Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Now...What?

Jesus says he told parables because, "seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand."  Jesus is referring back to many of the Old Testament prophets when he quotes this phrase.  He then says that the disciples were blessed because their eyes did see and their ears did hear, which I can only guess had more to do with them being able to see and hear him rather than always understanding what he was talking about.  Frankly, when I read through Matthew, I have a hard time wading through all the layers of muddled theology in order to try and figure out what he was really saying.
For example, in Matthew chapter twenty-two, Jesus tells the parable of the Wedding Banquet.  In this parable, a king invites his subjects to a banquet.  They, however, don't take the invitation seriously and they all decline.  The king then makes a huge blanket invitation, inviting anyone who wants to come.  If the parable stopped there, I wouldn't have any problem getting the point, but it doesn't.  The parable ends with the king arriving to find one of the new invitees dressed in the wrong attire.  The guest has not worn a wedding robe, and what does the king do?  He basically hand-cuffs the man and has him thrown out, "where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Okay, what does this parable mean?  To answer that we have to take into consideration all the things that influences our interpretation.  First, Jesus is a first century Jew talking to the nation of Israel, so we have to take historical setting into account.  Second, Jesus is a prophet sent to God's people, which again provides a historical lens to look through, but also narrows the field as to how we should try to apply this parable.  Third, we must acknowledge that after 2000 years, there is quite a bit of theological musing about how to understand Jesus's teaching.  More specifically, we have to acknowledge, especially in America, how much our fixation with end time theology (in my opinion, mostly ill thought out and terrible end time theology) influences what we read.

So, Jesus talking to Jews as a prophet.  One way to read this parable is to catch onto the undertone that Jesus is talking about the Jewish religious and social leadership of his time (Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, Herodians, etc.).  God had invited them to a banquet, but frankly, they were too busy with their own business to worry about what God was up to, especially in Jesus.  What had God done in response?  He had invited everyone else.  Prostitutes, tax collectors, the poor and diseased...the outcasts of society could now be guests at God's feast.  To me, that doesn't seem like a hard conclusion to come to.

The hard part is in figuring out how broadly to apply this parable in our own time, and this is were much of our bad eschatology really bits us in the hind end.  Many of us were raised to interpret parables like this through an eschatological lens.  In other words, this parable wasn't about the Jews, or at least not exclusively.  It was about final judgement.  Jesus wasn't talking about the Jewish leadership, he was talking to humanity in general, and the threat was clear.  Accept the invitation I'm giving you in Jesus or go to Hell.

Without going down the road of a million tangents, I don't think the latter interpretation is helpful or accurate.  I don't think Jesus is talking about end time stuff in this parable, so there's no use using it to scare people into Christianity.  At the same time, what do you do about the guest who wasn't dressed in the right robes and was thrown into "darkness?"

I don't know.  If Jesus isn't talking about eschatology, what is he saying?  I've been thinking about this all morning, and here's my guess.  I think Jesus is saying that even though an invitation has been given to all, a specific response is still required.  There is still a standard.  God's reaction to his people rejecting him is not unrestrained inclusivity.  If you want to sit at his table, enjoy his food, and celebrate the wedding, you have to dress in the right clothes.  I think in the context of Jesus's ministry, death, and resurrection that this means God has made his son the one way to the banquet.  And let me say again, I don't think this has to do with heaven or hell, at least not in the specific context of this parable.  I think Jesus is talking about what it means to be a member of the Kingdom of God, and as such, God's plan and ultimate goal for humanity.  In that context, this parable has much more to do with learning God's will for humanity in this life, as followers of his son, than it has to do with whatever comes after this life.

In a way this parable is similar to the parable of the sower.  Seeds are scattered everywhere, but not every one will grow.  Or take the parable of the weeds and the wheat.  Just because the weeds are allowed to grow along side the wheat, only the wheat is harvested.  In his son, God has made it possible for all to have a relationship with him, and therefore learn what we were made for, learn why we even exist, but not everyone will choose to.

Anyway, Jesus's parable of the wedding banquet is a tough one.  And of course, there is a significant chunk of the American Christian demographic who will think I'm a heretic off the bat for not thinking this is a parable about the final judgment.  Oh well, I'll admit that I could be very wrong.

Stopping point: Matthew 23

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