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The Unrobed Man

Birth of Mary: 7th September, 2014
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Matthew 22:1-14

Each week the priest of a small suburban church gave her children's sermon, and each week the children anticipated her making a new point about Jesus. This particular week she begins by holding up a stuffed squirrel and asks, "Boys and girls, do you know what this is?" Silence. The priest asks again. Silence. Finally, one little boy is bold enough to shyly raise his hand and offer, "Well, I know we're supposed to say Jesus, but it really looks like a squirrel to me."[1]

There's a saying that mixes my metaphors a little, but makes the same point: "If it walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck."

The parable from today's gospel is a difficult one. Most commentators see it as Matthew's unique adaptation of an earlier Q-source parable. The standard interpretation is that the king is God, the first group of wedding invitees is the Jewish people, the second group is the early Christians, and the unrobed man refers to those who join the church but turn out to be unfit for the kingdom and so are expelled.[2]

There are serious problems, however, with such an interpretation.[3] The image of God it presents is horrific. Is this really what Jesus is suggesting the kingdom of God is like? The king's guests certainly spurn his invite, and even kill his slaves, but he goes well beyond an eye for an eye, and after destroying the murderers he burns the entire city in a fit of tyrannical rage. The next group of invitees are then gathered from the streets. It is highly unlikely anyone would turn down the king's invitation this time; they are coerced into his banquet hall and fearing for their lives. One man dares to turn up without a wedding robe. When the king sees him he is furious, has him bound, hand and foot, and thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be lots of weeping and gnashing of teeth!

If we are to follow the rule of squirrels and ducks, perhaps we should look again at how we interpret this parable. The king looks and acts like a violent secular ruler, perhaps he is just that. In fact, to the first-century hearers of Matthew's gospel, he would have looked very much like the tyrant Herod the Great. The historian Jospehus records how Herod reacted to the people of Jerusalem when they resisted him, it sounds very like the king in the parable:

... he made an assault upon the city, and took it by storm, and now all parts were full of those that were slain, by the rage of the Romans ... and the zeal of the Jews that were on Herod's side ... so they were murdered continually in the narrow streets and in the houses by crowds, and as they were flying to the temple for shelter, and there was no pity taken of either infants or the aged, nor [women]. (14:480)

So where can we find the kingdom of heaven in this violent parable? There is a clue earlier in the gospel, in Matthew 11:12, "From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force." What about the mysterious unrobed man in the final scene? He stands up to the violent king, but not in the same spirit of violence. He offers passive resistance. His sin is simply not turning up in the royal wedding robe. He is speechless when confronted and then the king has him bound like a sacrificial animal. He is cast out of the cruel king's court. The unrobed man becomes a victim for the sake of the other guests. He saves them by drawing the wrath of the king on himself. Is this man the Christ figure? Is there something of Isaiah's suffering servant in the unrobed man? "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth ... he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people" (Is. 53:7,8).

The parable depicts a collision between an earthly kingdom and the kingdom of heaven, between the king's way of violence and selfishness, and the unrobed man's way of non-violence and self-sacrifice. It is a choice we all face at one time or another. Which way do you choose? When faced with conflict, with those who dislike us or disagree with us, even with those who hate us, it is easy to repay like with like, to take a tooth for a tooth. The violent way is a very easy to compound, it draws us in, whether it is manifest in gossip and dissention, a particular temptation in churches and work places, or the physical violence we sadly see so often in our homes, on our streets, and between nations or those with radically differing ideologies.

Although all these situations are complex, there is no doubt in my mind about the Christ-like response. The ideal our Lord sets before us is simple. It is to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, to actively seek ways of non-violence, forgiveness and love. May God give us the courage to follow the way of the unrobed man in our lives, and to be advocates of the way in our homes, our communities and our nation.

Notes:

  1. Adapted from a sermon by Paul Nuechterlein; See here...
  2. For example see Robert Funk et al, The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), p. 235.
  3. For an alternative Girardian interpretation of the parable see Marty Aiken, "The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence: Discerning the Suffering Servant in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet" (2003).


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