XIX Pentecost, Year A
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, "Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." Aaron said to them, "Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!" When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, "Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD." They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
The LORD said to Moses, "Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, `These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’" The LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation."
But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, "O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, `It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, `I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’" And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
O LORD, you are my God;
I will exalt you, I will praise your name;
for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure.
For you have made the city a heap,
the fortified city a ruin;
the palace of aliens is a city no more,
it will never be rebuilt.
Therefore strong peoples will glorify you;
cities of ruthless nations will fear you.
For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.
When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,
the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,
you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;
the song of the ruthless was stilled.
On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the LORD for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
My brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
Once more Jesus spoke to the people in parables, saying: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, `Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, `The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
"But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, `Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, `Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen."
Last week we suggested that the parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matt 21:33-46) might best be interpreted if we contemporized it to refer to sacrificial Christianity. So also, today, we might employ the same strategy.
Matthew’s version of the parable of the wedding feast is different than Luke’s (Lk 14:15-23). In Luke’s version those who chose not to come to the wedding feast make excuses. In Matthew, the heralds of the banquet are violently executed. Matthew has highlighted the reason for self-exclusion: violence.
Violence excludes, extrudes, victimizes, tortures, rapes, poisons, kills. But in the parable there is retribution, the king who invites becomes the king who destroys. Is Matthew suggesting that the God who invites will one day become the God who destroys or engages in violence?
It is possible that the Lukan form of the parable is the more original. So what is Matthew doing? It might appear that Matthew is in fact engaging a form of the sacrificial mechanism reflecting the destruction of Jerusalem in vs 6. If so, it should not surprise us, for we cannot expect the early Christian interpreters to have altogether escaped negative mimesis.
It is possible that, from Matthew’s perspective, the demise of the Jewish leadership and the destruction of the Temple were perceived as salvation-historical events, events that would change history. And they were. The destruction of the Temple in 66-70 C.E. was like our 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina. It was an event of cataclysmic proportion. Therefore we should not be surprised to see it leave its imprint on the formation of the gospel.
The problem of interpretation comes when we want to make the parable an allegory, where the King = God and the son = Jesus. It may be that Matthew has made this identification; if we concede this then it is better to move on. It is perhaps wiser, in this regard, to note that the parable in its simpler format omits any notion of retribution and that we cannot join Matthew in his interpretation.
It may also be that if there is not to be an identification of King = God and son = Jesus, that Matthew is highlighting the violence done to the kingdom, emphasizing that self-exclusion is possible, that consequences arise from not only rejection but also murder. What is occurring in the parable? The kingdom of heaven can be likened to…not the king but the process of the story itself as it takes shape in the parable.
As the kingdom of heaven comes, it escalates mimetic conflicts; here the murder of the heralds is mimetically doubled by the destruction wrought by the king’s army. This doubling happens as the non-violent kingdom is preached and lived, violence redoubles its efforts to retain a grip on social order as it is exposed and deconstructed. When we preach we should expect people to become more destructive (we might also expect that others will repent). Victimage does not take kindly to its unmasking today anymore than it did in Jesus’ day.
But Matthew goes further. The ritual of the wedding feast and the accompanying social rituals of invitation are all in place and functioning properly. How do we know this? Because the cultural mechanism of refounding the dynasty involves a scapegoat. Matthew has tagged on another parable, the parable of guest without a wedding garment. The guest is distinguished by a difference; the lack of a garment, and it is this difference that brings down the judgment of those gathered at the feast. The king’s response is over the top, the improper guest is practically tortured for daring to trespass on holy ground. There has been a violation of social protocol and it must be redressed.
In short, if we avoid the temptation to allegorize the parable, Matthew is telling us that first, as the kingdom of heaven advances there will be an intensified doubling of mimetic violence and second that this violence will end in the victimage of a scapegoat. This interpretation of the parable appears to be more consonant with Jesus’ teaching than to suggest that Jesus is proclaiming the retribution of an eschatological judgment.
Now, having said this, it is also true that as the kingdom of heaven (of peace and forgiveness) advances in the world there will be those who for various reasons will not want to have anything to do with it. It is their preference to avoid peace and forgiveness and to continue to engage in violence. Such as these exclude themselves from the feast of the kingdom of God (from the messianic banquet). Just as judgment become self-judgment in Matthew’s gospel so exclusion becomes self-exclusion, that is, when we exclude others we exclude ourselves.
