Pentecost 22A, 2008
A Liturgy is also available
A FEAST... WHERE ONLY STRANGERS COME?
Today’s gospel story of the ‘Rich Ruler’s Feast’, as told by Matthew, is a fair dinkum corker!
It’s full of twists and turns
and at times almost totally incomprehensible.
For a moment I hope I might be able to unpack it just a bit
so we can hear what is going on.
And so we might be reminded yet again,
of the message and the passion of Jesus, wisdom sage of Nazareth.
But a bit of preliminary stuff.
First... this story is told in our broad biblical tradition
in three different versions.
The voice and different layers of Matthew is very evident!
But the original story appears lost.
Second... it really is a secular story about the use and misuse of power.
But again Matthew reshapes the original story
into something ‘religious’ he can use against the Jewish leaders.
They had their chance and blew it, Matthew seems to say.
And God has looked elsewhere for a righteous community
- hence his church community.
And third... as you may have already formed an opinion,
this story is not a ‘pleasant Sunday afternoon’ story.
While Jack Spong doesn’t include it in his “terrible texts” listing,
it is a terror story.
It recalls the most savage of Hebrew and Gentile rulers
in a frightening, and at times terrifying, world
where old scores can be settled by savage, destructive means.
So we are faced with Matthew’s story.
Traditionally most commentators seem to accept that Matthew
has reworked another story or stories
where the important bit is in the end statement...
The story of salvation:
The first will be last and the last first; and
Be alert! Be prepared!
The way Matthew seems to tell his story...
The Rich Ruler = God
The son = Jesus
Those who are ‘out’ = the Jews/Israel
The killed slaves = the Prophets
The guest without the wedding garment = God’s divine judgement
This method or style of storytelling cum interpretation, is called Allegory.
I was reminded of this when I read again a comment
from respected British scholar, C H Dodd:
“In the traditional teaching of the Church for centuries (parables) were treated as allegories, in which each term stood as a cryptogram for an idea, so that the whole had to be decoded term by term” (Dodd 1961:13).
And we were given this ‘decoding’ style of interpretation
in our Sunday Schools and churches for years and years:
in pictures and in words and in stained glass windows.
The history of interpretation of parables has been a long and winding gravel road!
But much of that has now changed.
So what can we make of this parable
using the interpretative method of a parable is a story
which turns our experienced world upside down...?
Well, let me suggest the following.
Jesus never offered any ‘in principle’ statements. It just wasn’t his style.
He told stories to people about people in real, live, contexts.
And most of his stories were told to those who lived
in the back streets of a village or city...
The tanners, the toll collectors, the prostitutes,
the beggars, the homeless, the day labourers.
Those who lived on the edges, rather than at the centre of the village or city.
And in narrow, unpaved streets which were
“chocked with refuse and frequented by scavenging dogs, pigs, birds and other animals. (And where) shallow depressions in the streets allowed some drainage, but also acted as open sewers” (Reid 2001:183).
So despite all the moralising and spiritualising that has taken place with this story
I want to maintain that I reckon the original one,
the ‘voice’ of Jesus, if it could be heard,
was a very secular story indeed.
Quoting from Daniel Berrigan’s sermon on this story, ‘A parable for today, if not tomorrow...’ it tells of the
“domestic misbehavior of the powerful and the victimizing of the powerless, of war and retaliation” (www/Berrigan 2001).
And it is set within the then culture of shame and honour.
Whatever the Rich Ruler’s strategy, the feast he ends up with
“is very different from the one he planned. It is now a (feast) of the dishonorable, and he is shamed” (Scott 2001:116).
So how might Jesus’ story have concluded?
Reimagine this if you can, he says.
The reign of God is not about a feast where only the rich and the powerful
are invited, so the host or his heir can be ‘honoured’...
The reign of God will strike you as being as nonsensical
as a feast thrown by a powerful ruler, but where all his powerful
“friends [are] absent and only strangers are present” (Crossan 1975:119).
And what might have been the response?
Come on Jesus, you’ve got to be joking?
The real world of power and politics and global warming and terrorists and law and order, is not like that!
Where those who are in, are out.
And those who are out, are in!
Mmm. Sometimes it is difficult to work out whether you are being
'threatened' or 'saved' by those who suggest your life
should be turned upside down!
And now for a postlude.
Jesus did not come to make us
He came to offer a re-imagined view of the world, this world.
Where every person can live life to the full.
Where every person can love wastefully.
Where every person can be all they can possibly be.
And as Jack Spong continues to say: to be the God-bearers of the world.
“The only way that God can be with us now and through the ages is for each of us to allow God to live and love through us, through our humanity” (Spong 2005:298).
But in a world where many of the world’s politicians can expect
“overwhelming support” to anti-terrorism measures “with scarcely a glance in the direction of civil liberties, and little recognition of the irony involved in abandoning some of the legal safeguards that define the very way of life we are supposed to be defending...” (Mackay SMH/1/10/05, 31)
The surprise of a (divine) feast where only powerless strangers
rather than the rich and powerful ‘movers and shakers’ are present,
is not out of the equation!
Crossan, J. D. 1975. The Dark Interval. Towads a Theology of Story. Ill: Niles. Argus Communications.
Dodd, C. H. 1961. The Parables of Jesus. GtB: London. Fontana.
Reid, B. E. 2001. Parables for Preachers. The Gospel of Matthew. Year A. MN: Collegeville. The Liturgical Press.
Scott, B. B. 2001. Re-imagine the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Spong, J. S. 2005. The Sins of Scripture. Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love. NY: New York. HarperCollins.