Sermon: Crime and Punishment October 12, 2014
St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church 19th Sunday after Pentecost
Scripture (Matthew 22:1-14 (MSG))
22 1-3 Jesus responded by telling still more stories. “God’s kingdom,” he said, “is like a king who threw a wedding banquet for his son. He sent out servants to call in all the invited guests. And they wouldn’t come!
4 “He sent out another round of servants, instructing them to tell the guests, ‘Look, everything is on the table, the prime rib is ready for carving. Come to the feast!’
5-7 “They only shrugged their shoulders and went off, one to weed his garden, another to work in his shop. The rest, with nothing better to do, beat up on the messengers and then killed them. The king was outraged and sent his soldiers to destroy those thugs and level their city.
8-10 “Then he told his servants, ‘We have a wedding banquet all prepared but no guests. The ones I invited weren’t up to it. Go out into the busiest intersections in town and invite anyone you find to the banquet.’ The servants went out on the streets and rounded up everyone they laid eyes on, good and bad, regardless. And so the banquet was on—every place filled.
11-13 “When the king entered and looked over the scene, he spotted a man who wasn’t properly dressed. He said to him, ‘Friend, how dare you come in here looking like that!’ The man was speechless. Then the king told his servants, ‘Get him out of here—fast. Tie him up and ship him to hell. And make sure he doesn’t get back in.’
14 “That’s what I mean when I say, ‘Many get invited; only a few make it.’”
Great God, whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, and worthy of praise— let us think about these things. May we be strengthened to do what is pleasing and acceptable in your sight by the hearing and exposition of your Word. Amen.
There are seventeen parables in the gospel of Matthew. If I had to choose one that was the hardest to interpret, this week’s Parable of the Wedding Banquet would be a good candidate. And so, whose banquet is it, anyway?
The story is full of violence and I think the illustrations help lift that up. One interpreter calls some of the details “beyond comprehension.” The narrative switches gears in the middle and then the parable ends with a cryptic “saying.” Jesus said that he sometimes told parables to obscure the truth rather than to reveal it. I do believe that we can take Jesus at his word with this particular story. Rome did not execute Jesus for telling feel good stories. So why would we be shocked by a parable that shocks? ”The parables of Christ,” said Daniel Berrigan, “even the innocent, pastoral, tender, innocuous-seeming ones, conceal just below the surface a whiplash, a shock, a charge of dynamite. The stories set conventional expectations, whether concerning God, religion, politics, vocation, status and class, utterly off kilter.” 1 Now, this isn’t just any banquet. It’s not a back yard barbecue; it’s the royal wedding of a monarch’s son. Do we all remember the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana in 1981? By one count, 750 million people watched it live on television. My friends and I hosted a wedding brunch for other friends while we watched! And as if that wasn’t enough, I also watched the wedding of Prince Harry and Kate Middleton. Such splendor and opulence is hard to say “no” to. Such an invitation is entirely too good to pass up!
Our Experience Expanded
Melinda Stevens* totally understands this parable. When Robert Matthews* asked her to marry him after a whirlwind romance of less than six weeks she was enthralled, “over the moon” were her words. He was everything she was looking for in a partner: tall, handsome, owned his own business, he was a Christian and he wanted a family. Her family was thrilled, too, and they adored Robert; at least for the first few months. One morning Melinda showed up for coffee with her mother sporting a black eye. She told her mother that she had tripped over the corner of a rug and hit a table. For some reason, call it a mother’s intuition, Melinda’s mother didn’t believe her but she didn’t say anything. Robert and Melinda had been married for about a year when she got pregnant. She later told a counselor that by then he had changed into a monster. He had hit her before she got pregnant, but he started beating her on a regular basis, often hitting her in the stomach after, she told him she was going to have a baby. She miscarried the pregnancy during the fifth month. Melinda’s idyllic life had become very complicated. She was always trying to stay one step ahead of her husband. She spent hours planning and cooking meals she hoped he would like only to have him fly into a rage because she fixed corn and not beans. She tried to wear clothes that she thought he would like. Sometimes if she wore something Robert thought was “too revealing” (it could have been a loosely knit sweater) he’d rip it off her and with scissors cut it to shreds. Melinda lived in terror. Her magical life had turned into a living hell. She sought the counsel of her pastor who told her that marriage was a sacred honor and she just needed to try harder to make Robert happy. One morning she got up, fixed breakfast and got Robert off to work. As soon as Robert left she grabbed the bag she had been packing for weeks and left. She went to her mother’s house, but she was afraid that he would find her there and harm her family if she stayed with them, so the police got her into a shelter. Robert knew that sooner or later Melinda’s mother would lead him to her, so he closed his business and parked out of sight near Melinda’s mother’s house. Sure enough, he followed her one morning to a mall on the outskirts of town where she met Melinda at a baby store. Robert waited in his car for them to leave the store. Once Melinda and her mother were in the parking lot Robert put his truck into gear and drove straight into them killing instantly Melinda and the baby she was caring and leaving her mother a paraplegic. What had promised to be the wedding and marriage of a lifetime, picture perfect in every way, turned into a jihad of assaults, insults, violence and ultimately death. Melinda’s crime? Only Robert knows for sure. Her punishment? Death. Like our parable from Matthew this morning this wasn’t a cute story that ended well. These are both shocking stories that end badly, not once but twice. Robert was convicted of aggravated assault and given a seven year prison sentence.
