A sermon delivered by Larry Greenfield, Pastor, Morgan Park Baptist Church on October 9, 2011.
Matthew 22: 1-14
Our nation lost a great treasure this past week. He was someone unusually gifted in intellect and imagination and integrity, in courage and curiosity and creativity. He actually changed the way we – not just in this nation but around the earth as well – went about the business of living in the contemporary world.
Do you think I’m talking about Steve Jobs?
I suppose what I’ve described about this now-departed and exceptionally important American could be attributed to the founder of Apple computers and the instigator of the iPhone, and iPod, and iPad.
But I have someone else in mind.
The American treasure I’m pointing to is Derrick Bell, who died on Wednesday, not on the West Coast but on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City.
From the media coverage of the two deaths – the amount of it and the accumulated adulation – you’d get the impression that Steve Jobs was a one-of-a-kind kind of guy who, because of his drive and determination, his manner and style, his productivity and accomplishments changed the course of history. And it’s true that in his fifty-six years of life he was almost magical in what he developed and how it was incorporated into lives across the globe. But he was an exceptional innovator in a line of exceptional innovators – Thomas Edison and Henry Ford have been mentioned as his technological predecessors, each advancing technologies in ways that changed the way people went about their everyday business.
Derrick Bell, the legal scholar and socio-cultural analyst, was different than Steve Jobs, although he too had his predecessors, because the challenge and change he brought occurred at a deeper and more fundamental level. Of course, it had its effects on everyday life, but that was because he probed and exposed and proposed things at society’s soul rather than its surface, at culture’s core instead of its passing and progressing customs.
In that, he made almost everybody uncomfortable – left and right, conservative and liberal, and folks of every stance and stripe in between.
His work had centrally and repeatedly to do with the reality of race – or more accurately, to quote the subtitle of one of his most important books – the persistence of racism in American society and the wider human community. That persistence, he suggested, didn’t just show up in a few strands of American society and the human community – the persistence was pervasive in every part of society and all parts of our individual lives and our life in community.
Derrick Bell diagnosed the metastasizing of this collective cancer and sought to treat it in new ways – largely through scholarship in his own field of law, by means of his major and pioneering contributions to what has become known as “critical race theory” and also in other fields of study and the wider culture.
But it wasn’t just what he said and thought that was groundbreaking, it was also in the way he thought about it, and said it, and made others think about it, and take action on the basis of it.
Scholarly arguments and legal theories have always been presented in highly logical, carefully reasoned, tightly argued forms. Derrick Bell was perfectly capable of presenting his case on critical race theory in that traditional manner. But he knew that it would never have the power it needed to have if that were going to be the way it was presented. So in his academic and law review articles, he changed all that.
He told stories, used allegories, and presented parables about issues of race in journals and articles and books, of all places, in order to break down traditional ways of thinking and approaching the issues. And then he would use those stories, allegories, and parables and set up debates about how to interpret them.
(Sound at all familiar?)
Sometimes these stories might come from ordinary, everyday life that every reader would identify with. But at other times they were, literally, extra-ordinary – out of this world. One of the famous ones was called “The Space Traders,” in which extraterrestrial beings land on earth – in the United States, in fact – and make a proposal: these ETs will offer enough gold to pay off the national debt, clean the air and water of all pollution, and provide an unending supply of clean and safe energy, in exchange for only one thing: all African-Americans would have to be sent into outer space. The white population of the country – who are in the majority – votes overwhelming in favor of the proposal.
That’s the story to be discussed and debated. In fact, this parable was one part of a three-segment television movie in the mid-1990s.
Outrageous as a story, right? And yet its outrageousness frames the issue of race in American society in such an unsettling way that you can’t quite set it aside or dismiss it.
By the way, Derrick Bell didn’t just think, and talk, and write about this issue in this penetrating way, he lived it – giving up important posts in the government and a tenured position at Harvard Law School to stand for his principles and beliefs.
* * * * *
Jesus, in his own time, developed a reputation like that: not just sticking to his principles and beliefs – and paying dearly for it – but also for not using highly technical and reasoned arguments to make his point, instead drawing on stories and parables, some of them homely and simple (likening, for example, the Kingdom of God that he was proclaiming to a tiny mustard seed that grows so large that all the birds of the air can find rest in its branches) and some of them much more disturbing and complex – and outrageous.
