Pentecost 18 A: Preaching an Ugly Parable

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Let’s just admit it: this is an ugly parable. No amount of generalizing about God’s hospitality or vulnerability or invitation is going to do away with that. In fact, I think that straying into generalities is a huge mistake, as it glosses over the serious nature and inherent danger in passages like this. So I would urge you either to preach this parable in its distinct and unattractive particularity or to choose one of the other three far more attractive and certainly more edifying passages appointed for this day. If you choose to work with Matthew, however, consider these three things.

First, in this parable, as with the one we preached last week, we are catching a glimpse of the low point in an intense family feud. I want to emphasize the word “family” here because Matthew and his community are caught up in a struggle with their Israelite kin about how to be faithful to the God of Abraham and Sarah and, in particular, whether Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah Israel’s prophets had promised. This is not a Jewish-Christian dispute – though in the centuries that follow Christians will use this passage to further their anti-Semitism (which is one of the things that makes this passage dangerous) – but rather represents the pain of a community sundered from its family and trying to justify itself.

Last week, the parable at hand indicted the Jewish religious leaders for failing to heed the prophets and for killing the legal heir and son of the vineyard owner. It ended with the ominous prediction – cleverly placed in the mouth of the religious leaders – that God would give the vineyard (Israel) to new tenants and crush the wicked ones. This week, the implicit retributive violence of the story becomes explicit, as Matthew takes up a parable also known to Luke and to the author of the Gospel of Thomas and shapes it to his distinct purposes. Whereas Luke and Thomas – and therefore, we may conclude, the earlier form of the parable – talk about a “great dinner,” Matthew changes it to a wedding banquet given by a king in order to make the refusal of the invited guests even harder to imagine or justify. In a less subtle change, whereas in the other forms of this parable the host invites all kinds of people to come to dinner after the initial invitees make their excuses, Matthew’s king sends out yet more servants to invite the recalcitrant citizens to the banquet (kind of like the second round of servants in last week’s parable). This time, the original invitees either again ignore the royal summons or, worse, mistreat and kill some of the servants, a rather absurd reaction to a wedding invitation, but not the greatest absurdity of this dark tale. In retaliation, the king sends his troops to destroy the offenders and then issues his invitation to everyone (though eventually rejects one of the new respondents for not wearing the right clothing).

On the whole, Matthew’s version is darker, more violent, and pushes even the typical parable’s tolerance for absurdity to the edge. Why? Because at this point in the family conflict, he is willing to say that God not only rejects those cousins and kin of his that rejected Jesus but actually sent the Romans to destroy the Temple as punishment (a conclusion not uncommon to Matthew, but intensified in this parable). This is painful stuff, dear Partner, and we’d best not ignore it. Why? Because this parable has been used across the centuries – and still by some Christians today – to drive a wedge between Jews and Christians and even to justify Christian mistreatment of Jews. Enough is enough.

Second, your hearers this Sunday deserve a) to know this background and b) to have you trust that they can handle it. Yes, a few will struggle with questions about whether it is “okay” to critique an evangelist, but most of our people deeply want to understand a passage like this, not have it glossed over or ignored. Most of our people, that is, what to be able to think about their faith with their heads as well as believe with their hearts. And so I would urge you to share with them some of the historical background of this passage and then also share that, while it may have been understandable in the context of Matthew’s small community struggling to make sense of its feels of alienation and abandonment, we need to think hard and well about how we read this passage today precisely because of the dark history of its interpretation.

Third, I don’t think it’s enough to put the parable in its context and leave it alone. We might not be satisfied with Matthew’s response to the questions he and his community faced about rejection and disappointment when not all of their family believed as they did, but what about us? I think that’s a growing question for our people as more of our children and grandchildren choose not to attend church or marry persons of a different faith or no faith whatsoever. So what do we do when it comes to those of our own family who do not respond to the invitation of the king? Do we imagine or hope that this king will invite them again but if they refuse destroy them?

This analogy isn’t perfect, I realize, as Matthew is speaking particularly to the religious leaders of his day and drawing on a long tradition in the Scriptures of God holding such leaders to a particularly high standard of fidelity, but I think it still applies to some degree. In short, the question before us is what do we do when people we love don’t believe as we do? If we don’t agree with Matthew’s way of resolving these difficult matters and feelings, then what response do we make?

Too often, I think, the choices are to either condemn those who believe differently (or don’t believe at all) or feel like we are somehow being unfaithful by not condemning them. But keep in mind, we are not Matthew’s community; that is, we are not the minority tradition with little cultural power trying to make sense of our rejection and alienation. Rather we are disciples of Jesus who hear, even in this parable, the good news that God invites all, good and bad (Mt. 22:10), because God is a God of expansive love and radical inclusiveness. And we are disciples who see, especially in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, not only just how far God will go to make this invitation of grace but also and that God’s words of love and forgiveness are more powerful than any words of punishment, hate, or fear.

And because we have seen and heard and experienced first hand God’s love, we do not have to call down God’s judgment but can trust the God we know in Jesus to care for those who do not respond to God’s invitation just as graciously as God has cared for us. We can, to borrow the words Paul writes in today’s second reading, “not worry about anything” – including when our loved ones don’t believe as we do – but “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let [our] requests be made known to God,” trusting that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard [our] hearts and [our] minds in Christ Jesus.”

If we can practice trusting God enough to resist condemnation but instead pray for our loved ones, we might find ourselves more capable of sharing why what we believe is important to us (rather than just insisting that believing is what matters). We might respect the questions, beliefs, and struggles of those we love. And we might offer our care and support in the name and example of the one who died rather than condemn and was raised to offer peace rather than retribution. And this patient understanding and loving support, as it turns out, may just be the most powerful witness we can offer.

This is hard stuff, dear Partner, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never read anywhere in Scripture where being faithful to our callings was supposed to be easy. 🙂 As you struggle with how to preach this difficult passage to your people, please know how grateful I am for your fidelity, voice, and courage. What you do matters, now more than ever.

Yours in Christ,

PS: If you do opt for another passage – and that’s just what I did last time around – you can find what I wrote, including some “participatory” suggestions, on preaching Ps. 23 in a culture downing in “wanting” here.