Matthew 22: The King is NOT God.

Upside-down reading of the Scripture

The lectionary text for this week is Matthew 22:1-14 (CEB/NRSV), the Parable of the Wedding Banquet.

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.

Thoughts?

(Photo credit: “wedding banquet” by Andrew Juren, used by Creative Commons license)

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Comments

  1. says

    In this week of widespread civil disobedience (or civilly sanctioned protest in my small city), yours is a powerful and helpful reading of the text. Thanks.

  2. Alex says

    Two problems with this analysis.
    1. First, a theological problem: your distinction between the wrathful God of the OT and a loving, merciful God in the NT borders on a kind of Marcionism. Somehow, a better sense of continuity needs to be maintained between the two.

    2. Second (and far more telling) is an exegetical problem. Here’s where some original language work is indispensable. Courtesy of Bauer and Danker’s Greek English Lexicon, ‘omoios is best defined as “of the same nature, like, similar.” In this case, “may be compared” (as in the NRSV) implies similarity (in keeping with the Greek), not contrast. UBS4 doesn’t show any textual variants that could justify your reading. Sorry.

    • says

      Alex, thanks for your comments and exegetical work. I must point out that I never translated the text as “unlike” or “in contrast to” but saw the antecedent of “the kingdom of God is like” to be the entire parable, not just the word “king.”

      Help me out: What is the referent of “the kingdom of God” then? Is it textually “the king” or is it the entire parable?

  3. says

    I follow your desire and logic, but I still wrestle with Jesus’ opening line: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. (NRSV). It seems out of place in your interpretation. Like Jesus would begin a story by saying…the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a terribly oppressive king. Or by updating it perhaps, the kingdom of heaven may be compared to Bank of America who gave loans to vulnerable people. It just doesn’t seem to match up.

    With what do you think Jesus intended to compare the kingdom of heaven?

    • says

      If I was to defend this interpretation, I would see the whole parable as “like the kingdom of God.” A few chapters later is the parable of the 10 bridegrooms. Are the bridegrooms the kingdom of God? No. In the same way, just because the first thing mentioned is a king doesn’t mean God = King. That’s always thrown me on this passage and I’m thankful for a different interpretation that is informed by historical analysis (Pharisees, Zealouts, etc).

      I asked the textual question above of Alex and we’ll see what comes up.

      • says

        UMJeremy… do you write this blog?

        Anyway, whoever did… please chat with me as you are able. I love the fact that you are trying to look for something that explains this parable. It certainly sounds very much UNLIKE the Jesus I know. I’ve been thinking on this for quite a while and haven’t been able to really dig into the words here to understand it.

        I’m personally wondering based on something I once heard taught if Jesus was telling this parable and saying to the pharisees that they were making God out to be a person like this King. Not that they were correct by any means, just that their actions were making God out to be an evil man like the King in the parable.

        If we dig into the word Homoioo and see that it is used here as opposed to Homoios, I think this is possible. I’m trying to dig into this idea now and I found your blog as I was looking for more advice and help in this study.

        Thanks,

        Josh

      • says

        Check out the Greek here: Blue Letter Bible and click on the “Show Strong’s” box. Now if you click on the little blue number following “may be compared” you can see that ‘homoioō’ means what Alex pointed out. BUT, now click on the reference for “parable” in the verse preceding it.

        A parable is “a placing of one thing by the side of another, juxtaposition, as of ships in battle”. So battle on, my friends.

  4. says

    I can see this if Jesus the one who is thrown out. I can see that… the one without fancy clothes could be a prophet, if he is making a statement about the conditions he lives in. One of the difficult things with Matthew’s gospel is that the author often interprets Jesus’ sayings after he states the original. The other is that he has a noted love/bias for the final judgment and his anti Jewish sentiments. One could reason that Matthew muddles up the saying to fit his own goal or makes it up partly in reference to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. It could be an allegory by Matthew’s author for the Christian community about the former Jewish community and now the infidels inside the community. It is like Matthew to threaten that God would punish the infidel who lives inside the community, but is it like Jesus to say this even before the temple was destroyed, and before a separate christian community existed? If it is like Jesus to say this, is he saying this today? Is Jesus/God actively burning and destroying those who have rejected Jesus? Are those who are suffering and dying, doing so because they have turned away from God, and God is smiting them, Will God also smite and kill the infidels in the Christian community right now?

