Turning the Parable on its Ear

Thank God for sarcastic Lutherans. Pr. Nadia Bolz-Weber flips the parable of the Prince's Wedding in Matthew 22 on its ear, and beautifully. And having just tried to treat that parable in the set of three a few days back, I find myself to have been insufficiently radical, and insufficiently attentive to context.

You see, put briefly, Nadia points to Jesus as the guest bound hand and foot and ejected from the royal banquet. And this is right! But rather than go her route to getting there (which is certainly good, worth reading, and quite clear about the nature of parables -- but not my style), I will point to Matthew's opening line, which we always mistranslate: "The kingdom of the heavens has been compared to ..." Homoiothe, aorist passive. Quick grammar lesson: Greek verb tenses indicate time and quality. The perfect indicates perfective quality, that an action completed in the past continues to be complete. The imperfect indicates progressive quality, that an action in the past continues beyond the past. But the aorist is aoristos, indefinite, with respect to quality. It simply indicates past action. And so when we say "The kingdom of heaven is compared to" -- much less "is like" -- we really break this sense. For comparison, think of the Sermon on the Mount, in Mt. 5, in which Jesus repeatedly says ekousate hoti errethe, "You have heard that it has been said ..." -- verbs in the aorist active and aorist passive. What comes next? "But I say to you, ..." This simple past-ness is great for contradictions. What if we assume, in every parable like this, that the image is pointedly wrong?

So let's have the parable again:
"The kingdom of the heavens has been compared to a human king, who made a marriage for his son. And he sent his servants to call the invited to the wedding, and they did not want to come. Once more he sent other servants, saying "Say to the invited, "My best has been prepared: my oxen and my fatlings have been slaughtered, and all is prepared. Come to the wedding!"" But those uncaring ones went away, one to his own farm, another to his store; and the rest seized his servants, abused them, and killed them. Now, the king was enraged, and sending his troops, he destroyed those murderers and set their city on fire.

Then he said to his servants, "The wedding is prepared, but the invited were not worthy. Proceed, therefore, along the frontage roads and invite whosoever you shall find there to the wedding." And having gone out into the streets, those servants assembled all of those whom they found, wicked as well as good, and the wedding hall was filled with reclining guests. And having arrived to inspect the reclining guests, he saw there a person who was not clad in wedding garb; so he said to him, "Fellow, how did you get in here without wedding garb?" But he was silent. Then the king said to the attendants, "After binding his feet and hands, throw him out into the darkness outside; there, there will be lamentation and grinding of the teeth." Indeed, many are invited, and few are singled out."
Now, this is a parable of judgment. It still fits the context of the juridical parable that precedes it, of the steward who built the vineyard, of his servants, and of his son -- and of the wicked gardeners. But because we start with father and son again, we are led to misread the Father as king and the Son as prince. Where is this son of the king, this prince, in the parable? He's the MacGuffin. The microfilm in North by Northwest. The completely irrelevant reason for the human drama that is the story. This parable isn't about the prince, or the wedding -- it's about the human king and human rule.

Now, let's remember Mt. 21:46, the verse that joins the result of the last parable to the telling of this one: "And while plotting to seize him, they were wary of the crowds, because the crowds took him for a prophet." The king is vengeful, responding badly to slights, and punishing murderers with exorbitant violence. Recall the answer to Jesus' question after the last parable: "Treat the wicked wickedly: he will destroy them, and lease the vineyard to other gardeners, the kind who will deliver to him the harvests in their seasons." And we have in the next parable a parody of this justice, a reduction of the priests' and councillors' verdict to absurdity -- except the description in parable is all too reasonable for its day! Remember that the lex talionis, the law of equivalent reciprocity, was intended as a restriction. God does not demand an eye for every eye -- God insists that if you retaliate, you take no more than is equal to your loss. And yet what do the priests and councillors, acting for the Temple authorities of the day, wish to do? They wish to seize and destroy Jesus for his defiance of their authority. And we know that in the end, they do.

