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God is like… THAT?!: Sunday, Occtober 15, 2023

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost:
Exodus 32:1-14
Matthew 22:1-14

Several years ago I showed the old black and white science fiction movie The Day the Earth Stood Still to a church group. I said something like “this is a story about a mysterious other-worldly stranger named ‘Mr. Carpenter’ who comes to earth and warns people that if they don’t change their ways, they’re going to get themselves in serious trouble. A few people listen, but most resist. They kill him, but to everyone’s surprise, he comes back to life. I can’t help but think of a 1st century carpenter who went through the same sort of thing. In other words, I was telling the group that the movie is an allegory for the Jesus story, where certain characters represent people from the Gospel, and certain plot twists represent events in the Jesus story.

But then someone raised an objection. There’s the problem of the giant robot that’s set loose, and wreaks havoc after Carpenter is attacked. Try as you might, you won’t find any robots in the Gospel, nor that sort of behaviour done in Jesus’s name while his body rests in the tomb. That violence in the movie actually undermines the message of peace we find in the Gospels. But one has to admit: it makes for a really good science fiction movie. And it adds some balance and action to a story that had previously just been a lot of people in rooms talking to each other.
So I guess I still conclude that The Day the Earth Stood Still is an allegory. It seems too deliberately constructed to reflect the Jesus story to be otherwise. But allegories are a bit messy, even imperfect. They colour outside the lines here and there, in the interest of artistic licence. Though by being a bit fast and loose with the facts, the artists might be tapping into some emotional or spiritual reality that is truthful in some sense. I wouldn’t use that movie as a substitute for a text book. But I can say that somehow by engaging with the film, I find my mind and heart somehow opened up in a powerful way to the Jesus story.

So how we feel or treat allegories might impact how we read and react to this parable we’ve been confronted with today. A few hundred years after Jesus spoke his parables, and into the Middle Ages, the Church invested very heavily into describing them as allegories. Where everyone and everything in them had a particular and very precise corresponding reality. And at times that can be helpful: for generations of wisdom and consensus to speak authoritatively on something. But we might look at some of these interpretations, and realize that they’ve gotten away from the ideas and meanings that would have made the most sense to Jesus and to his original hearers. There’s a risk in forgetting that our interpretation is in some way shaped by our own time and situation. It’s good, creative work to do — to let the Gospel be reborn in every new culture and generation — but we should be careful around absolutizing our particular interpretation and freeze it in time. Think of how George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an allegory about Stalin’s Russia. That’s what Orwell knew and meant. But, in just about every generation since, there have been people who have been able to use it as an allegory for political tendencies in their own time. They’re both, in some sense, reading the story right.

Where we do need to be careful is in asking if our own interpretations and allegories domesticate the parables. Do our instincts move us from the edges of our seats to a more comfortable, secure, certain position?
Modern day Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine has said that:

…[I]f we hear a parable and think “I really like that” or, worse, fail to take any challenge, we are not listening well enough…. [Jesus’s followers] knew that parables and the tellers of parables were there to prompt them to see the world in a different way, to challenge, and at times to indict. We might be better off thinking less about what they “mean” and more about what they “do”: remind, provoke, refine, confront, disturb…*

So if the today’s parable disturbed you, then you’re doing it right (according to Dr. Levine). We’re challenged, confronted, and provoked, but at least we have the reassurance of being together in this. In the context of a Church that says ‘no, we’re not going to erase all the scary bits… we’re not even going to erase the bits where the four gospels present different details, or timelines, or speeches. But we’ll hold these difficult bits alongside the overarching experience of God that we know in the person of Jesus. Who, we often forget, sometimes spoke and acted in rather harsh ways. And who, to paraphrase an allegory, The Chronicles of Narnia, though he’s not safe, he’s good.’ So don’t be too discouraged by the negative bits. Because the work of dealing with them can be what leads to, as Levine said, the reminding, provoking, refining, confronting, and disturbing, that might well be good for us.

