Proper 23 (28), Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
15 October 2023
Sermon by Ron Vonk. The exegetical work of the sermon relies on and references a paper by Marty Aiken, The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence: Discerning the Suffering Servant in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet
Before Doctors were able to correctly diagnose my mother’s mental illness she went through a period of violence. At first the violence was self-inflicted. But later it turned to violence against people. I remember as a young child watching my mother in one of her violent episodes. I remember the fear I felt as I watched the violence.
I avoid violence – whether that be violence between people, violence in video games, on television or even violence in professional sports. My childhood fear of violence still comes to mind when I see violence.
Yet we live in a world of violence, a world of violence that we read about throughout the gospel of Matthew. The violence in Matthew begins with the birth of Jesus, with the killing of innocent baby boys in Bethlehem, it includes 2 violent demon possessed men living in a graveyard, the beheading of John the Baptist and ends with the crucifixion of Jesus.
The section of Matthew that includes out gospel reading this morning begins with Jesus committing a property crime. Jesus overturns the tables of the money changers and benches of those selling doves in the temple. As Jesus commits his act of violence, Jesus says to his victims, “My house will be called a house of prayer but you are making it a den of robbers. Jesus condemns the people listening to him in the same way that the prophet Jeremiah condemned people in his day for their sins against God.
From the time Jesus overturns the tables of the money changers, violence is part of Matthew’s gospel story of Jesus. After Jesus overturns the money changers’ tables, Jewish religious leaders naturally ask Jesus, “Who gave you this authority?” Jesus refuses to answers their question. Instead, Jesus tells two stories – first the story of wicked tenants that we would have read last week were it not for Thanksgiving. The tenants refuse to pay the rent they owe. When the landlord sends servants to collect the rent, the tenants beat one servant, kill another and stone a third. At the end the landlord foolishly sends his son to collect the rent, think, “They will respect my son.” But the tenants kill the son. The tenants are violent people.
After he tells the first story, Jesus asks the religious leaders, “What will the owner of the vineyard to these tenants? As we might expect the religious leaders answer, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.” The religious leaders suggest a violent response.
It is at this point that Jesus tells our parable for this morning. It is again a story about violent people – a violent king, a violent people who respond to the king’s call to come to his son’s wedding, and about violence against a speechless guest at the wedding. But this second story is also a story the Jewish people recognize – it’s the story of how king Herod (the king who killed innocents baby boys in Bethlehem) how King Herod came to be King of Judea.
This morning I will begin with a brief review of the story as Jesus tells it. After that I will tell you the story as the Jews in Jerusalem would have remembered it. At that we will look at why Jesus may have wanted to tell this story at this point in his ministry.
First, the story as Jesus tells it. The king’s son wedding banquet has been prepared. The kind sends his slaves to those who were invited with these words, “Look I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” But the people who were invited make light of it and go away, one to his farm, another to his business. There are some violent people who were invited as well. They mistreat the king’s slaves and kill them.
The king is enraged. He destroys the invited guests and burns their city. While he city burns, the king goes ahead with his son’s wedding banquet. Other people are invited. We wonder who the newly invited guests are. Are they the people in the streets whose homes are burning and have no other place to go? Both good and bad now come to the feast. The wedding hall is filled with guests.
Then the story takes a final unexpected turn. We never see the king’s son. Only the king comes in to see the guests. The king notices one man who is not wearing a wedding robe. Only the king speaks. “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” The man is speechless. The king orders his attendants to bind the man hand and foot and throw him into the outer darkness. The king makes sure the man never comes back.
Now hear the story about King Herod that the Jews in Jerusalem remember. King Herod became King of Judea about 70 years ago. Herod arrives at the gates of Jerusalem to defeat the city and claim his Roman appointed kingship. Herod has an army with him but instead of beginning his military campaign against, Herod invites Jerusalem’s leaders to his wedding banquet. Herod is engaged to the granddaughter of the High Priest. His marriage will legitimize Herod and his son’s claim to kingship. The wedding banquet is prepared and the invitations go out.
