“And He Was Speechless”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
On first reading, I don’t much like Matthew’s rendering of the parable of the wedding banquet. I much prefer Luke’s kinder, gentler version. So, before reading the story, let’s back up and get a feel for the context.
In Matthew 21 Jesus drives moneychangers and merchants out of the temple. We often call it the cleansing of the temple, and that’s a loaded phrase. Holding the Jewish leaders responsible for desecrating the temple, and Israel herself, opens the door to pride among Jesus’ disciples, and to the specter of anti-Semitism. While Jesus is clearly furious, he’s motivated by neither pride nor hate. So, in Jesus’ fury, I hear his heart breaking. He’s not saying, All you bad people get out! He’s saying, This is not who we are! We’re better than this, and YOU know it!
The people are struggling, but they’re not fundamentally evil. They’ve traded God for an institution which has developed a life of its own. Like a tree that takes up soil but doesn’t produce fruit, it just consumes resources. Existing for its own sake, the institution no longer carries out the purpose of blessing that dates back to the call of Abraham.
The morning after Jesus clears the temple, he curses a fig tree that has no fruit. It seems harsh, perhaps, but a figless fig tree is good for little more than kindling and compost. Similarly, a spiritless spiritual community is nothing but a consumer of resources. Having abandoned its spiritual center and its prophetic voice, that community is no different than some civic club that collects dues and engages in a little conspicuous altruism. A spiritless spiritual community has given up on mystery, holiness, and its for-the-sake-of-others blessedness.
After cursing the fig tree, Jesus returns to the temple. Still offended, the leaders confront Jesus and question his authority. He ends up telling them that tax collectors and prostitutes have higher and holier standing than they do. He follows with a parable in which a landowner sends his servants first and then his son to collect a harvest. After the workers kill the servants and the son, the landowner executes all the workers.
“Therefore,” says Jesus to the chief priests and elders of Israel, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” (Mt. 21:43)
The leaders want to arrest Jesus, but they fear the crowds who love him. Enslaved to their institutional power and privilege, they are speechless. Into that angst-ridden silence, Jesus tells his next parable:
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come.
4“Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.
7“The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe,12and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14For many are called, but few are chosen.” (NRSV)
This parable and the stories preceding it unsettle me. The Pharisee within me cringes because the stories expose my own pettiness and self-righteousness. The 21st century Christian in me rankles at the image of a violent and vengeful God. The only side of me that likes these stories is my smug, intolerant, first-world “religionist” who uses a powerful, state-sponsored, institutional religion to justify fear and judgement of people I don’t understand and don’t want to understand.
I deal with that guy almost daily. He always hears Jesus agreeing with him. He assumes that God is as small, vindictive, and merciless as I can be. Like those who have been invited to the wedding banquet, he makes light of the invitation. He’s more interested in looking busy in an office than he is in following Jesus in the world. Like a hyena smelling blood, he enters the feeding frenzy of acrimony and insult where neighbors attack each other with guns, clubs, cars, and words—fearful, aggressive, polarizing words.
In the presence of that spiritless religionist in me, I often lose my voice. I become a speechless wedding-crasher. Even when I see the brokenness around me, I tell myself that I’m just trying, in trying times, to hold together a congregation of diverse theological and political opinions. That’s not a bad goal—unless all I’m really trying to do is hold onto my job and my benefits. So, I try to justify speechlessness as pastoral sensitivity. But whom does a speechless disciple really serve? Whom do I really love, worship, and trust?
The only time Jesus is speechless in the face of opposition is when Pilate asks him if he’s the King of the Jews. Jesus says nothing because he’s already spoken with his living. Jesus’ life is his Creation-transforming speech.
When the king in the parable confronts the man who has no robe, the man is “speechless.” He says nothing of gratitude to the king or of congratulations for the bride and groom. He says nothing about the selfishness of those who ignored the invitation. He says nothing about the injustices of all that murder and revenge, no words of solidarity with the other guests. Couldn’t it be that words of redeeming grace, words that both honestly and lovingly call out institutional unfaithfulness and silence, couldn’t it be that those words weave our wedding robes?
I’m not advocating works righteousness. We do not have to earn our invitation to the banquet. The parable is about responding to the call to live as “chosen” ones, bearers of visible and audible fruits of prophetic faith. It’s about living as embodied speech.
Thomas Merton took a vow of silence, but his spirited life was all about speaking, all about doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. Out of his silence he rendered such fruitful speech, both lived and written, that his words continue to challenge and nurture people of faith today.
Whatever our situation, speechlessness is not an option for disciples. Our words and actions are our figs, the fruit of our faithfulness. Speaking truth and justice to institutional power may get us into trouble, because power doesn’t want to be challenged. Power always claims that prophetic challenges are political. And power doesn’t want to hear “politics” in the church or from it. Fearful and self-serving power forgets how actively and consistently political Jesus is. Patient, humble, honest, challenging speech is both our robe of righteousness to wear and our cross to bear. It’s that “good trouble” the late John Lewis talked about. Faithful disciples cry out to humankind, “We are better than this, let’s live our better selves!”
If all we want is a personal Savior to forgive our individual sins, we’ll be satisfied with speechlessness, even in the face of injustice. And we’ll do far more to protect our comfortable religious institutions than to love a holy God. If Jesus is truly our Lord, though, if he is Lord of our lives and of our living, then we are more than an institution. We are the CHURCH—the living body of the living Christ.
While the dual challenges of Covid and social unrest are wearing us down, they’re also blessing us with an opportunity to remember that our true calling is out there among a humanity who has forgotten that we are part of a good and beloved Creation. As followers of Jesus, our call is to go “into the main streets,” the highways and byways, and invite everyone to God’s banquet where we find our true voice—a voice of gratitude, generosity, and justice-seeking love.
When we find, claim, and exercise our voices, when we bear the fruits of faithfulness, we become both guests and stewards at God’s banquet.
Today is World Communion Sunday. The banquet is set with Christ’s redeeming, voice-giving meal.
Come to the table.
Find your voice.
Then go, and invite others to the feast.