God Is Not A Murderous King and Other Lessons In Parables

Do the parables of Jesus have anything to say to the tumultuous, terrifying times we live in?

In dire times, many turn to their faith for hope. Unfortunately, sometimes this hope is in an otherworldly salvation, offering little help or comfort for the world here and now.

Yet the parables of Jesus are anything but otherworldly. There is hope for our time in these short, strange, subversive stories. Parables contain much more than theological wisdom; they call us to self-examination, guide us into better relationship, and reorient us toward justice. Their messages are practical, inspirational, and challenging.

Transitioning from an exclusive, violent understanding of parables to one that subverts violence creates a world of hope.

Still, the words and teachings that now bring me hope – for restoration of the whole world and everyone in it – once bewildered or frightened me. Interpreted through a lens of exclusion and judgment, many parables of Jesus seem to reinforce, not disrupt, understandings of a harsh, condemning God. While some extol the virtues of compassionate strangers or welcoming fathers, others speak of murderous landlords and kings, merciless masters who cast servants into outer darkness, and bridegrooms who slam the doors on their guests.

As a frightened child, the parables of Jesus that seemed designed to bring wisdom brought only anxiety. And in a world wrought by violence, exclusive interpretations of parables can harden hearts and deepen divisions.

But read in the light of the revelation that God is Love – active, vulnerable, embodied Love – the parables that seem frightening on the surface actually tell a story of God breaking through the human barriers of violence. Read with the understanding that God cares as much for our material conditions as for our souls – both individually and corporately – parables call us to social and economic justice and remind us of the gifts God gives us that we may live abundantly now. Read with the knowledge that we cannot be in right relationship with God until we are in right relationship neighbor and enemy alike, the parables become mirrors in which we examine our own actions and judgments and consider whether we are really loving others as Jesus calls us to love.

Transitioning from an exclusive, violent understanding of parables to one that subverts violence creates a world of hope.

But every new hope is a challenge. Even with an affirmation of an all-loving, nonviolent God, the parables still call us to do the hard work of examining and transforming our violence, apathy, and skewed priorities. Even the parables that once reassured me now confront me with new issues. The Prodigal Son, for example, still gives me the image of God as a loving father ready to welcome his children into his arms unconditionally. But now I wonder: what of the older brother who feels left out at the end? As a parent of two, might I become so preoccupied worrying for one child that I can’t see all the needs of the other?

Parables call us to responsibility, and even as they give hope, they may leave us with concern. We can trust in God, but can we trust ourselves? Can we follow?

I want to analyze one parable that once frightened me, but now comforts me with a vision of a God who suffers beyond the ends of the earth to extend mercy: the parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22: 1-14). Yet even as my new understanding of this story brings me hope, I am sobered by the recognition that hope goes unfulfilled unless we act upon it.

The Hope: God Is Not A Murderous King

To make sense of confusing parables, I tried for so long to reconcile the understanding that God is Love with the notion that the merciless figures in Jesus’s tales were metaphors for God. Most priests and theologians seemed to interpret them as God; after all, they were the ones with authority. I’d try extraordinary feats of theological contortion to make sense of the juxtaposition of Love and ruthlessness. But I ended up merely justifying horrors and then being horrified by my justifications. Worse, I became aware of how people who claimed to follow Love could justify violence against “enemies” or “sinners”… because I found myself falling into the same traps, even as I saw myself as the very person who would be rejected. That’s a terrifying place to be.

What a revelation to recognize that the kings, landlords, bridegrooms of Jesus’s parables don’t always refer to God! Sometimes, Jesus is drawing a contrast between the powers of this world and God’s heavenly kingdom. The parable of the Wedding Banquet is such a story.

It goes like this: A king threw a wedding banquet for his son. No one came, and when the king sent his servants to entreat the invitees to come, the invitees killed the servants. The king then sent his army to kill the invitees and burn down their city. He then sent his servants out to find many new guests, and good and bad alike came to the wedding. But one guest was not wearing a wedding robe, and after interrogating him, the king had him bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness where there was “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

What a terrible story. What are we to make of those first guests who kill the servant, the tyrannical king who burns the city, the terrified guests who come to the party, and the dress-code violator who’s cast into outer darkness?

What if a world order built on violence… worships violence?

The Olive

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What if the first set of guests represents the human rivalry spiraling out of control toward self-destruction? The first invitees may be those with similar power and wealth to the king, killing the servants to acquire it all and becoming victims of cycles of greed and violence they set in motion. The king, the “ultimate power,” is the one with overwhelming violence who kills most thoroughly and efficiently.

