The temptation is to do an allegorical reading, meaning that each character represents a real-life person. The king as God, the king’s son as Jesus, and the unworthy subjects who kill the king’s messengers as those who persecuted and killed prophets, and especially those who persecuted and killed Jesus and his apostles. This makes sense and it has made sense to most of the commentaries I’ve read, from John Wesley on down.
But I’m with Dylan on this one: I can’t wrap my head around seeing the King as God. And if I can’t do that, then the whole parable becomes something utterly different.
The kings burns buildings down, not just seek justice for the killers, but burns entire cities. This is the God says elsewhere “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” not “a city for a killed servant.” And the king judges and dismisses a person on sight…this is the God of eternal love and forgiveness who has forgiven me and every reader of this blog…this king represents God?
Why is a story of a God who burns down people’s houses in this bible? We’re used to it in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament a God of fiery wrath and destruction isn’t found anywhere other than Revelation and one or two scenes in a particular Gospel called Matthew.
Maybe I’ve been reading it wrong. Maybe the King isn’t God at all. Maybe the King is a King.
If so, then maybe this isn’t a story of how God deals with backsliders or those who reject God and God burns them in fire. Maybe this is a story of how we ought to resist when the Empire and the World tries to bend us into shapes we do not recognize.
Reversing the Text
Some historical perspective: In the time of Jesus, Israel was occupied territory. Like any occupied nation, it would likely respond to the Empire around it in one of two ways. It would either fight them off by force, or it would try to preserve their values and their customs. Israel did both: They had zealots who fought the empire with armed resistance, and Pharisees who taught rigid law abiding lessons and kept their culture pure and isolated from the Empire.
Why is this relevant? Look at the text again. When the king came calling, some went away to their homes and businesses and isolated themselves from the king’s wrath. Sound like anyone we’ve just mentioned? And some took and killed the king’s servants…sound like anyone we’ve just mentioned?
If you were an original hearer of this story, that might be the immediate connection. Some isolate from the king and make their places pure, some do violence to the king and are destroyed. Israel did both but now the Zealots have been killed. The Pharisees are losing by attrition the number of impure people they exclude to keep the holy pure. So what’s the better option?
Luckily there’s a third option. Remember the end of the story? The countryside is in flames from the king’s wrath. People are gathered probably awkwardly at the king’s banquet (hello your majesty, thanks for burning my city down, where’s the wedding cake?), and in their midst stands a garmentless man. Not just a poor man for history tells us that at a wedding, robes were given to the attendants at the door, so this man intentionally did not wear the robe. The king is enraged, angry, asking why the man has no garment, no wedding robe. The man is silent and is thrown into the darkness.
Now wait-a-minute, thrown into the darkness and is silent before a king. If I was a first-century Jew, that would spark a memory of Isaiah 52-53, the suffering servant. The one whose suffering will ease the pain of a nation. The one who is silent before kings. The King reacted in the only way he knew how: violence.
For us today, do we know anyone else who was silent before his accusors, was bound at his hands and feet, and thrown into darkness? A few chapters later Jesus is in front of his accusors, first the judean leaders, then Herod, then Pilate himself. He is crucified at the outer edges of town where the lights do not play. He was bound at his hands and feet, and the words of the Centurian “this ought not have happened”
When the world comes knocking at your door, demanding your allegiance, demanding you trade your values for its values, you can fight, you can flee, or like Jesus you can participate in your world but not be conformed by it, not be bent and unrecognizable by it.
Reshaping The Message
The story starts with a king knocking at people’s doors and getting them to do what he tells them to do.
Maybe this isn’t a story of how God deals with backsliders or those who reject God and God burns them in fire.
Maybe this is a story of how we respond when the world comes knocking and tries to bend us into a shape that we don’t want to be in.
We know a bit about this, don’t we? We’ve been bent into a shape of a mom who gives all her time to her kids and takes none for herself.
The shape of a dad who was is demeaned at work so he can put food on the table.
The shape of an elder parent moving in with their daughter when they lose their home to foreclosure.
The shape of a youth who starves herself to fit into skinny jeans.
The shape of a boy who doesn’t want to play sports but is forced to to be accepted.
Many of us have been bent into shapes that we wouldn’t have thought of being in years ago.
If you think back to years ago, would you have expected to be in the shape you are in today?
We are all being bent by the world, and we come to this text today not to be guilted into confessing God is king, but to see what help we can have when we have to respond to the world around us.
Remember that Jesus is the one telling this parable. In utter contrast to the worldly king, Jesus will give His life rather than take life. A few chapters back in Matthew 11:22, Jesus says “from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of God has suffered violence and the violent take it by force.” If we isolate ourselves and seek purity, kicking out non-conformity, then the kingdom burns, and our only hope is a man who refuses to bow down to any king other than the one who sent him. The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, it is not delivered from it.
You are invited to build the kingdom, a kingdom opposed to all other kingdoms who rule through violence and force. If we are called to be kingdom builders, we will have to make the same choice. We can flee from responsibility, we can react in violent and unhealthy ways, or we can suffer together through the rough patches and emerge the other side wounded, bent, broken, but a little patch of the kingdom is redeemed.
We started this conversation because we were uncomfortable with the image of God as an unrighteous king. We will always be tempted not only by a kingly God, but that we can be kings too. Jesus sets us free from this temptation to become kings and rule our kingdoms with harsh judgment. As long as we feel personally charged with deciding who should pay for their sins and how, there will be no rest for us — not only because there is always some crime which we might feel charged to avenge, but also (and perhaps more importantly) because when we’re caught up in the vengeance cycle, those dark places we see and lash out at in others are bound to be projections of unacknowledged and therefore unhealed dark places in ourselves. In other words, people seeking vengeance are “treating” something that isn’t the wound, leaving the real wound to fester.
Jesus is the suffering servant. And I’m convicted that he invites you to resist the temptation to judge, try, and convict others today, and instead find new ways to suffer together when the world tries to bend us out of shape. And when we struggle together, there in our midst is a garmentless man, taking the brunt of the world’s force, taking the edge of the knife, taking our sins and rendering them powerless over us, if we only trust him to do so.
May all your images of God as a harsh judge be replaced by a God who sent God’s son to redeem the world.
May all the moments when you suffer violence for the kingdom be helped by knowing our Lord Jesus Christ suffered violence but was not overcome by it.
May when you look at your life and see it bent out of shape, do not be afraid. Our God is with you, and you can hide, or you can protest, or you can stand in silent refusal. And whatever you choose, God will never ever leave you alone.