Conflict

12 October 2014
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 23A (RCL)
Exodus 32:1-14
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

I don’t like Matthew’s telling of this story. Luke has the same story of a man who gave a wedding banquet, which means the original was likely in the Q source. Luke’s telling of the story makes much more sense. It was expected that the host would send a servant around on the day of the feast to let the guests know that the feast was ready. It also wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary for a guest to have had something come up, and need to be excused. What makes the story (in Luke’s telling) surprising is that all the guests have to be excused. The host is angry and tells the servant to go invite anyone who will come. In this telling, it would be easy for the hearers to see the great stroke of luck for those thus invited.

Matthew makes it into a story of revenge and separation. Luke places the story in a stream of other stories about behavior at banquets, while Matthew places it immediately after the story of the vineyard and its tenants, which is clearly designed as an indictment of the religious officials of the Temple, and as an explanation for the destruction of Jerusalem. Matthew even includes the wisdom myth of the prophets as servants of God being sent to Jerusalem and mistreated. He continues that theme in this story by having the guests originally invited mistreat the servants sent to bring them to the feast. And then, he breaks the story at the most improbable place — the oxen and fatted calves are killed and ready, cooling on the table — to have the king send his troops to destroy the city of those wicked guests. Only then does he invite in a new set of guests.

This continues Matthew’s supercessionist agenda, of having the Christian community replace Israel in God’s plan of salvation. If the feast is the great eschatological marriage feast, then the Christians will be admitted after Jerusalem has been destroyed. To be fair to Matthew, this was an intra-Jewish dispute: Matthew understood his community as Jewish. After the destruction of the Temple, the identity of Judaism was under contest, and Matthew was one claimant of that identity.

But the ending of the story makes it clear that the dispute is changing into a dispute between self-identified Christians and Jews. Matthew adds the troubling little bit about the man without the wedding garment being thrown into the outer darkness. It seem likely that the wedding garment implies baptism. Only the batpized (christians) will be admitted to the feast. In this dispute over identity, Matthew has drawn the boundaries extremely sharply. This story may have served Matthew’s purposes, but it’s an ugly way to handle conflict. It leaves the community thus defined with a bifurcated cosmos — everything inside is good and light, everything outside is evil and dark.

The story of the golden calf recounts a similar moment in the history of Israel/Judah. After Jeroboam had taken the northern Kingdom of Israel out of its alliance with the southern Kingdom of Judah, for fear that his people would go back to Jerusalem to sacrifice, he opened two sanctuaries, one at Bethel and one at Dan, and placed a golden calf at each. He then issued a royal proclamation, “Behold your Gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (II Kings 12:28). This is exactly the vocabulary used in the Exodus story. The sin of Jeroboam has been retrojected into the Exodus narrative. Again, we have a particularly ugly dispute over identity played out in the theological realm — whose side is God on?

Paul shows a different way to handle conflict in community. Euodia and Syntyche, both dear to Paul and the community, are in conflict. Paul urges them to be of one mind in Christ, and urges the community to help them reconcile their difference. On his way to his own martyrdom, he encourages the community to keep their minds on what is beautiful and lovely and true, and see God in that. In this way, we will be able to see the divine in one another. Rather than contesting where God remains, and whose side God is on, if we focus on the good in the world, we will learn to see ourselves as formed into one body.

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