1 October 2017
Proper 23(28), Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
There is an article in the current edition of The Christian Century entitled, “On Luther and his lies.”1 It is an allusion to Luther’s antisemitic diatribes, particularly his pamphlet “On the Jews and their lies”, written in 1543, three years before his death.
In his earlier years Luther emphasized that Jesus was born a Jew and encouraged greater tolerance toward Jews, hoping for the conversion of Jews. When that did not happen, Luther became disillusioned and the pamphlet from 1543 contains this conclusion: “And so, dear Christian, beware of the Jews . . . you can see how God’s wrath has consigned them to the Devil, who has robbed them not only of a proper understanding of the Scriptures, but also of common human reason, modesty and sense. . . . Thus, when you see a real Jew you may with a good conscience cross yourself, and boldly say, ‘There goes the Devil incarnate.’”
This did nothing to protect Jews from discrimination and violence, it encouraged violence not only in Luther’s time but throughout the centuries, climaxing in the holocaust.
Lutherans have since apologized for Luther’s anti-Semitic tirades and for their own complicity in it. And given that our congregation has good and cordial relations with the congregation Beth Tikvah, I imagine this is not the first time you hear of Luther’s antisemitism.
Antisemitism is an ugly thing. And we know that words matter and ugly words are not only violent but lead to violence which is why we must be careful with what we think and say.
And because we must be careful, we must also treat today’s Gospel with great care. What is that violent story all about?
As we hear the story, we may have in mind a second version of this parable. Luke tells the story, too. But in Luke it is free of violence. In Luke it is a story of God’s offer of salvation that some reject and others accept. Often it has been interpreted as a supersessionist story: Israel has rejected God’s messiah while the church has accepted God’s messiah, thus the church is the new people of God and Israel has been rejected. If you pay just a little attention to this narrative of the church replacing Israel as God’s favourite child you can see how such a reading of the parable can easily lead into pogroms and persecutions, all the while justifying our violence as legitimate if not ordained by God.
And so we must look at our parable and question our assumptions. Is this a story about people who are offered God’s salvation? And if that is the case, what kind of God is it that we are dealing with?
What happened to the owner of the vineyard who went into the market place and hired people throughout the day and paid them all they required. What happened to the gracious God we saw in Matthew 20?
I am not looking for a warm and fuzzy God who places no demands on us. But I am looking for the God who is revealed in our crucified Lord, who on the cross prayed for forgiveness for his executioners, the One who at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel commands us to love our enemies.
If we assume that today’s parable is about people rejection God’s salvation must we not also assume that the king of the parable is God? And if the king is an image for God then we have a genocidal god who will kill at the drop of a hat. It is a God who will not take no for an answer and who in the anticipation of a celebratory meal goes and burns down a city, likely killing not only those who had mistreated his slaves but everyone in that town. And after he has done all that he wants to have a good time with someone else, until he sees a person with the wrong attire as if those who had been invited from the fields and factories would have had time to first get changed. The party is interrupted to bind the guy and throw him into the outer darkness.
I do not want to pretend that this king represents God. This king is not able to forgive his enemies, let alone those who didn’t get the memo on the dress code. This king is not able to endure rejection as Jesus did when his disciples abandoned him and the crowds turned on him. This king would persecute anyone who got in his way.
If this king is a representation of god, then this god is the god of Westboro Baptist church who hates anyone who is different from them. And if we thought that this king was a representation of God then who would stop us from persecuting others in this god’s name?
But we know how the story ends. Jesus offers himself for the world. He forgives his executioners and receives back with open arms those who abandoned him. Jesus will have no part in violence.
Jesus’ parables are intended to shock or at least surprize us, and in doing so they are to make us think. That the mighty use power against their subjects is hardly surprizing yet we recall that after the third announcement of his suffering and death Jesus says to his disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave …” (Matthew 20)
It should shock us then to see the contrast between a violent ruler who lords it over his subjects and the way of Jesus. It should shock us into questioning our own rationalizations of violence, against anyone, no matter how deserving we think they may be.
A commentator on this passage has pointed out that while the banquet is to be in honour of a wedding, there is no bride or groom in the story. Where are they?
That is where we come in.2 Jesus is the groom and his bride is the church. Together with Jesus we walk in the way of peace and pursue greatness by being servants of Jesus and of others. The irony of this parable is that this violent story wants to shock us into the way of peace, that we may truly be followers of the Prince of Peace.
I must acknowledge a debt to the following resources (and authors):