What if the second set of guests are those who recognize the king’s power and want to share in it themselves? What if, in coming together to protect themselves from the king’s violence, they build an identity around themselves as loyalists who agree to hate the same people the king hates, in exchange for an identity of belonging and all the benefits that come from being on the king’s good side? They come to see the king as magnanimous and magnificent, and themselves as good and just by extension…

What if this is a metaphor for how religion is built by and around violence while at the same time disguising or justifying that violence by projecting guilt onto scapegoats?

Many readings of this parable suggest that the first guests are Jews who reject prophets and are then rejected themselves, while the second set is Gentiles who receive God’s message. This antisemitic, violent interpretation fits in to a hermeneutic (interpretive lens) of violence and antisemitism that has caused destruction and devastation for generations. This parable is not contrasting one group with another, but pointing to human patterns of rivalry, violence, and forming community over and against enemies. The Scriptures, beginning with the Hebrew Bible, are in the process of exposing humanity’s violence and leading us out of it. And this story itself is an exposition of how easy it is to fall into worship of the false god of violence.

But it’s not over yet.

Someone resists conformity to the system of violence. He refuses to put on the wedding robe, the garment that would make him indistinguishable from everyone else, designed to obscure status and prevent jealousies, traditionally provided by the host. There is wisdom in the tradition of a wedding robe as something that unites the people and prevents rivalries, yet it makes the perfect metaphor for the bond and conformity of belonging over and against an enemy.

Someone refuses to dress up for a party brought together by violence. He doesn’t hate the guests; rather, he goes to be among them. But he refuses to conform to the violence they live by. So he is bound and tossed into outer darkness.

From our vantage point this side of the cross, we can look back on the cast-out guest as Jesus himself, crucified by the powers that be. The one who went willingly into solidarity with those with weeping eyes and gnashing teeth – the demoniac possessed by violence, the lepers thought to be cursed – that was God-in-flesh, kicked out of his own world by those who claimed to worship him. But before the cross, some in Jesus’s audience may have heard echoes of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, who was thought to be stricken by God, but instead bore the blows of his community in order to redeem them by breaking the cycle of violence with forgiveness.

This parable brings us face-to-face with our worship of violence and scapegoating.

Once we recognize God not as a ruler who wields violence with impunity, but as the One who suffers our violence to free us from its thrall, we see how this world can be transformed into the Kingdom of God. We can reorient ourselves, repent, turn ourselves around, and follow Jesus into this Kingdom.

The Challenge: Following Christ to “Outer Darkness” to Bring Light

But that means following Jesus beyond our comfort zones, into solidarity with the vulnerable and the outcast, step by disciplined, non-violent step.

This pandemic has shone a light on the most vulnerable among us like nothing before, even as it illuminates on our dependency on the most vulnerable.

Systemic racism and inequality have exacerbated the rate and deadliness of the disease. Essential care workers are denied essential care like adequate wages and childcare. The virus runs mercilessly through the inhumane conditions of prisons and immigrant detention centers. And the investment in weapons over welfare has left the nation with the largest military unable to protect itself against its deadliest threats: Covid-19 and systemic injustice.

I can’t help but think of the United States as a nation that has long found its security and identity in the worship of violence. And violence, by definition, derives its power for some over and against others. The analogy does not perfectly fit our situation, but ours is a nation that has, throughout history, brought some people together against others – a nation built on enmity against and exploitation of indigenous peoples and slaves, a nation that wages war worldwide and glorifies its military.

A nation built on outcasts will eventually cast everyone out.

So when we hear this parable now, during this pandemic, we know we are called to the difficult, sometimes dangerous, work of following Jesus out into the “outer darkness” where violence and neglect have cast so many. Or, some of us are already there, and Jesus is coming to meet and lead us through it.

We follow Jesus when we reorient our resources and priorities from endless war to healthcare, education, and economic security for all, along with compassion, forgiveness, justice, and boundless love. We cease our justifications for leaving anyone on the margins and listen to the needs of the vulnerable. We dedicate our unique talents to the priorities of God’s kingdom, advocating for change, being in solidarity with the vulnerable, using our skills to meet the needs of one another.

And we learn and remember the difference between speaking and embodying truth in the face of hostile powers and returning evil for evil.

The hope of the parable of the Wedding Banquet is a new metric of ultimate authority as Love, not violence, around which we may rebuild our broken world. The challenge, as for every parable, is not to settle for hope, but to get to work.