Proper 23A Bible Study (2020)

FOR AFRICAN SUNDAY — October 11, 2020

When a Squirrel Is Just a Squirrel . . . and a King Just a King

  • Last week I shared my belief that the most important thing Jesus came to save us from is violence. In dying on the cross, Jesus revealed both the extent of our human violence and the completeness of God’s nonviolence. In today’s Gospel is the most violent of Jesus’s parables. What’s going on?
  • Story about pastor using a squirrel for the children’s object lesson. They are used to it being about Jesus and are reluctant to identify it as a squirrel.
  • Similarly, we expect the king in this parable to represent God. But Matthew, I believe, means it to simply be a typical human king — the kind that regularly brutalizes his subjects, like the king in this parable. If we read this parable with the king representing God, then we accept that God does things like slaughter people who turn down his invitation to a wedding banquet, or cruelly throw someone out for not being dressed properly.
  • There is a positive point if the king is God: for the second round of invitations, he does invite everyone who will come. But what do we do with the violence? Ignore it? Accept that God is violent, too?

So What’s the Point if the King Is Just a King?

  • It’s the same point as last week’s parable: to contrast human kingdoms based on violence with God’s kingdom based on choosing to suffer the violence. The ‘Christ figure’ in this parable is the man at the end who refuses to put on the cultural garment of human violence. At this point in Matthew’s story of Jesus, Jesus is about to be given the same treatment as this man: thrown out into the darkness on the cross. Good Friday is a day of weeping and gnashing of teeth.
  • Additional evidence for this reading: First, Matthew’s Gospel makes this contrast between human kingdoms of violence and God’s nonviolent kingdom from beginning to end. The cross at the end is obvious. But the beginning is similarly startling: Matthew’s Gospel is the one that tells the story of Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem followed by Herod killing all the first-born sons in Bethlehem in order to try to kill the newborn king. Herod is precisely the kind of king who would slaughter folks for not accepting his invitation to a wedding feast.
  • Second, the man who refuses to wear the proper wedding garment and faces brutal treatment does so silently. The Old Testament passage which immediately became most meaningful in the early church was that of the “Suffering Servant” in Isaiah 53. We read every year on Good Friday. Among its descriptions is this:

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

He was silent. Matthew’s Gospel is the one among the four which most emphasizes Jesus’s silence on Good Friday, at his trials before both the Jewish Council (Matt 26:62-63) and the Roman governor Pilate (Matt 27:11-14).

African Sunday as Working to Undo the “Doctrine of Discovery”

  • In recent weeks, we’ve worked to identify the tragic consequences of not fully realizing the Christ’s revelation of the nonviolence in God contrasted with our human violence. It structures our politics and cultures with Us vs. Them, where We are justified in doing any violence against Them. Examples: the four hundred year legacy of racism in this country; the oppression of women and LGBTQ people.
  • This week I go a bit deeper, a bit further back in history, to trace this violence of Europeans and European-Americans against most of the rest of the world. It involves something few of us have been taught in our history classes, called the “Doctrine of Discovery.” Here’s a good explanation of it from Christian author Brian McLaren:

American schoolchildren still learn the old rhyme: “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” But few of us learned what came before or after that fateful year. About forty years before 1492, Pope Nicholas V issued an official document called Romanus Pontifex, and by sixty-five years after 1492, a succession of genocides had occurred in the New World. Here’s the papal proclamation of 1455 that empowered the Christian kings of Europe to enslave, plunder, and slaughter in the name of discovery:

invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit.

The statement serves as the basis for what is commonly called the Doctrine of Discovery, the teaching that whatever Christians “discover,” they can take and use as they wish. It is breathtaking in its theological horror. Muslims (then called Saracens) and all other non-Christians are reduced to “enemies of Christ.” Christians, even as they plunder, enslave, and kill, count themselves friends of Christ by contrast. Christian global mission is defined as to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue” non-Christians around the world, and to steal “all movable and immovable goods” and to “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery” — and not only them, but their descendants. (The Great Spiritual Migration, pp. 76-77)

  • It is thus meaningful for us on African Sunday to have a partnership with other peoples to live into truly being friends in Christ instead of enemies. Today we celebrate work that seeks to undo our tragic past, living into our common ministry as European-Americans and Africans together in Christ.
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