and so receives treatment according to his imagination.
The parables are highly creative little stories sprung from Jesus' imagination and have as their aim helping people to overcome their being blocked-up with respect to God and his project. However, behold, they are two edged weapons, capable of different interpretations. It is perfectly possible to interpret the greater part in terms of a violent God. In that case the parables only serve to reinforce what people already think anyway, and they move on no further. What I'm suggesting is that this would be the 'dull-hearted' reading of the parables. At the same time it is perfectly possible to read the same parables as obliging us to overcome this vision. This means that there is an interpretation for those who understand, and that what they understand will increase exponentially, and there is another interpretation for those who do not understand, so that what little they do understand is in the process of being lost, for they will get into an ever more tied-up and painful understanding of the things of God.Alison further points out that this strategy for interpreting the parables springs directly from mimetic theory itself and cites Girard's book on Shakespeare as a parallel strategy to Jesus' use of parables (footnote 1, pp. 83-84):
Here I would like to point out that this is exactly what Girard understands in his exposition of mimetic desire: whoever has not grasped the mimetic workings of desire, and because of this begun to come out of being enmeshed in mimetic rivalry, will twist everything up in an ever greater frustration; whoever has begun to move in a pacific mimesis will understand very well the messes which he or she is leaving behind, and will understand all things creatively and pacifically. See, for example, Girard's discussion of the double message in the works of Shakespeare in A Theater of Envy - William Shakespeare, New York: OUP 1991.What I believe Alison is referring to is a strategy that Girard feels Shakespeare uses in his plays that is listed in the index to A Theater of Envy as "Ambivalence, interpretative." What Girard suggests is that Shakespeare wrote his plays for a broad audience: there were scenes and language that would likely be interpreted in superficial ways; but there were also scenes and insights for the more perceptive in the audience to catch the deeper significance of what Shakespeare is trying to get across. In a chapter about the "play within a play" in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Girard comments:
Why should any author make the incorrect reading of his play more eloquent, prestigious, and dramatically effective than the correct reading? ... A good writer, as a rule, does his best to enhance, not to minimize, his own achievements. Shakespeare is fully aware of his great originality and yet, again and again, goes out of his way to make his play appear superficial and frivolous. This strange behavior is another example of what we found at the beginning of our analysis. From one end of the play to the other, Shakespeare pursues the same strategy. He is all things to all people. To those who want nothing but a superficial "Midsummer Night's Dream," he offers what they desire; if others aspire to something more, they will not be disappointed either.We would obviously need to be careful in too closely aligning Jesus' strategy with the parables to that of a 16th century playwright. But I think Alison's comparison has merit. Jesus' own stated strategy with his parables recalls Isaiah's call, that his people have ears but cannot hear and eyes but cannot see. Would it make sense that Jesus would allow elements of his parables for both audiences, i.e., those who will not be able to hear and see what he's saying, and those who will? There are elements for the superficial, conventional hearing, and there are elements for those whose eyes and ears are being opened?
Matthew, it seems to me, has seemingly extended this strategy he
has inherited from Mark. Several of the longer, more profound
parables have crass, superficial, formulaic endings like "a great
weeping and gnashing of teeth." Did Jesus allow for such
Truby, a member of Theology & Peace,
used Girardian insights to offer a sermon in 2011, titled "The Authority of the
5. Jeffrey Bessler,
regular reader of this site, used Aiken's insights to offer a sermon in 2011, titled "Who
Is King and Whose Kingdom Is Like Heaven?"
6. Lee Cheek, regular
reader of this site, used Aiken's insights to offer a sermon in 2011, titled "A
Pink Shirt World."
Reflections and Questions
1. In an embarrassment of riches, after I had worked so hard (in 2002) on trying to find the Gospel in this text, I not only was graced with discovering Fred Niedner's wonderful piece on this text, but a local colleague heaped grace upon grace by sending me this beautiful sermon. Link to the sermon on these texts by Sue Ruehle.