Back to our parable for a minute: There once was a king who prepared a royal banquet for his son’s wedding. After the elaborate preparations were made, he sent out the invitations, however, the people on the king’s A-list refused his extravagant generosity. They spurned an invitation to the most prestigious party in town. There is historical precedent for such erratic behavior. On October 30, 1918, King George V and Queen Mary summoned Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence to Buckingham Palace. Lawrence was only thirty years old. He thought the meeting was to map out the new boundaries for the Arabs whom he had helped to liberate from the Ottoman Empire. When he entered the palace ballroom, Lawrence saw the royal dignitaries, the costumed courtiers of medieval tradition, a small stool at the foot of the king’s throne, and a velvet pillow on which there rested numerous medals. This was a rite of investiture and Lawrence was expected to kneel on the stool while the king draped him with a sash, decorated him with medals, tapped him on the shoulder with a sword, and recited an ancient oath. This was all designed to make Lawrence a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. But instead of kneeling, Lawrence refused the honor. In almost 1,000 years of knighthood, nothing like this had ever happened. A stunned King George and a furious Queen Mary watched as “Lawrence of Arabia” turned and walked out of Buckingham Palace. You could have pushed them over with a feather. 2
Re-mything our Traditions
Back to our parable: After a second round of messengers and invitations, a B-list of guests accepts the king’s invitation. If the privileged people refused his generosity, then he would extend it to “all the people his servants could find.” So at long last the party began. But one guest stood out like a sore thumb. He was a party crasher who dressed in some kind of outrageous outfit, at least for the wedding party of the king’s son! In the royal palace! What was he thinking?! How could anyone be so cavalier? According to B.W. Johnson, a biblical scholar from a century ago, “It was the custom among the ancients for the guests to be twice invited; or rather first invited, that they might prepare themselves, and then summoned a short time before the banquet, that they might be there at the proper time (in the right attire).” 3 The actions of the king (whom I remind you Jesus makes an allegory for God) were as senseless as Roberts killing of his wife. We don’t want to be married to men like Robert and I dare say, the king is a far cry from what we expect from a loving, peaceful, gracious God.
So what are we left with? What can we take home this week from this message? We can think that whatever is true is what we want to believe. But one in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. An estimated 1.3 million women in the US are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year. We can think that whatever is honorable is what we want to believe, but witnessing violence in the home is the strongest risk factor for transmitting violent behavior from generation to generation. What is love without honor?
We want to think that there is justice. Almost one third of all female homicide victims reported in the US, like Melinda, are killed by an intimate partner. When we talk about justice it is important that a punishment be suitable to the crime? We want to believe in a certain quality of purity in our lives of faith. Globally, between 35% and 50% of all women have experienced intimate partner violence or non partner sexual violence in their lifetime. This includes women of faith.
Whatever is commendable is alright by us, right? And yet boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults. If there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise in our lives then if we understand that globally there are risk factors for being a victim of violence including a lack of education, witnessing violence between parents, exposure to abuse during childhood and attitudes that accept violence and gender inequality and not have solved this social crisis by now.
Scripture tells us to think about these things. It also tells us to keep doing the things we have learned and received and heard and seen in Jesus and we are promised that the God of peace will be with us. And that is what we take home.
Yes, we will think about these things and Jesus knew this. Jesus preached to a crowd that probably anticipated that the punishment seldom fits the crime. He was talking to people who anticipated that the master would eventually be irrational. This is a story for every woman who ever pledged her love to the heart of a rogue. This is a story for the 18.5 million people every year who seek mental health counseling to cope with their experience of intimate partner violence.
We are to keep doing the things we know are right, the things that are good, the things we have learned and received and heard and seen in Jesus and then we are assured that the God of peace, will be with us. As with the parable of the Wedding Banquet there are things going on in our own culture, under our own roofs, in our schools and at our jobs that are staggering and unbelievable and unacceptable and against every law of human decency ever imagined. And yet, just acknowledging that isn’t enough. We must pray and we must act. When we are invited to a wedding we must hope and pray and watch to ensure that the marriage is violence free. When something we see just does not feel “right”, does not make sense, we are duty bound to act, to report it to authorities who are trained to handle these violent situations. And yes, we must pray that God will teach us anew to be guided by Jesus Christ, to be a witness of hope to all victims and survivors of violence. We pray this in the name of the Prince of Peace. Amen.
In times of difference and division, save us from rancor and meanness, O God. Help us focus ourselves on things that are excellent and worthy. Make us witnesses to your way of justice and righteousness. Transform us and transform the world, we pray. Amen.
1 Daniel Berrigan, Love at the End: Parables, Prayers and Meditations, 1968
2 Note: The story about Lawrence is told in many places. I have followed the account in the excellent book by Scott Anderson, Lawrence in Arabia; War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Middle East (New York: Doubleday, 2013), 577pp.
3 From The People’s New Testament, B.W. Johnson, 1891.
* These names were changed.