    Threatening people into faith is a precocious thing, it’s very easy. Coercing people into faith by comfort is also precocious, easy as it is; When people know that they will suffer because of their faith, but yet they live faithfully, that is the strangest, most difficult thing. So I guess it depends on your preference; Following the one who will die, or following the one who will judge and punish. There is one way that is easy and powerful and there is one way that is difficult and humbled; most people side with one or the other but both call it the Kingdom of God. Funny thing is, they are all at the party aren’t they, and they are all wondering if they are wearing the right clothes.

  5. says

    A God who smites and Kills seems like an O;d Testament God. But then again if you don’t wash, and you don’t eat the right food you will die. That could be God punishing you for not following the law. It could be because the law protects your health. If you overwork the animals they die. If you overwork the land it dies. The law protects people. Do you believe that God was actively killing and smiting those people who overworked their animals and fields, or do you think that they died because they were overworked? God’s law protects peope from the natural consequences. And God can still exist if God isn’t shooting lighting bolts at sinners from Mount Olympus.

    The problem became when Christians figured out you don’t have to follow the ritual law but they still believed that God was smiting and punishing the people who are bad and that those people were somewhat obvious. The people that God is punishing is not me especially the poor and the vagabonds. God chooses this for them. Then if something bad happens to us, we say God is just making us stronger. The best thing is is that we have completely disconnected our actions from God’s attempt to protect us from natural consequences. The benefit of the law has dropped out of the equation. The law to love God and love neighbor becomes a sentiment and not a law that we live because it is God who does all the work, all the real action; it is God after all who makes all the choices. Without the ability to choose to follow daily the greatest law, we are not protected from the natural consequences that the law tries to prevent, namely: greed, pride, vanity, avarice, depression, anger, lust, poverty, hunger, and war,. These are the things we would rather blame on the God who makes these choices for us. It’s easy button Christianity, not my fault.Jesus made me steel from you. God is just testing you. Can you feel it, you are getting stronger?

  6. Brother Bartimaeus says

    Jeremy – As tempted as I am to affirm your interpretation (and I lapped it up), it ultimately falls apart based on what some others have said here. In fact, you’re interpretation is actually making an allegory out of the parable. Parables have a single unambiguous meaning, while allegories have multiple, sometimes ambiguous meanings. Thus in this parable the tagline, “For many are called, but few are chosen,” is the message. The good news of the passage lays in opening the kingdom to we Gentiles, not in the example that we should be subjected to wailing and gnashing of teeth.

    As for God’s firery destruction, I agree that it is something we have to wrestle with. On a close reading, only the death of the murderers is indicated in the text. For me the fire doesn’t indicate a slaughtering of the innocent, but a purification of the city from the powers and principalities that facilitated the murder of the slaves. The innocents aren’t killed, but are those invited to the banquet in the murderers stead.

    Peace,

    David

  7. says

    On occasion I babe heard the argument that parables have one, unambiguous meaning. Where does this idea come from? My understanding is that parables are meant to twist the mind, and lead one onto questioning. This questioining can lead in many ways, which is part of the power of the parable form. For example, in the parable of the sower, does the different types of soil connect to different types of people, or different parts of my life, or both?
    I find this reading intriguing, and am also waiting to hear the previous commenters expound upon any issues in the Greek text.
    I am also not convinced that this is a marcionite-esque approach. How is it? To see the one thrown out as the suffering servant seems firmly grounded in the Old Testament. Am I missing something?

    • "Human King" says

      I believe you’re absolutely right Coon. Parables are meant to challenge a person to repenting, or rethinking about old ideas, old ways of understanding who God really is and what He really wants and what this life is ultimately about.

      A lot of these interpretations that say that the King is God and the son is Jesus read a lot into the story that isn’t there. The city represents a purification of the city of the killers? The innocents are okay though, despite being in these cities? Where did it say anything about that in the parable? Seriously, where do ideas like this come from?

      To me, you are on to something Mr. Smith. It makes even more sense about the King really just being a King when you go back and look at the original Greek translation. In Greek, the words it uses for King are “Anthropos Basilyooce”….Which literally translates to a “human king.” The King isn’t God. That’s simply not what Jesus said.