Take the parable that serves as our text for the morning from the 22nd chapter of Matthew.
Jesus is in Jerusalem, in the last week of his earthly life. He has a sense of what’s ahead for him, but he keeps telling stories and parables to ordinary people who gather around him and to those in power who are increasingly threatened by his teachings about the coming reign of God.
In the parable that precedes our lesson for today he tells a tale about workers who first murder a landlord’s servants when they come to collect the owner’s portion of the harvest and then murder the landlord’s own son. And then Jesus asks what the landlord will do to those tenants when he comes. Matthew writes that “when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they realized that he was speaking about them, and they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded Jesus as a prophet.”
Jesus doesn’t miss a step. He doesn’t let up. Jesus keeps right on telling the unsettling and disturbing parable that we’re confronted with this morning.
It’s an outrageous parable. An extraordinary one. An unbelievable one – outrageous and incredible! – that is, completely lacking in credibility.
What people, in their right mind, would turn down an invitation to a wedding banquet from the powerful ruler of their territory? Who would snub their king when the invitation is hand-delivered to the invited guests? How likely would it be that people would pass up a meal literally “fit for a king?”
But, Jesus says, those special and supposedly worthy invited guests “made light of the invitation and went away, one to farm, another business, while the rest seized those the king had sent, mistreated them and killed them?”
Does such a story really have any connection to reality?
But that isn’t the end of the parable. Jesus continues: “The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” (v. 7)
And then, I guess just out of anger or spite, the king tells what servants he still has at his command to: Go into the main streets, go out into the intersections, go out into the alleys and invite everyone – and I mean everyone, good and bad alike! — to the exquisite wedding banquet that I’ve prepared for my son and his new wife.
Sure enough, only a few verses later Mathew reports that the leaders of Jerusalem have heard and had enough of Jesus and his outrageous parables, and then developed a plot to entrap him. And, of course as we know, the plot was to get rid of Jesus, this incendiary and dangerous teller of incredible stories.
Matthew, by the way, probably doesn’t wear well in Illinois these days with the way he reports this parable of Jesus, embellishing it with violence and murder on the part of the king. We’ve abolished the death penalty here in Illinois, and across the nation there’s a distaste for state-sponsored violence.
And there’s a likelihood that Matthew and his writing team probably have ramped up the story that Jesus told with all of the violence and death for their own purposes in their own time – about sixty-seventy years after Jesus’ life and death. In fact, the Gospel-writer Luke and his editorial board report the same story in a much tamer, less violent way (see Luke 14: 16-24). Matthew shows the he and his colleagues are preoccupied with the refusal of the Jews of his time to accept Jesus as the Messiah, by refusing to accept the king’s invitation to the son’s wedding banquet.
But even without Matthew’s violence and executions, the parable is outrageous in exactly the way in which it takes us out of our ordinary world, places us imaginatively in an extra-ordinary world, in order possibly, just possibly, to place us back in our ordinary world in a new way.
What’s clear is that both Matthew and Luke are drawing on the same parable, which undoubtedly started out being told and retold orally and only later put down in writing in its simplest form. What can we assume the essential story line was?
It is a story, right at the beginning, that has to do with the celebration of something absolutely central to human existence itself: of two different people, from two different families, coming together to form a union – a union that promises to be generative, either through reproduction and/or through the greater good that results when two people who love each other bind that love in committed marriage. What can’t be lost in the story is this fundamental truth: that good comes not from people being separated but in their being brought together.
Yet very soon the parable, in its simplest form, tells us that the host of the party doesn’t invite everyone to the celebration of the marriage. Almost from the beginning, privilege settles in, so that a few are chosen to celebrate the wedding but many are excluded.
And then we learn that the very people who have been privileged, as signaled by their invitation by the host to the celebration of the union, start taking it for granted. They use their special status to become self-centered and convinced of their own importance and justified in the pursuit of their self-interest – not just at the expense of all those who were excluded from the wedding celebration, but separated from the very host that had made them special. The sin of self-centeredness and self-interest shows itself very early in the story of humankind.
What follows is really quite amazing: the host of the wedding celebration sees the error of his ways, undergoes a conversion, and reverses course. The king’s sin, as it were, was his being exclusive in his invitation, of thinking some people were worthy to be invited and others not, of restricting the guest list rather than making it open to all of his subjects.
