Refusing to Wear the Empire’s Robes

Matthew 22:1-14
Rev. Liz Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
October 11th, 2020

“Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 ‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 14For many are called, but few are chosen.’”

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

This is a rough text, so I want to suggest that we prepare to do some deep breathing throughout this time together. I noticed as I wrestled with it all week that I felt a tightening in my chest and a pit in my stomach, and breathing in, and breathing out can help us to pause to take it all in. So let’s practice that and use it throughout this time together.

Breathe in… breathe out… OK. Here we go.

I realized this week that I have always read this parable like I’ve picked up something sharp and I need to find a way to soften it so I can put it comfortably in my pocket. I had settled into the following interpretation: the king is God, the son for whom the wedding is being thrown is Jesus, the dismissive invited guests are the religious leaders of Jesus’ time (and, you know, definitely not people like me), and the people welcomed in from the streets are Gentiles, the “good guys”, who are being included in the final celebration. I obviously always put myself in that last group of “good guys” whenever I read this story. 

And I didn’t realize until reading the weekly lectionary blog of one of my constant commentary companions these days, the Rev. Debie Thomas, how comfortable I have become with traditional interpretations like this one. I not only assume that I am the “good guy” in texts like this one, but I also move with shocking speed to embrace an image of God as an emotionally unstable king who bursts into murderous rage when his invitations are refused, sends his armies to burn entire cities to protect his public reputation and “honor”, and exiles guests for not having their own formalwear when coming in right off the street. I think we are called to move away from binary thinking, so I won’t tell you that one interpretation is right and one is wrong. All that time say, it is worth noting that all the white commentators I read this week supported the traditional reading I have become so comfortable with. Even the liturgy written to pair with this Sunday, you may have noticed, echoes this traditional reading, and the hymn of response to my sermon today will take up that theme as well since we needed to choose it before I’d done deep study on this text. And yet, the two commentators of color I read both called this troubling interpretation into question, a Black theologian, the Rev. Debie Thomas (The Rev. Debie Thomas, “The God Who Isn’t,” posted October 4th, 2020, Journey With Jesus: A Weekly Webzine for the Global Church, Since 2004), and an Indian-American theologian, Dr. Raj Nadella (Dr. Raj Nadella, “Commentary on Matthew 22:1-14,”), who is more than a little familiar with the British empire’s oppressive occupation of India. 

Once I let the anaesthesia of my previous readings of this text wear off, I started to see this king for who he really was – a king whose invited guests would rather do anything than come to the party of someone with such violent behavior, a king who elicits a response of killing the people delivering an invitation to a wedding – which says to me that some violent history initiated by this king could have been somewhere in the background, a king so angry that his reputation has been sullied and his “property” has been murdered that he burns down an entire city in his rage, a king who casts someone out into the danger of night because they aren’t wearing the right clothing. And I realized that this king sounds a lot like King Herod, who we met in the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel – a local administrator of the empire’s power who was so emotionally fragile, paranoid, and anxious about Jesus taking his place as king that he murdered every child under the age of 2 in an attempt to hang on to his authority. 

At this point, I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t unsee what these theologians of color were helping me to see. And I had to ask myself: What is it about me that is so ready to push through my discomfort with this image of a vengeful, violent God to just accept that this is how things are meant to be? What I realized is that the part of me that so readily softened these sharp edges is the same part of me that seeks to numb myself when news hits that another Black person has been murdered by the police. It’s the same part of me that resists interrogating the white supremacist values inside my own heart and relationship patterns because it is too painful and time-consuming to unpack. It’s the same part of me that would rather keep the false peace than interrupt racist comments and behavior from my friends and my family. Because you know what? If I am honest, the violence of the king is never a violence that has been perpetrated against me, a member of the privileged class. Actually, the violence that is white supremacy and white silence is a violence that has always been deployed to protect my own comfort and complacency. The part of me that has always given this violent king a pass in my reading of this text is the same part of me that gives myself a pass, letting the hard, life-long work of challenging and dismantling white supremacy be someone else’s problem. 

Breathe in… breathe out…

At this point of the reading, what the Rev. Debie Thomas writes resonated with me deeply. She says that she goes now to this text with “eyes starving for Good News — not the mingy Good News that secures my salvation and my comfort at the expense of other people’s bodies and souls — but rather, the Good News of the Gospel that is inclusive, disruptive, radical, and earth-shattering.” (Thomas, “The God Who Isn’t”.)

Where is that Good News to be found in this new reading? When the Rev. Thomas pointed it out to me, it left me in shock and surprise. What if Jesus is found in this text not as the royalty being celebrated at the banquet, but in that lone guest who refuses to give this violent king a pass as his armies burn down entire cities outside? What if Jesus is the guest who refuses to put on a celebratory wedding robe of “forced celebration and coerced hilarity,” as Thomas puts it, and instead chooses to be bound hand and foot and thrown into “the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” a place that sounds a lot like that lonely hill of Calvary, a place that sounds a lot like what Jesus endured by choosing to resist the empire and instead be murdered by the state on a cross.

Breathe in… breathe out…

 And here’s the question to us in a story that is meant to afflict the comfortable: What would need to change about our lives and our choices in this unprecedented time in history for us to stop giving the murderous kings in the world and in our hearts a pass and to instead identify with, stand in solidarity with, be thrown into outer darkness with the Jesus who would be exiled to the cross for us? As Thomas asks us, “what robes of privilege, power, wealth, empire, location, and complicity would [we] have to refuse to wear? What holy rebuke would [we] have to speak or embody when the king demands [our] cheery presence at his table? What feasts would [we] have to forego”, Thomas asks, “to follow the unrobed dissenter when he’s escorted into the darkness, bound and broken for the sake of love?” (Thomas, “The God Who Isn’t”.)

If you are like me, there is nothing you would like to do more right now than reach again for the anesthesia and slip back into the warm water of apathy. But our Jesus is calling us somewhere else. Our Jesus is calling us to hold his hand as we refuse to force a smile while the world is burning. It’s an exceedingly challenging way to travel, and maybe that’s why Jesus tells us that many are called and few are chosen, because so few will choose to walk a path so hard. Our Jesus is calling us out of our comfort onto that path to the cross, where our privilege must die so that we are no longer numb to the world’s pain. Because Jesus went there first, and it is there that he waits for us to join him. Amen.

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