Year A, Pentecost, Proper 23
There is an ebb and flow of imagery revealing conflict and resolution in the texts this week. We begin with the conflict between the Israelites who are feeling abandoned (once again!) in the wilderness and God. They seek a tangible presence and break covenant worshipping an idol. God is angry –no, wrathful! Moses steps in as intermediary in dialogue with God on behalf of the people and the conflict is resolved with God turning from wrath to stay in relationship with the erring community. Once again the final word from God is not judgment and destruction, but grace. Exodus tells the story and Psalm 106 rehearses it in stunning poetry.
In Isaiah 25 we hear a hymn of great thanksgiving for God’s steadfast covenant of care, forgiveness, abundance and salvation. The setting of the hymn is the on-going conflict between Israel and the empire of Babylon, a conflict the prophet has been proclaiming is a result of Israel’s broken covenant with God. For this moment in chapter 25, Babylon, “the fortified city” seems to have been destroyed and there is promise of restoration for God’s people. Pairing the prophet’s hymn with Psalm 23 reinforces the message of Exodus and Psalm 106. God’s final word is not judgment. It is grace.
And the message continues in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. He urges the people to resolve their conflicts with one another in a dialogue of love that springs from the joy of living in Christ. Anxiety may run high but it is trust in prayer and not worry that will sustain the community bringing it into the peace of God that passes understanding. Holding fast to the truths of the gospel that Paul preaches from his prison cell will steady the church in God’s covenant of love in Christ.
So what happens in the Matthew text? We have heard the stories and songs telling us that even in the midst of deep conflict, even conflict between God and the people, there is a eventually a steadfast response from God of grace. Here the gospel writer puts a parable in the mouth of Jesus that, if taken in strict allegory, does not give us a picture of God’s grace. The king/God smites all those who are against him along with one who has accepted his invitation into the kingdom. In his book, The Power of Parable,[i] John Dominic Crossan labels this text an “attack parable” that arises from the gospel’s historical context of conflict between the Christian Judaism and Pharisaic Judaism in the latter first century. This is the source of its violent rhetoric. He thinks the parable comes from the mouth of the gospel writer who is caught up in this intra-family feud. Crossan does not believe the parable in this form was from Jesus whose primary response to the secular and religious powers of his time was non-violent resistance.
What are we to do with this text in the midst of the extreme violence of our 21st century world? As a storyteller reflecting on Matthew’s text in relationship to the other lectionary passages I wonder if we can see this story through their testimony of grace as a response to conflict and violence. Instead of a tale of what God will do if we do not conform to God’s ways, righteous though they may be, could the gospel’s context of extreme conflict within Judaism be a catalyst for us to hear the story as a “cautionary” tale of what happens when we give into violent rhetoric in conflict? And a call back to the teachings of non-violent speech and resistance from the Jesus of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount? For we certainly know rhetorical violence (which can lead to physical violence) in our media, in our communities, in our schools, churches and families.
Perhaps this parable can be re-visioned and re-told without the violent rhetoric. Is there a context of a conflict that has meaning for your congregation that has had – or is working toward – a redemptive ending? Has your church or denomination walked through a particular crisis recently that folks are still anxious about? Is there a conflict happening within your city or town government that could turn to nasty rhetoric, maybe involving the upcoming elections? The characters of the parable (except perhaps the wedding guest) all act out their convictions violently. What would happen if they had a dialogue where each shared their fears and desires, even selfish ones? Is there an intermediary that could act between the king and his wedding guests, just as Moses acted as an intermediary between the people and God?
One very familiar story that comes to my mind in light of conflict and resolution is known as “The Parable of the Long Spoons” or “The Difference Between Heaven and Hell.” It has been told throughout many religious traditions from East to West. In the story the main character is given a vision of hell where there are long banquet tables of food going to waste and being fought over because the people cannot feed themselves due to either locked elbows or spoons (chopsticks) that are too long. In heaven there are the same long banquet tables of wonderful food and the people have the same issue with locked elbows or long spoons. However, there is laughter and delight because they have learned to feed one another. You can find information on this story at two websites. The first, Unitarian Universalist Association, tells the story in context of their children’s religious education curriculum[ii]. The second is commentary on the story in a 2012 Chicago Tribune article[iii] by Rabbi Mark Gellman, storyteller and author of Does God Have a Big Toe?[iv]
Blessings on your story journey this week,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2015. Photos and commentary to be reprinted only with permission. Please find and tell the stories!
*Picture of Heaven from website “All About Healthy Choices” (https://allabouthealthychoices.wordpress.com/2015/08/05/helping-society-achieve-good-health/)