This has been a week where knowing a little bit about history has seemed more important than usual. The history of Palestine/Israel. The history of British and European colonialism. The history of U.S. machinations in the region. The history of repeated traumas from wars, genocides, antisemitism, terrorism, authoritarianism.
In a very different way, the same is true for today’s scripture. We need to remember it has a history.
Any way you look at it, the parable we’ve just heard holds significant challenges for someone like me who professes belief in a loving and gracious god. But here, we’re told of a king who renders brutal vengeance upon disloyal, disobedient subjects. We’re told that this same king continues plans for a wedding banquet for his son even as he destroys a city. We’re told that the second round of guests hauled in are all welcome, “the bad as well as the good.”
This version of the parable of the wedding feast describes vengefulness and violence that doesn’t appear at all in Luke’s version.
One explanation for the violence in this parable is offered by commentators such as David Lose. He points out that Matthew speaks to a small, embattled community of Jewish followers of Jesus, marginalized and rejected by the larger Jewish community. Lose (and others) suggest that Matthew’s version of the wedding feast parable expresses a wish for vengeance and justification. Matthew wants us to think that the king in the parable is God preparing a feast for his son. The first people invited reject the invitation and even kill a couple messengers. So the king/God destroys their city. This likely refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, before this gospel was written. In this interpretation, Jews who don’t accept Jesus as the Messiah are punished and new folks from all walks of life are welcomed. Especially Jesus-following Jews enjoying the king’s welcome.
Lose characterizes this parable as describing a “family feud” among Jewish factions. But for him, this parable in Matthew still ultimately speaks of “expansive love and radical inclusiveness” (davidlose.net, “…in the meantime” October 6 2014).
I’m not convinced. The king/god in Matthew’s version of this parable is a vengeful bully with little or nothing in common with the preaching of Jesus in the Beatitudes (also in Matthew), for example. Or with the sort of Christ-aligned life described in today’s passage from Philippians. I’m willing to think that Matthew just has an axe to grind in his rendering of this story; he makes it about who is right and who is wrong, who is in and who is out. It’s not about love and inclusion at all. And it certainly has been used to support anti-Semitic interpretations and the violence that has followed them.
It’s worth noting that the parable about a great feast in the Luke 14 makes the themes of expansive love and radical inclusiveness much clearer. No violence and bullying there. A version of this parable in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas is also more clearly about love and inclusion, and free of violence.
So what to do with Matthew?
I want to go back to the general understanding that the author of Matthew wrote to a community that felt marginalized and alienated and fearful and threatened. It’s possible to take this context into account and see that Matthew turned a previously peaceful story into a tale of revenge and vindication. The writer of Matthew succumbed to the temptation that many individuals and peoples face. Humans sometimes become so desperate, so distraught, so at odds with others that we imagine a God that welcomes and loves only those like us. And peoples across the globe are so fearful, so traumatized, so oppressed that claiming the power of God’s vengeance for their side, their people, becomes a primary source of hope. History demonstrates that. And scholarship has repeatedly found that, in many religions, visions of violent apocalypse emerge when believers feel threatened and persecuted.
Placed in historical context, this parable in Matthew comes close to describing some of the dynamics that have given us warfare and violence across the world. Dreams of divinely sanctioned vengeance take root in peoples who are alienated, fearful, and threatened. All too often, traumatized and oppressed peoples actively take that vengeance. Even some of Jesus’ earliest followers felt a desire for violent restitution. Matthew makes that clear.
We can take today’s scripture and remember that at its core stands an older story of love, inclusion, and grace. Reading Luke and Thomas makes that apparent. And there is comfort in that.
And we can take today’s scripture, in its historical context, as a cautionary tale. The writer of Matthew knew a story about welcoming the hurt and marginalized and turned it into a revenge tale. That choice has helped support violence among us for a couple thousand years. Similar choices about how we use the scripture we’ve received have resulted in countless genocides and wars. So we must acknowledge, confess and correct Christianity’s history of weaponizing scripture.
But knowing all that doesn’t provide any comfort when people who claim support from the same God slaughter each other by the hundreds and thousands. And the particular horror we’ve experienced this week over the war in Gaza could just as easily focus upon Sudan or Ukraine or Nigeria or Colombia or dozens of other places.
And though it grieves us, there often is very little we can do, immediately, about war and mayhem throughout the world. We pray. We ask our government to support a ceasefire rather than the profits of arms manufacturers.
And we remember…
We remember that the Jesus we follow, the Christ we profess, would never endorse violence such as Matthew imagines in today’s scripture. The Jesus we follow is a humble servant preaching peace and bringing healing. And even Jesus didn’t solve all the problems he saw; he couldn’t possibly have healed all the people who needed it.
That awareness brings us to humbly recognizing our limits; it brings perspective to what we can do as peacemakers. We must be with the people we know as much as possible. We must act as humble servants where we are.
For example, in this week I have contacted federal representatives and asked them to support a cease-fire between Gaza and Israel. An end to this particular round of horrific violence and terror.
And I also have contacted people I know or am acquainted with. For example:
I am Facebook friends with a woman I went to college with. She has been one of the chief staff people regarding Palestinian issues for the American Friends Service Committee for several years. I don’t know how she sustains herself in that work. Over the summer, she posted several pictures from a trip to Gaza. I knew she must be going through acute pain, grief, confusion, and agony this week. So I messaged her, letting her know I was thinking of her, sending energy, praying that she finds ways to continue to stand and stay centered in the midst of so much chaos.
And I am acquainted with one of the rabbis in Kalamazoo who identifies herself as a Zionist. And I know that the violence in Israel and Gaza this week has made her life more complicated and burdened on multiple levels. And I know she is grieving, burdened, sad, and wondering how best to act in the world right now. So I messaged her, letting her know I was thinking of her, sending energy, praying that she finds ways to continue to stand and stay centered in the midst of so much chaos.
And this is what we must do. Extend compassion and gentleness. Serve where we can, love as we must, continue in prayer. Above all, seek peace. And perhaps someday, history will shift.
Scriptures: Matthew 22:1-14; Philippians 4:1-9
-Rev. Ruth Moerdyk