As might be expected, the history of Herod’s ascension to the throne in Jerusalem takes a violent turn. The people of Jerusalem reject Herod’s invitation to his wedding. King Herod is enraged. He sends his troops into Jerusalem. His soldiers kill many people without mercy – men and women, boys and girls.
And Herod does not complete his wedding in Jerusalem. Instead, as his army lays siege to Jerusalem, Herod goes to Samaria and marries the granddaughter of the High Priest anyway. He gets the legitimacy he needs to begin his royal reign over Judea.
One final point about Herod. Religiously, Herod is a Jew. As Herod’s soldiers kill their Jewish victims, Herod makes sure he does not interrupt the daily sacrifices in the temple. Herod’s soldiers stay away from the sacred parts of the temple.
Now let’s go back to the point in time before Jesus tells his parables. Jesus has just overturned the tables of the money changers. Jesus deliberately interrupts the daily sacrifices in the temple – something King Herod refused to do 70 years ago. Jesus challenges the religious order of things. In so doing Jesus appears to be a threat to Roman rulers who want to maintain political order and to the Jewish religious leaders who are anxious to keep control over the religious order. Jesus brings everyone to a point of crisis.
The question people now want an answer to is this: Will Jesus lead a rebellion against the political and religious order? This explains why in next week’s gospel reading the Pharisees ask Jesus, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” To which Jesus answers, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Jesus is not leading a rebellion against Rome.
The at the end of Matthew chapter 23 (verse 37) Jesus says to the crowds and to his disciples, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Jerusalem Is a city with a history of violence against the prophets. But Jesus comes only like a mother hen gathering her chicks. Jesus is not leading any kind of rebellion.
Which person in Mathew’s version of the parable of the wedding banquet represents Jesus? Is Jesus the son of the King in this parable – the son who seems absent? That would make the king in the parable a version of the violent God some of us expect. Jesus is not the missing son of the king. ….. Jesus is the speechless man who is not wearing a wedding robe. The other people in the parable are people like King Herod who is enraged when Jerusalem’s leaders reject him and then become violent, the other people are people like the invited guests to the wedding who are prone to violence.
Jesus is the suffering servant Isaiah talks about “one who was oppressed and afflicted and did not open his mouth. (IS. 53:7) Later when members of the Jewish Sanhedrin spit in his face and strike Jesus with their fists, Jesus is silent. When Pilate asks Jesus, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” Jesus is silent. In Matthew’s account of the crucifixion the only words Jesus speaks are , “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Matthew’s parable of the wedding banquet highlights our human propensity to violence. The violent guests mistreat the king’s slaves and kill them. The enraged king destroys the murderers and then makes the violence more complete by burning their city. Finally, the king binds the speechless man hand and foot.
Any many of us expect God to be violent. When we read in Isaiah 25 this morning, “The Lord made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin,” God seems to behave like the violent king in the parable. But did you notice the images Isaiah uses to describe how God does his work? God subdues the heat generated by the ruthless with the shade of a cloud. God’s weapon is a cloud in the sky. God protects his people from the blast of the ruthless with a storm wall, a shelter. Isiah does not associate God with violence. And when God comes in the person of Jesus, Jesus comes like a mother hen who wants to gather her chicks under her wings.
To our shame we do not want a God like Jesus, the speechless guest at the wedding, a God who stands silently before the Jewish Sanhedrin, who stands silently before Pilate, before roman soldiers, and before those who shout “Crucify! Crucify!” A God who behaves like a mother hen gathering her chicks.
When I was an accountant, one of my clients once said to me, “Ron, I don’t get mad, I get even.” When someone hits us, we hit back. Jesus, instead becomes the victim of our violence.
I finish this morning with the final words we heard from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah imagines a time when the redeemed people of God proclaim, “Lo, this is our God, we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
The salvation Isaiah only imagined came by the silence of Jesus. Jesus took upon himself our violence, our sufferings that result from our violence.
As Christians we leave our propensity to violence, our propensity to want to get even. We follow Jesus into a way of life intended to bring God’s peace into our not so peaceful world.