Proper 23(A): I Do?
By: The Rev. Kim Jenne
The Sunday wedding announcements in The New York Times have been the focus of both starry-eyed romantics and caustic parody writers for much of its 166-year history. The chronicler of blue-blooded love matches has a reputation for featuring only card-carrying Mayflower Society members and the most accomplished Ivy-Leaguers. Despite its exclusivism, the Vows section is filled with the color commentary one would expect from the American daily. While the Times has not shied away from so-called controversial weddings especially in recent years, it’s hard to imagine how reporters would depict the marital union of the king’s son told by Jesus in Matthew 22:
FOR BETTER OR WORSE? WEDDED BLISS BEGINS UNDER CLOUD OF SUSPICISION, INSULT AND MURDER
Jesus skips over details of what the bride was wearing. In fact, the couple in question are only a minor footnote in the tale of offense and violence. However, given that the wedding involves the son of a king, the Times would surely be compelled to feature such a national story. It would be akin to coverage of Prince William and Princess Kate’s ceremony in 2011 which included even the International Space Station orbiting Earth in its global coverage. Needless to say, it’s important to realize the epic preparations that would be underway for a feast of this magnitude.
According to The Knot’s 2016 wedding statistics, fall has overtaken summer as the most popular wedding season, with 40% of couples planning ceremonies after summer. The lectionary could not have picked a more appropriate season to park a story of wedding nuptials. Although once they hear this story, it’s unlikely that churchgoers in mid-October will be filled with lovebird envy.
Jesus was a skilled storyteller who used parables from everyday life to effectively convey his message and meaning. They are the hallmark of Jesus’ teaching. The Gospel of Mark puts it this way:
With many such parables he continued to give them the word, as much as they were able to hear. He spoke to them only in parables, then explained everything to his disciples when he was alone with them (4:33-34).
Few of these private explanations have been preserved in our record, the Bible. In Jesus’ time, the crowds listening to Jesus’ stories had to figure out their meanings, and we, too, must discover ours. I think this is a good thing, ultimately. It is, as systematics professor Don Goergen, O.P. has said, that sometimes, you have to let parables get you. It’s not so much about hearing them as a mystery in which you must solve the riddle, but as a wisdom tale that teaches us something about ourselves.
The word parable comes from the Greek para, which means “alongside or together with” and balo, which means to “cast” or “to throw.” These two words seem to be contradictory. To come alongside and to throw are opposite actions. Even in its name, the parable is teaching – no single import can ever be determined, no single metaphor or simile can be restricted to its meaning. Therefore, no interpretative method should be restricted from your theological toolbox when it comes to your reading of parables.
In some ways, it’s actually a relief to read this parable as allegory. Just allow it to be a judgment tale where God picks sides against the blessed and the cursed. You can find plenty of theologians – both ancient and modern – who have drawn the story as a map of those who are in and those who are out. Here’s one from Martin Luther who was said to have hated preaching on this particular text, but did it anyway (God bless him). But, maybe you are like me. Someone who has trouble imaging an eternal God who has such a short wick even when sung in the cheery lyrics of songwriter American Medical Mission Miriam Therese (M.T.) Winter’s “I Cannot Come to the Banquet”:
Ugh. I think I’m with Luther on this one. So, what if we don’t read it as allegory? A parable is, after all, talking about one thing in terms of another. What if we read it at face value and assume Jesus was speaking to the oppressors here on earth? Jesus was brash to say the least. This is the third and fourth controversy story (vv.11-14 is likely a separate parable) he has shared in Matthew in front of the religious authorities. The Gospel writer says, the chief priests and Pharisees “realized he was speaking about them” (21:45). Maybe Jesus’ story is only pretending to use the literary form of a King-Mashal (that is, a Jewish parable in which the main character is a king, who always stands for God) in order to provoke the religious elite once again. Such a reading might invite a modern congregation to consider where are today’s entitled kings (ahem, Trump) being rejected by their subjects (political insiders, titans of business) while the proletariat await the second, or third, or fourth invitations only to be insulted by the host (ex. Navy sailors, boy scouts, everyone)?
The Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine says: “Parables should incite action…They are complicated and open to multiple interpretations. They served to indict and correct behaviors while including a little bit of humor (‘profit with delight’) or even, absurdity.” In this light, the wedding banquet story is a little more palatable. It names a truth only possible within storytelling that still indicts our own sin. Parables seem to be most helpful when read through that lens. It is like American essayist Adam Gopnik describes:
…a real, unchangeable difference does exist between what might be called storytelling truths and statement-making truths—between what makes credible, if sweeping, sense in a story and what’s required for a close-knit metaphysical argument. Certain kinds of truths are convincing only in a narrative. The idea, for instance, that the ring of power should be given to two undersized amateurs to throw into a volcano at the very center of the enemy’s camp makes sound and sober sense, of a kind, in Tolkien; but you would never expect to find it as a premise at the Middle Earth Military Academy. Anyone watching Hamlet will find his behavior completely understandable—O.K., I buy it; he’s toying with his uncle—though any critic thinking about it afterward will reflect that this behavior is a little nuts. [emphasis mine]
Perhaps the best way to preach any parable, even ones we think we fully understand, is to point out the questions they raise. Jesus’ entire narrative arc, including this story, suggests that we might live today as if we already had one foot in the kingdom of heaven. I suggest inviting modern congregations to consider what does this story provoke in your own life? What is your interpretation and response? How does this story teach us something about ourselves? What is the response of our community? For believers, we can choose this very moment to begin living as if we had one foot in the kingdom of heaven. We could respond to Jesus today. May it be so.
The Rev. Kim Jenne is the Director of Connectional Ministries for the Missouri Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. The Office of Connectional Ministries is responsible for Annual Conference, Boundaries, Communications, Discipleship Ministries, Safe Sanctuaries, Lay Servant Ministries and Leadership Development through the Nominations Committee. Before her current appointment, Kim served as senior pastor of Webster Hills UMC in St. Louis. She is a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, loves NASA, and is sorely disappointed we aren’t already living on Mars. She considers herself an inconsistent but persistent disciple of Jesus Christ.
 Amy Jill-Levine, Live lecture in Cambridge, England, Westcott House, Cambridge Theological Federation, May 2012. Notes in personal journal.
 Gopnik, Adam. “What did Jesus do? Reading and Unreading the Gospels.” The New Yorker, 24 May 2010.