      Now, if you want to argue about whether or not the kingdom of heaven is like how its described in this parable, that’s another story. And somehow, I don’t think it is. I think this is a parable describing what the Kingdom of God isn’t, not what it is. And that line about how “Many are called but few are chosen”….I think that’s sarcasm personally. A jab at the mentality and arrogance and fear that this understanding of who God is produces. That’s just my opinion though.

  8. says

    Alex is right to point out that this delusion exegesis (which in the audacity of its error, resembles that of Episcopal Church USA Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s heretical interpretation of Acts 16:16-34) resembles Marcionism; it is saved from proper Marcionism by a reference to the proportionality of divine justice in “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, but it is certainly at least somewhat crypto-Marcion; it also conveniently ignores the fact that God did in fact destroy entire cities for disobeying him, as any resident of Sodom or Gomorrah would attest, had they not in fact been vaporized. And has “Human King” even bothered to read the verse in question? Surely the fact that it begins with “The kingdom of heaven is like” rather than “The kingdom of heaven is unlike” refutes his argument.

    Regarding to the main thrust of UM Jeremy’s interpretation, which is so far at odds with that of nearly all the church fathers that it borders on blasphemy, the problem with it is that it falls on its face when compared with Christ’s very similiar parable offered in Luke chapter 15, when Christ, at dinner with the Pharisees, engaged in what theologians like to call the “Parabolic triple play.” This parable says essentially the same thing, albeit it does not feature the King burning cities to the ground, and more emphatically stresses that God, like the King, will not tolerate the well-off ignoring His call, but will instead round up the suffering to take their place at the wedding banquet; the wedding being celebrated that between Christ and his Bride, the Church.

    Regarding the parable contained within Matthew, the view of St. John Chrysostom was that the burning of the city is an example of Christ prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, which was a recurrent theme in much of Christ’s Gospel. Chrysostom argued that God gave an interval of 40 years between this sermon, and the actual destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman legions, in order to give the Jews time to repent, and indeed many of them did, becoming the founding Apostles of the Early Church. In like manner, the correct interpretation of the fate of the man refusing to wear the wedding garment (who is not stated as being naked by the way), is not that this was Christ, but rather, an example of someone who refuses God’s love and saving grace, which we certainly have the right to do. By not wearing the wedding garment, this man was defying the authority of God, and was damned to the “outer darkness”, that being Hell, in punishment.

    The importance of the orthodox understanding of this passage to Christian dogmatic theology cannot be overstated. It is from here that we learn that “Many are called, but few are chosen”, and that Hell is a place filled with “weeping and gnashing of teeth”; yet equally important, it is in the Orthodox interpretation of this passage, held universally throughout the Church Catholic, by Protestants, Eastern Christians, and Roman Catholics alike, that we learn of God’s loving-kindness; those who are damned are damned through refusing His divine love; in their absence, God selects the poor, the disabled, the meek, “all as many as they were found, both bad and good,” and in this manner the wedding was furnished with guests.

    Thus, from the Orthodox interpretation of this passage, which is surely the correct one, on account of its correlation with a similar parable given in Luke (you can argue that Matthew and Luke were both retelling the same story, or more probably, that Christ told the same story twice, slightly differently, which as a human act is certainly not without precedent; one could say that my beloved Metropolitan Kallistos Ware has practically made a career out of it), we learn of both God’s divine justice, and his saving love. His justice, in punishing those who defy his authority, or refuse his love, and his gracious mercy, in inviting even the lowest members of society, the poorest of the poor, the maimed and disabled, to his Heavenly Banquet. The Orthodox interpretation of this passage is so important, that one could reasonably say it contains the entire message of the Holy Gospels. To refute it is to go beyond any known heresy, and depart into outright blasphemy, attacking the Christian faith for pure perverse joy that comes from destroying something beautiful.

  9. says

    I should add that Rev. Sarah should be ashamed of herself, and should likewise consider resigning, for daring to attack not only this parable, but the equivalent in Luke as well. This utter blasphemy does indeed reverse the meaning of the text, turning the Gospel upside down; it inverts it to the extent that it utterly obliterates the heart of the Christian message; that being, we are all horrible sinners, yet we are offered forgiveness through Christ Jesus, a forgiveness we must chose voluntarily to accept, by repenting of our manifold sins.

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