And so let us hear the parable again, and remember Herod, whose edifice the Temple in Jerusalem is in that day. "I have thrown a grand party, one worthy of my eminence, and I have invited you. Come, and celebrate with me the enlargement of my kingdom, since I have made a marriage for my son, who will be king after me." Are you interested, O Judean? Is it worth it to you? Do you tie yourself to this eminence, or do you go on minding your own business? Or are you so offended that you strike a blow against this ruler who wishes to build himself up at your expense? Do you shoot the messenger, even knowing the king's "doctrine of disproportionate response"? I guess it depends on just how much you have to lose.

Ah, but see the desperation of the king, and the rag-tag assembly of those who, worthy or not, still recline inside the house he has built, and wear his festival robes. Who have everything to gain from their association with him, and everything to lose from his displeasure. Who are, in short, so screwed that after having received the gift, they could not escape the debt it carried. But one there is in this Temple who does not wear what the king has provided. One whose disobedience and troublemaking could cause them to lose everything. One who, when apprehended and questioned by the authorities, is silent in the face of their questions. One who will be seized, bound, taken outside the walls, and killed. But one who belongs with those who lament, who wail and grind their teeth, whose pain and suffering have no place inside until Jesus brings them inside and performs works of healing and restoration in a space that used to demand money from them.

And the priests and councillors get it. Oh, they get every word. Because what happens next? Who do they send? Some Pharisees and Herodians. The legacy of the Maccabean period, with its dominance of the Pharisaic sect, never really disappeared -- in fact, it's Herod's claim to legitimacy in Judea. It's the power-base. And so these folks come to Jesus, protesting that they just have a simple question for him, because they know he will answer it truly, and won't try to bullshit them. Oh, and it's a toughy: "How does it seem to you? Is paying tribute to Caesar legitimate, or not?" A question guaranteed to either push him toward the zealots, and his death, or to turn the crowd away from him, so they can kill him. "You want to play games with us? We'll play."

But what is the answer? "Produce for me the tributary coin." And it really is a tribute. Every imperial coin is a tribute, just as every piece of US currency is, to the leadership of the state. Ours are to dead presidents; theirs, to living emperors. In whose debt are you, for the money you carry? How did you get it? For whom do you really work, if you get paid in state currency? To whose tune do you really dance?

Well, then you'd better pay your debts, hadn't you?

How deep in are you, really, and to whom will you cry for salvation?


  1. Still insufficiently radical. Remember: passives always imply an agent of action. And this is not a divine passive -- so let's try "You have compared the kingdom of the heavens to a human king making a marriage for his son. You have compared the kingdom of the heavens to a wedding banquet. But I say to you, ..."

  2. Sorry, while I will defer to you in the rendering of the Greek, I still think this interpretation that puts Jesus as the guest is a stretch. I cannot read this without thinking of Jeremiah 21. It may use an understanding of human kingship, but I still think this is describing divine action, and the essence of this still is -- gather the good and bad. The weeding out is not our job, that's done by others (as the parable of the weeds suggest). Ours is to accept and take the hospitality of the king seriously (however garments are provided).

    I think human rule, and its fundamental cruelty, capriciousness, and violence, is frequently used as a metaphor for how God works in the Gospels. (And all of scripture. Again with Jeremiah, or how God intervenes in the war against Benjamin in Judges 20.) Remember, these were people subject to power, and nowhere near wielding it save in their very tiny communities. They would have also experienced God as capricious, especially in the crisis and wars of the late 60s/early 70s in Rome. (I cannot read Luke 19 without thinking of Vespasian, for example, if only to make sense of the notion of a king leaving to claim another kingdom, which Vespasian did in the midst of the Jewish War.) It is power people would have experienced and understood. A capricious and violent king, and the rough grace one might find even amidst war, death, desolation, and ruin, would be a very real thing for the Matthew community. This passage, like the previous parable, comes in the run-up to the apocalyptic discourse, and sets the scene for all the very prophetic woes Jesus will pronounce upon the elite of Israel, captive as they are not only to Rome, but to the idea of a kingdom that will fail.

    What you write here is by far the most cogent attempt to twist this parable into a different shape, and because *you* write it I so very much want to believe it. You don't do this by sidestepping the violence of God, and that's good. Too many want to remove God as an author of the horrific, and that does far too much injustice to the witness of scripture. I do think this can be an alternative way to deal with this, but if this becomes the *only* meaning, then I cannot buy it.


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