And the kingly host makes good, then, on his new and converted understanding: he sends his servants out and invites everyone – notice it’s not just the good people any longer, but the good and the bad alike, wherever they can be found – to the wedding banquet. (In Luke’s version of the story, by the way, there are examples of all of whom the host has in mind: “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.”) In both versions, everybody gets a place at the table – except those who thought they were too important to accept the invitation.
There is a difference between Matthew and Luke in the final scene of this drama: in Matthew, at the end, the banquet room was full the brim with guests, while in Luke it is reported that after the streets and intersections had been scoured for guests to invite yet there still was room in the banquet hall, so the host commands his servants to go out to the country roads and paths and to compel everyone to join in the party, the celebration.
One additional reminder: if the central theme of this parable is about inclusion and exclusion, then it helps to keep in mind that the Gospels give evidence that Jesus himself moved from a position exclusion (that his ministry on God’s behalf was only for the Jews) to one of inclusion (as reflected in many of his parables, including this one.)
* * * * *
Is this parable from Jesus about invitations to the wedding banquet still as outrageous as we earlier thought after we’ve boiled it down to its essential storyline? Or does it become even more outrageous than we first thought. Is it more outrageous than the one Derrick Bell told about the extra terrestrials coming to the United States with the offer to make everything right if African Americans were to be excluded from our national experience?
I want to contend that it is – that this story about a wedding invitation is even more outrageous – and more relevant – than ever.
It isn’t only that we have to deal with a God and a Jesus who undergoes a conversion experience – from being exclusivist in their mission to becoming radically inclusive.
It isn’t only that we have to deal with a story that identifies sin in terms of self concern and self interest, when we live in a society that reeks with privilege for the few while the many continue to suffer – and that we, ourselves, are deeply embedded in economic systems that, at their bedrock, thrive on the principle of self-concern and self-interest.
It isn’t only that we’re confronted here with a story that, in the end, tells us that the way of salvation is to be found not in pervasive exclusion but in radical inclusion, when as a society we are finding ever new ways of excluding individuals and groups because of their religious and cultural identities, their history and traditions, their economic and employment conditions – whether those being excluded are Mormons or Muslim, whether they be the sick or the unemployed, whether they be seen as our personal or national enemies.
No, what makes the parable so outrageous is that it forces every one of us to ask were we are on the invitation list.
Whether we know it or not, we have now to ask ourselves if we were on the king’s original invitation list to the wedding banquet and have passed up the opportunity to celebrate the wedding because we thought we had other, more important things to do – that we, who thought we were privileged in the eyes of the heavenly host are actually on the outside now.
Or, on the other hand, do we recognize how fortunate we are that we, ourselves, are at the table of the heavenly host not through anything we’ve done or not done, whether we’re good or bad, but simply because the host had a conversion experience and wanted us there?
If that were the case, then wouldn’t it follow that we’d not just be grateful, but that we, too, would be open to a conversion experience, and turn our backs on any and all the ways in which we have been and are exclusive in our own lives?
And is the parable even more outrageous if we see ourselves as the ones who the host and the host’s son has assigned the task of bringing others to the banquet table where all are fed – and we find ourselves quite satisfied not extending the invitation that we’ve benefited from and that the host and the host’s son want us to extend to others?
Isn’t the parable thoroughly outrageous in that the heavenly host and the son of the heavenly host are telling us not to stay here in the banquet hall and wait for still more undeserving guests to arrive, but to rise from our seats at the banquet table and find our way to 111th and Western to extend the invitation to everyone – everyone – we find there?
Or maybe an even more radical version of this outrageous parable is that the heavenly host and the son of the heavenly host are moving the banquet table out of where these wedding celebrations normally take place and are setting up tables out there where the new invitees are.
* * * * *
Yes, we’ve lost a couple of national treasures this past week, but the question is whether we recognize that we are the bearers of a still greater treasure – and one that isn’t for the privileged and the few, but for all and everyone.
You and I are, outrageously, asked to be a vital part of the wedding celebration. Will we keep it to ourselves, or will we, in being disciples of Jesus, follow his great commission to extend the invitation to the whole world?
Let’s pray to God that we make the right decision.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.