Many people turn to the Bible for consolation in times of crisis. Certainly there are some
lovely and comforting passages among today’s readings that are worth contemplating. Isaiah’s beautiful dream of preparing a wonderful feast for all nations on top of a mountain. And possibly the best known poem/prayer for comfort in the world, Psalm 23. And then, by peeking into Paul’s correspondence with the Christians in Philippi, we get the advice of a well-known exhorter that the whole community stop looking at the negative and start accentuating the positive.
But then we have today’s Gospel lesson … .
This is a horror story if ever I heard one. Of course, it’s not the only horror story in the Bible. There are lots of scary parts–most of which never show up in our lectionary or Sunday school classes. Do you know about Jael, who is referred to in the book of Judges as “the most blessed of women,” (5:24-27) because she hammered a tent peg through the skull of an enemy general, while he slept? Or the story of the prophet Elisha cursing a
crowd of jeering boys “in the name of the Lord”? The result of his curse was two she-bears
trundling obediently out of the woods and mauling forty-two of the boys (2 Kings 2:23-24)! Or do you want to be reminded, in this stewardship month, of the story in Acts 5 about Ananias and Sapphira who were struck dead for withholding part of their cash from the early Christian community (Acts 5:1-11)? I am not making this stuff up!
The Bible is a fantastically weird library, full of everything imaginable—including Matthew’s strikingly violent version of the wedding banquet parable. Most of us are
probably more familiar with Luke’s version (Luke 14:15-24). In Luke, when the
invited guests ungratefully reject the invitation to the feast, the host to send his servants out to bring in the poor and the maimed who DO come and enjoy his extravagant spread. But Matthew’s kingdom-vision is harder to celebrate. Here, the invited guests not only refuse the invitation, but also abuse and kill the servants sent to invite them! In
retaliation for their bad behavior, the king sends out his troops to exact revenge on the murderers by burning down their city. Then Matthew has the servants go “into the streets and gather all whom they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
I wish the parable ended there. I could embrace the idea that we are to respond when God
calls us, and that we are to be humble, leaving judgment about who is welcome at God’s table to God. Good message: elitism has no place in the kingdom of God.
But that’s NOT where the parable ends. Instead, Matthew tacks on a little part about one guest who dared to arrive without a wedding robe and was bound “hand and foot and
[thrown] into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 22:13). Jesus sums it up saying, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” What? What does this MEAN? Where is the Gospel—the Good News—in this? What are we supposed to make of this violent, gruesome story? How are we to reconcile this
image of God with the God of Psalm 23, who cuddles little lambs and leads them
safely to a place of peace?
If this story were the only one like it in the Gospels it would be easier to ignore. But all
four Gospels share a more central story that is even more gruesome than this: the story of God’s own beloved child, naked and bleeding on a cross. This is no parable. This is a real body with real blood, real pain, real shame. There is darkness and probably weeping and
gnashing of teeth. How do we accept a loving God who allows such terrible things to happen? How do we worship a God who does not stop such horror?
Some people try to make the story seem less terrible, saying: of course God eventually raised Jesus from the dead and made him Lord of all. OR The story of the Passion is
really about how obedience to God results in rescue and resurrection. But that doesn’t change the story for me. It’s still awful and terrifying. Pretending that it isn’t scary to follow God without the least idea of how things will turn out seems untruthful to me. Things will turn out according to God’s will, and in faith we confess that to be enough for us. But what IS God’s will? That is impossible for us to know.
God’s perspective about good, bad, right, wrong, in, out is so radically different from our own! Maybe that is why I find parables like this one so troubling—they remind me how helpless I am, how frail and powerless. While there are clearly things I can do to improve my life and things I can do to cheapen it, I cannot control God’s disposition toward me. Sometimes people try to hide from this problem by taking refuge in righteousness,
suggesting that those who behave properly are exempt from awful things. They say, Obey God; avoid the sword. Give generously; avoid misfortune. Be good sheep; dodge the outer darkness. Sit. Stay. Get a treat. It’s a nice idea. But it doesn’t hold up in either human experience or Biblical witness. Terrible things DO happen to good people. Remember Job? Or Jesus? Their stories remind us that righteousness has nothing to do with trials and tribulation.
Here is the truth: we don’t know why awful things happen to some people and not others. We don’t understand how God answers prayers. We cannot read God’s mind, cannot
predict God’s decisions, and cannot control God’s actions. The author of Hebrews writes: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” (10:31). But those are the hands we are in; the only question is, how will we respond?
A 18th century Puritan named Jonathan Edwards, one of the scariest preachers of all
time, wrote a book called Thoughts on the Revival of Religion in New England. In it, is a story of a man in danger of drowning, grasping at every twig within his reach. When someone pulls the twigs away from him, it only increases his fear. But it is also then that he finally can see the shore. In those seconds between having everything you are depending on ripped out of your grip and seeing your salvation, there is sheer terror. That’s what Biblical tales of terror like today’s do too, I think. They pry our fingers away from our own ideas about who God should be and how God should act. They leave two things for us to do with our fear: use it to propel us toward God, or let it sink us like a stone. Scary as it can be, we are called to forsake the twigs of our limited understanding and swim toward the living God. As challenging as that may be, it is finally less fearful than the alternative. And the Good News is this: we are not just swimming toward God, but God is swimming out toward us too. The wedding robe the guest should have been wearing was already provided for him by the host of the feast. The only thing he needed to do was put it on.
Maybe we can find a crazy kind of consolation in the fact that judgment, violence,
rejection, and death are all present in Bible, for they are certainly present in our world. The Bible, like our lives, is not all lambs and rainbows. If it were, it would not be our book. Our book has to have everything in it–wonder and terror, worst fears and best hopes. Maybe, when we no longer see dimly, as through a glass, but face to face at last, we will grasp why. Meanwhile, the fundamental hope to which every terror drives us–in books, in banks, in real life–is the hope that however wrong it all seems, however needlessly cruel, God is present.
Our fear of God’s methods may turn out to be like our fear of a surgeon’s knife, which has to wound before healing can take place. We might prefer to forgo the pain altogether, but our survival depends on trusting in the surgeon’s skill. We have to trust that the one to whom we surrender ourselves is competent and caring, gracious and merciful.
So let us go to the banquet to which we have been invited. Good and bad together, let’s head toward the presence of God. After all, the banquet Matthew describes is the same banquet our Good Shepherd prepares for us in the face of our enemies. It is the same banquet that Isaiah describes, where “The Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and death will be swallowed up.”
Since this is the banquet to which we are called, and since this God is our God, then we can
trust that no matter what happens, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Thanks be to God!
~Pastor Susan Schneider