Sermons

Sun, Oct 15, 2017

A parable of terror, or a terrible parable?

Series:Sermons

Nursery rhymes--

most of us, of a certain age, were probably raised on them...

and I suspect may kids, today, still are.

You know the sort I mean...

like...

"Baa, baa, black sheep"...

"Humpty Dumpty"...

"Little Jack Horner"...

"Mary, Mary, quite contrary"...

and "Ring a ring of roses".

And, no doubt, some of you are starting to sing them in your heads as I speak.

Most of us...

however......

are oblivious to any deeper meaning, which many scholars suggest that they have.

Apparently, "Baa, baa, black sheep" was a protest against onerous agricultural taxes in mediaeval times.

"Humpty Dumpty" is about Richard the Third and the War of the Roses.

"Little Jack Horner" is about the dissolution of the monasteries during the English Reformation.

"Mary, Mary, quite contrary" is critical of Mary, Queen of Scots... 

and her attempts to reimpose Catholicism.

And "Ring a ring of roses" is about the great plague.

Whether or not those historical linkages are true...

what's common to many of these stories is an inherent violence.

And it's that violence that has been a cause of more modern concern...

prompting attempts to revise them.

Some developmental psychologists...

however...

argue that that violence is essential for children's development...

as it offers a form of catharsis...

and allows them to deal imaginatively with danger and violence.

And yet, as the anthropologist, Margaret Mead, has argued:

"No society that feeds its children on tales of successful violence can expect them not to believe that violence in the end is rewarded".

As I have suggested recently...

we need to be careful in the stories that we tell...

because even a good story can have unintended consequences.

But what about stories that are quite intentional; 

stories that are inherently violent...

and... 

seemingly...

hold that violence up as, somehow, noble or good?

And what about when those stories are stories from the 

Bible?

Like, for example, this morning's parable from Matthew's Gospel.

Just think about it.

It's the story of a king who throws a wedding feast.

When he sends out servants to summon the guests...

some of them make excuses...

but others respond violently.

In response, the king sends out his troops...

who slaughter the ungrateful guests...

and burn their whole city to the ground.

He then sends his servants to gather in anyone who would come--

a great mix of people, "both good and bad"--

which, presumably, includes the dregs and riff-raff of society.

But when the king comes... 

and finds that one of the latter is still wearing his scruffy, everyday work clothes...

he has him trussed up like an animal... 

and ruthlessly thrown out in a fit of rage.

It's an inherently violent story.

And the image of the story's protagonist--

the king-- 

is of a fickle, brutal, and slightly unhinged Oriental tyrant.

And yet, the author suggests, this is what God is like.

Indeed, he claims, the kingdom of heaven is like this.

I can't believe that.

I can't believe that that's an image that the historical Jesus would ever have used.

I can't believe that God is like that.

 

So, how do we make sense of this story?

 

One commentator suggests that we ought to see the King of this story...

as a representative of Herod and his family--

who were brutal dictators--

and the violently evicted guest as an image of Jesus.

As such, the parable would be a warning about the cost of discipleship--

the cost of doing what is right and of God.

But, really, that doesn't make sense of the story.

Sure, given all that we know of the Herods...

the brutality and fickleness of this king would make sense.

But we would not expect any of the Herods to invite the riff-raff of society, as this king does.

That makes absolutely no sense.

Also, the conclusion of the story doesn't fit the suggested interpretation.

And, clearly, this interpretation distorts the opening of the parable...

where Matthew's Jesus claims, unambiguously:  

"The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king..."

So, rather than trying to offer a sanitised revision--

and taking the story at face value--

how do we make sense of it?

 

Let's pause for a moment...

and have a look at a parable in Luke's Gospel...

which appears to draw on the same source...

but which is, probably, closer to the original.

In that version...

we have a rich man who throws a banquet--

not a king--

but the guests, upon being summoned, make various excuses not to come.

In response, the man sends his servants out into the dingy laneways of the city...

to bring in "the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame".

And, when there is still some room, he sends out the servants again...

this time to the highways...

to invite in, by implication, foreigners passing by.

And, presumably, they come.

End of story.

As I said, both authors draw on the same underlying story...

but what a difference!

There's nothing inherently violent about Luke's version.

No one is killed.

No cities, along with innocent people, are burned to the ground.

No one is tied up and tossed out.

Instead, it's a story full of grace and inclusion.

All are welcome.

There are no conditions.

 

For whatever reason...

it seems that the author of Matthew's Gospel has added these overtly violent overtones.

And, while there are historical reasons as to why...

they don't really concern us.

Rather, I'm more interested in what we can learn from this...

as 'church'.

And I have suggested before--

as we have looked at some of these 'awkward' parables in Matthew's Gospel--

that...

really...

what they show us is how hard we find the whole notion of grace;

that, too often, God's grace is too radical for us...

and we seek to add conditions to it.

Is this parable, perhaps, not another example of that?

The author of Matthew's Gospel can't quite bring himself to suggest...

that God welcomes and embraces anyone and everyone...

without exception...

including those we might find uncomfortable:

those who are uncultured...

those who are dirty and diseased...

those who are foreign and strange...

those who don't fit in and who choose not to fit in.

And, perhaps, it's the last of these that...

so often... 

we find the hardest.

We struggle to welcome and embrace those who are different...

those who are other...

and those who choose to remain as different or other.

We find it in the Islamophobia sweeping our society...

and, probably, underpinning the hostility towards asylum seekers.

As a society...

as a culture... 

we struggle with issues of conformity and assimilation.

But haven't they also been issues we have struggled 

with as church?

We have seen it with white missionaries who--

uncritically-- 

saw conversion and Westernisation as two sides of the same coin. 

We have seen it with churches that have encouraged and expected uniformity of belief and behaviour...

and been quick to condemn--

often to the imaged fires of Hell--

anyone who disagreed with or rejected their way of seeing or doing things.

And don't we see it, still, with the majority of churches ardently advocating against marriage equality?

 

God loves and welcomes indiscriminately...

and with open arms...

but we want them--

metaphorically--

to get cleaned up first.

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