2. Talk about grace upon grace: the day after preaching this parable (in 2002) good friend Marty Aiken e-mailed me another way to read this parable which I'm convinced is the proper way. It requires resisting two temptations that we normally find hard to resist: (1) immediately reading the king as God, and (2) hearing Luke's version which presents a positive view of the banquet host who invites in "the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame" (Luke 14:21). Matthew's king does no such act of benevolence. He is simply insistent on having people obey his authority. When the first batch of invitees don't come, he kills them all in a lavish display of violence such that the next group of invitees -- "both good and bad," by the way, not Luke's "the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame" -- could hardly think of turning him down. The picture of the king which Jesus draws for us in Matthew's Gospel is the worst sort of tyrant who rules by terror. How can we so easily be blind to this when we read it wanting to hear this king as God?
Rather, with Matthew's placement in his Gospel, it is another prediction of what is about to happen. (The preceding parable of the Wicked Tenants is another such prediction.) This parable of the tyrant king represents the collision in history of two brands of authority: our earth brand based on violence and the heavenly brand which gives itself over to our violence but cannot be vanquished by it. The man at the end of this parable, who is not dressed in proper apparel, finally stands out as a second singular character in opposition to the king. He simply remains silent, however, in the face of his ranting accuser, and lets himself being bound and thrown into the outer darkness. This is what is about to happen to Jesus. In the face of our earthly authority based on violence, he will stand silent in the face of his accusers and let himself be bound to a cross and thrown into the outer darkness of death.
It was too late in 2002 to preach on this text armed with Aiken's
insights. In 2005 I was interim at a parish which had already set
an anniversary theme based on the epistle. My chance to finally
preach on this text came in 2008,
when I began with the well-known children's sermon joke about the
pastor's stuffed squirrel which the children thought must
represent Jesus -- like all his other objects in the "object
lesson." The result is a sermon
that I titled, "When a Squirrel
Is Just a Squirrel."
3. One other approach to this text came to me in the aftermath on preaching on St. Michael and All Angels Day in 2002. This might be too far-fetched, but what if the king in the parable is not God but is like all other kings of this earth who are under the Satanic powers of seduction? Jesus doesn't introduce it as, "The Kingdom of God is like..." -- but as, "The kingdom of heaven is like...." Apparently, heaven was not viewed as we view it today, solely as the place of the Living God and the divine elect. Rather, heaven was the place of the transcendent powers, both good and bad (a phrase we hear in this passage). In Luke's Gospel, Jesus sees Satan as falling from heaven in 10:17, before the passion. In Revelation, the ousting of Satan from heaven (ch. 12) comes after the Lamb is slain. What if Matthew saw the satanic powers as still having a place in heaven, and Jesus' parable, at this critical time of his own impending judgment, is about those satanic powers about to do their thing?
The biggest problem with this reading would then be what to say about the positive image of the king when he invites the lowly from off the streets. Could that seemingly positive move, which can be explained by self-interested motives, be a sign that even Satan can pose as good? The following apocalyptic material gives many further warnings about the proverbial wolves in sheep's clothing.
4. In 1996 Joao Vila-Cha offered these reflections:
I had to preach in three very different settings during this weekend. It was for me a very interesting challenge. I was clearly confronted with the "difficulty" Paul mentions in his most recent posting. Let me share with you only this: One of my sermons was in one of the prisons here in the Boston area. Once I opened the dialogue with the men in the congregation I was struck by the fact that one of them almost immediately brought forth the question: "What kind of God is this?" He offered me a great occasion to develop the point I had decided to develop: The parable is about the way we imagine ourselves to be in relation to God and with our fellow human beings. Thus the importance of "dressing up as Christ." I also used the image of a "good infection," namely the one we receive when we open ourselves to the Spirit of the Risen Lord.
Return to "Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary" Home Page
Link to "The Text This Week" -- the Most Comprehensive Lectionary Site on the Internet