A generation or two after The Day the Earth Stood Still came a great story-teller, Steven Spielberg. A movie that disturbed me — and I think I ruined a whole theatre’s experience, because of my crying — was E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (who crashes to earth, befriends children, and gets hunted down by government agents). For its twentieth anniversary re-release Spielberg touched up a climactic scene in which Elliot and E.T. on bicycle are trying to escape a whole line of police cars blocking the road. The director digitally deleted drawn pistols from the hands of the officers, and instead, replaced them with walkie talkies. He later commented, “E.T. was a film that I was sensitive to the fact [in the post-9-11 early 2000s] that the federal agents were approaching kids with firearms exposed and I thought I would change the guns into walkie-talkies…”** The result was a worse movie. Instead of feeling emotionally invested in Elliot and E.T.’s escape, audiences were lulled into a sense of security: ‘As long as the kid can pedal faster than a middle aged person can run, everything will be fine.’

Then ten years after that, for its Blu-ray release, Spielberg famously put the guns back in. Not because he forgot that it was a family movie that he’d made. Not because he revelled in violence for its own sake. But because good stories need conflict. The conflict might make our hearts race. It might make us throw the remote at the TV. But the conflict serves the story — or IS the story — that has the capacity to transform us and our world. As discomfiting as it is, it was important to show that E.T. and the children were truly at risk. Because that is a true reflection of life lived under the powers of this world.

If you’ve got some time today, you can open up the Gospel of St. Luke, to about its middle, and find that book’s version of the same parable we heard today. You’ll find similar characters and plot points, and some of the same underlying lessons. But the stakes aren’t as high. The main character is not so scary. He gets angry, but there’s no violence. Luke is often a Gospel about the underdog; about the poor being fed; about social justice. So when people refuse the dinner invitation, the angry host opens up the gates to welcome in the outcasts, the sick, the under-served. And there’s beauty to that. And truth to that.

But Matthew is more interested in how God’s saving ways are at work in the world, and bringing our world to a sort of cosmic fulfilment. Where good and bad alike are offered a chance to respond to God’s call. And right now we live in the tension of a world (and a church) that is full of good, and full of bad at the same time. But one day, in Matthew and in his tradition’s view, we’ll come to a point of sifting and purifying. And there’s good news in that. The Bible’s full of metaphors and allegories: the wheat and the weeds, the sheep and the goats. And as we seek to find some meaning and some (dare I say) grace in this disturbing story, we might find how in the depiction of the king, we might be learning something about God’s investment in people — in wanting them to be present at the banquet. And about God’s complete and utter passion for us.

And while the violence of this parable might sit especially disturbingly following this past week’s violence, perhaps there is some reassurance in a message about God who, at times, gives a definitive ‘NO’ to humanity and our often fallen ways. How we, in our brokenness, turn against one another; turn against God’s wholeness and justice.

It might be helpful to mention how, just as Spielberg was re-releasing E.T. in the days after 9-11, the person or church behind the Gospel of Matthew was compiling and editing this story in the time following the sacking and destruction of Jerusalem, and its Temple. And this had an impact. It just couldn’t help but be injected into the story. One writer has commented on how the parable borders on absurdity while the feast sits in “suspended animation” — without, remember, the benefit of modern refrigeration.*** Think about it: the food is prepared, the banquet hall is ready. And he hits ‘pause’ to enact a whole military campaign (in the days before telephones, the internet, and motorized transport).

The story could be saying something about how we are each, and we are as a society, confronted with serious, existential choices. Choices about our wellbeing, and the wellbeing of others, and our world. For the king to just shrug and say ‘it’s all good’ is to do disservice to God’s holiness, and the fulsome justice that God wants for us. To settle for anything less is to risk setting up an idol — a more comfortable god of our own creation that is just a reflection of our own anxieties and brokenness — and worshipping that idol in God’s place.

So this parable may still disturb us. But we do the hard work of opening ourselves up to its power, that God would work in and through it, and us. That New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, suggests that we might “take them seriously not as answers, but as invitations.”**** Invitations to work out our faith, yes, with some fear and trembling. To grow in wisdom, responsibility, and compassion in a world struggling under the weight of its own destructive tendencies. And to consider our response to God’s invitation to be intimately involved in our lives: “Look, I have prepared my dinner… and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.”

©2023 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Short Stories by Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 3-4.


*** John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew Volume V (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 261.

**** Levine, 275.