This interpretation, through the lens of mimetic theory, recovers what may be Matthew’s intention of highlighting the progressive growth of violence in a culture grounded in violence.
Our interpretation of the parable is strengthened by the Lukan version of the parable. In Luke’s version the excuses offered are all related to reasons for not going to war (holy war). J.D. Derrett (Law in the New Testament) has pointed out that each of the excuses are reasons for refusing military conscription. Scott disagrees citing Mishnah Sotah 8:7 (Hear Then the Parable). Sotah 8:7 is raised in the context of holy language, what texts must be read in Hebrew and which texts may be recited in any language. Recited in Hebrew include the paragraph on the First-Fruits, the halitzah (the ceremony prescribed in Deut 25:7-9 when a man ‘draws off his shoe’ signifying his refusal to marry the childless widow of his brother), the Shema’, the Tefillah, the blessing of the High Priest and the words of the Anointed for Battle (the Commander in Chief).
The Mishnah states in Sotah 8:4 “and these are they that stir not from their place: he that built a house and dedicated it, he that planted a vineyard and used the fruits thereof, he that married his betrothed wife, or he that consummated his union with his deceased brother’s wife.” Not only must these refuse conscription, “these do not even provide water and food and do not repair the roads.” They are to act as if there was no war! When Scott cites Sotah 8:7 “what has been said applies to battle waged of free choice; but in a battle waged in religious cause all go forth, even the bridegroom out of his chamber and the bride from her bridechamber”, he does not note that already this might be a later interpretation for following is a citation of Rabbi Judah (second century) that may well reflect the despair that not all choose to defend Jerusalem either in 66-70 C.E. or again in the early part of the second century under Hadrian. In fact R. Judah argues that the Deuteronomic decrees apply only to holy war and are abrogated in a ‘duty-bound’ war. It would appear that while there may have been debates surrounding Deut 20:5-7 in Jesus day, they were far from settled and that the Lukan version of the parable is about extrusion from the community because one has refused to go to war as a result of the proclamation of the kingdom.
It would appear then the parable in both the Matthean and Lukan versions reflect either the problem of refusing to join in the violence of culture or the escalation of violence in culture as the kingdom is announced. While Luke may, in fact, have a more original form of the parable, it is clear that Matthew has redacted his parable to reflect what actually occurs when the non-violent kingdom (as reflected e.g., in the Sermon on the Mount) is proclaimed. Or if we posit that Luke used Matthew as a source then it is possible to suggest that Luke has brought the ‘excuses’ into line with his Deuteronomic scheme. In neither case do we need to resort to an allegorical interpretation where the king/benefactor = God.
So much so-called ‘Christian’ preaching comes down to support for the pillars of culture. It is frightening for Christians in any culture to see their ‘civis’ (city/civilization) break down. We are all aware of what third world countries look like, filled with strife, war, poverty and disease. We cherish the structures that uphold our culture and seek in every way to value and cherish them. Jobs, families, institutions, national symbols, political processes, the economy, infrastructure, civic groups are all aspects of the pillars of culture. It is difficult for us to imagine life without them. Yet when we announce the kingdom we announce the end of all these things.
Following the early Christian apologists and eventually Augustine and Eusebius (Bernard, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, etc) we have all but capitulated in our thinking to the view that the gospel supports the world, exalts human progress and generally undergirds cultural systems and foundations.
We lose our freedom to preach when any of these aspects of culture become something upon which we depend for then we tacitly confirm our complicity in that which generates them all, the victimage mechanism. The early Christians who formed the communities behind Matthew and Luke had jettisoned these cultural accommodations, and many in fact lost their lives for refusal to participate in activities that affirmed victimage. They became victims.
Not for nothing, but our current sacrificial crisis (post 9/11, hurricane Katrina, Asian bird flu, global warming, the specter of terrorism and war, famine, disease, global poverty not to mention the price of gas!) is to be expected. There has been 2,000 years of proclamation of the gospel, a gospel that has exposed the mimetic principalities and powers and rendered them increasingly incapable of imposing the violent peace they promise.
Preachers of peace, preachers of the gospel, have the task of continuing to declare the Gospel to the world, to the Powers. Slowly, this message will continue to expose the Pillars for what they are, sand-castles that will one day wash completely away. But beware. The parable today speaks loudly of the fate of the one who speaks peace to the powers. She comes in the wrong clothes, she refuses to celebrate the wedding of peace to violence, and she is cast into the outer darkness with Jesus, to Golgotha, the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth.