How an Anti-King Parable Was Co-opted as a Kingdom of God Parable (#OccupyWallSt)

How an Anti-King Parable Was Co-opted as a Kingdom of God Parable (#OccupyWallSt) October 31, 2011

A ‘Happy Halloween’ Homily:
A Spooky-Scary, Empire-Critical Reading of the Parable of the Wedding Feast

The Parable of the Wedding Feast from Matthew’s Jesus is an appropriate story for the eve of Halloween:

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 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.” But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. Then 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” (Matthew 22:1-13)

It’s ‘spooky-scary.’ We hear a troubling tale in this Gospel lesson that we would expect more from a master of a macabre such as Stephen King than from the Jesus. Where is the compassion? Where is the mercy? Where is the grace?

To enter into the details, I invite you imagine this parable in your mind as a three-act film.  There are experimental, nonlinear methods of storytelling, but many popular stories fall into a variation on the ‘Three Act Play’ structure of “Set-up,” “Confrontation,” and “Resolution.” And I invite you to imagine this parable as just such a three act play.

Act I is the “Set-up” in which we meet the main characters and learn about the basic situation at hand. So in Act 1, Scene 1, imagine “a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” The stage is set. The castle’s banqueting tables are resplendent with the best silver, the finest china, and goblets of the best wine:


Brightly lit candelabras and torches cast a warm glow, and a blazing fire in the hearth further sets the mood. Festive streamers hang above. Family members are wearing their best robes, and the servants all stand at attention. The scent of oxen and fatted calves roasting over spit wafts into the room. Everything is ready.

But shockingly no one who was invited to the scion’s wedding has responded to the king’s invitation. For fans of Harry Potter, imagine the Great Hall at Hogwarts set up for the inaugural banquet, but none of the students, who have been honored with coveted invitations, show up:

And without the invited guests, the planned festivities seem hallow. All those preparations and expenses could be for naught.

Enter Act I, Scene 2, and cue the slow-building, ominous soundtrack of a B-grade horror film: “Again the king sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited….’ But those who had received invitations made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized the king’s slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.” Woah. Slow down. This parable just shifted from maudlin to homicidal. The turn from the callous rejection of the king’s invitation to the torture and murder of the king’s slaves raises the question of how this king rules his kingdom. Notice that the king has, not servants, but slaves. Reading between the lines, the king seems to be less the benevolent philosopher king of Plato’s Republic and more a Gaddafi-style, sadistic tyrant, who before his death was charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity for the “indiscriminate killings of civilians,” that is, his own people. But the torturing and murdering of the king’s slaves is not the end of the story, only the end of Act I.

Act II is segment of the tripartite structure known as the “Confrontation.” Continue to imagine the story in your mind. The king and his family are waiting expectantly and impatiently in that empty, but resplendent, banquet hall, likely discussing the rudeness and ingratitude of their subjects, when the news arrives of the slaves’ gruesome deaths. Matthew’s Jesus tells us that, “The king was enraged.” Can you picture his blood boiling, his eyes narrowing, and his voice angrily summoning his troops to “destroythose murderers, and burn their city”?

This harsh vengeance is the ethic of an “eye for an eye,” which contradicts Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer…. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…. Grow up into the sort of whole and complete love with which God loves.” Having already read these verse from Matthew’s fifth chapter, how are we, fifteen chapters later, to understand the parable of vindictive king that begins by telling us that, “the kingdom of God may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” The kingdom of Gaddafi, sure. The kingdom of Saddam Hussein, okay. But the kingdom of God?

Holding this tension in mind, let us proceed to Act III, the “Resolution” in which the problems established in the first two acts (the “Set-up” and the “Confrontation”) build to a climax and the outcome is revealed. So, the king, having slaughtered the villagers who dared resist his tyranny, “said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.’” Thus, the king blames and dehumanizes the victims.

Hoping to redeem the wedding, while the food is still salvageable and the candles are not all burned down, he orders his slaves, “Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.” But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe.” Remember that the slaves invited both “good and bad.” Nevertheless, the king said to the man in question, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” The man without the proper attire was understandably speechless under the king’s wrathful gaze. “Then 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.’” This cold-hearted resolution is truly dire.

Interpretation 1: Allegorical Interpretation: “‘Vengeance is Mine,’ Saith the Lord”

Despite all the vengeance, one way to redeem this story as an authentic ‘kingdom of God’ parable is to say that it is an allegory in which God is the king. We can reconcile the bloodshed with Jesus’ teachings on nonviolent activism using a dictum such as, “God can rightly choose violent, but not humans.” To echo those rousing words from the King James Version of Paul’s epistle to the Romans:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Thus, according to Paul, we are to overcome evil with good, but, in God’s hands, the evil of violence is transmuted into ‘divine justice.’

There are many problematic aspects to this traditional perspective, but theologian John Mabry invites us to consider one particularly salient angle. He says:

I remember once…counseling a woman who had been extremely wounded by her fundamentalist experience…. Through her tears, she told me how scared she was of being cast into Hell for daring to question her church’s theology. “Haven’t you always been taught that God is your heavenly Father?” I asked her. She nodded and blew her nose. “Well, let’s say you have a daughter. What if she did something really bad, let’s say she killed somebody.” She nodded…. “Would it be right for her to be punished for her crime?” She nodded that it was.” And what would be an appropriate punished be?” She thought about it for a while, “I don’t know, maybe twenty years in prison?”

“Shouldn’t she be tortured for those twenty years?”

“No! Prison is enough.”

“But the church says that just punishment for any sin is to be tortured in unthinkable agony, not for twenty years, but for all of eternity. As a mother, would you allow your child to endure that if you had the power to stop it?”

“Of course not!”

“How does it feel to be morally superior to God?” I asked. (149)

Mabry is inviting us to consider that we are perhaps merely projecting our desire for violence onto our image of God in those places in the Bible and elsewhere in which we allow God to be violent in our place.

Instead, I would invite you to consider that part of what it can mean to say that you are a Christian is to affirm that the life of Jesus shows us what God is like. If that claim is the case, then God is full of compassion, mercy, and “grace upon grace” (John 1:16). God does want justice, but as Jesus preaches in the Sermon on the Mount, justice can be pursued through nonviolent activism. This perspective is demonstrated in our own time by figures such as Dorothy Day, Gandhi, Oscar Romero, and Martin Luther King, Jr., who challenge us to revise our understand of God based on the life and teachings of Jesus.

Interpretation 2: Form Criticism: “All Things to All People”

We could redeem this parable in a different way using another famous Pauline text. In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul confesses (or perhaps boasts) that,

To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the Torah I became as one under the Torah (though I myself am not under the Torah) so that I might win those under the Torah. To those outside the Torah I became as one outside the Torah (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the Torah. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. (1 Cor 9:20-22)

To see the relevancy of this passage the story at hand, we can be aided by a way of reading the Bible called Form Criticism.

In the late-nineteenth century, a German biblical scholar named Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932) entered a world of biblical scholarship in which the primary interpretative approach was Source Criticism, which seeks to determine what written sources the biblical authors and editors had on their desk when compiling the various books that were eventually collected into the anthology we call the Bible.


Following the common human urge to surpass one’s predecessors, Gunkel challenged biblical scholars to push farther behind the text, past written sources to the oral tradition that preceded any written sources.

The name ‘Form Criticism’ alludes to the forms (or genres) in which these units of oral history would have circulated: parables, aphorisms, controversy stories, healing narratives, exorcism tales, natural wonders, calling scenarios, and commissioning scenes among others. Various versions of these forms would have been in circulation until they were eventually written down.

As scholars studied oral history of all types, perhaps the most crucial discovery was that there is no ‘original’ version to find. Instead, Jesus would have most typically told the various parables many different times, in many different locations, all in slightly (or significantly) different ways based on the audience at hand. As a contemporary example, think of political stump speeches in which politicians weave together and interchange various elements of an ever-evolving speech, depending on the audience.

But further complicating the first-century situation, Jesus’ followers also would have grouped together his teachings and the events of his life in different ways based on the needs of the gathering or text at hand. So we can being to see that the differences in the four canonical Gospels are based on the aspects of the oral tradition the gospel writers inherited and the needs of their communities at the time.

Similarly, I’m pulling from various parts of Paul’s writings to help interpret this parable based on our needs this morning. And this sermon (and all Christian theology for that matter) is arguably just as much a part of the interplay between the oral and written tradition as those earliest Christian gatherings and earliest Gospel writers.

However, as these aspects of oral history were written down, they lost their fluidity. Scholars who study interpretation are often attentive to the interplay between ‘medium and message.’ Thus, as the medium changed from oral tradition to written tradition, the message was altered in subtle and profound ways as well. A parable in the oral tradition could be adjusted based on the audience at hand, but once piece of the oral tradition was recorded into a final form, that form was often seen to apply to all audiences in all places and at all times.

Perhaps Jesus did tell some version of the Parable of the Wedding Feast to those who claimed to be his followers. Just as Paul says that he re-calibrated his message to persuade a Jewish audience when among Jews, to target Gentile when facing a Gentile audience, and to focus on the weak when among the weak, Jesus may have told our parable for today to those who already claimed to be his followers to encourage discipleship. Thus, perhaps his parables of compassion, mercy, and grace were to lure people into the kingdom of God. And his harsher sayings were for those who were already his disciples. Regarding our parable today, Jesus would be the ‘king,” who invites everyone — the “good and bad” — to the wedding. But when someone fails to act in correct accordance with the way of Jesus, then ‘King Jesus,’ says, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (that is, sent to Hell for all eternity).

From this perspective, we could say, in the old adage, that Jesus has come to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” There is some truth here. Bonhoeffer similarly warned against “cheap grace” in his book Discipleship. But just a few chapters back in Matthew 18:22, Jesus told Peter to forgive, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times,” virtually an infinite number of times. But the king in this parable is as unforgiving as Clint Eastwood in the film Unforgiven, which is not forgiving at all; his m.o., in military-speak, is “execute with extreme prejudice.”

The vagaries of the oral tradition can be seen readily by looking at the Gospel of Luke’s version of this parable in chapter 14:16-24. In Luke’s version there is a “great dinner” instead of a “wedding” (showing in the first line how details change in the oral tradition as stories are told differently to different audiences). And the host is merely “someone” instead of a “king.” Similar to Matthew’s version, however, the invited guests make lame excuses. Likewise, the owner of the house is angry when the slaves bring the news. But instead of mass slaughter ensuing, we merely read that, “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” are invited in place of the intended guests.

Also contributing to the vagaries of the oral tradition is the way that, in the decades after the life of the historical Jesus, there was a steady increase in anti-Judaism as well as an accompanying desire to make the Romans (who had crucified Jesus) seem less barbaric.

Thus, the ones who initially declined the invitation in the parable are increasingly read not to be the rich, privileged, religious and political elites (who ignored the plights of peasants such as Jesus and his earliest followers) but instead as ‘the Jews,’ whom Christians often portrayed as a monolithic entity that ignored Jesus as the Messiah. Instead, remember that Jesus and Caiaphas were both Jews, which helps show the immense diversity of Judaism (or any other religion) at all times and places. And we will soon seen, five chapters from now, in Matthew 27:24-25 that our Gospel writer constructed one of the most historically absurd attempts to make Jews look bad and Romans look good in these lines:

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”

In contrast, as we could explore in depth, historical records show Pilate as a cold-blooded dictator who would not have had any remorse about killing a peasant insurrectionist such as Jesus.

And Matthew’s depiction of future generations being guilty of the ‘sins of the father’ (“His blood be on us and on our children!”) has been a major contributor Christian Anti-Judaism for the past two millennia.

Interpretation 3: Empire Criticism: From Anti-King to “Kingdom of God”

As this sermon is running long, let me briefly offer a third and final interpretative strategy for how we can understand this parable as twenty-first century Christians. First keep in mind all that we’ve learned about Form Criticism: how figures such as the historical Jesus told multiple versions of their teaching, depending on the setting and how different communities inherited, perpetuated, and recorded different aspects of this variegated oral tradition based on their interests and needs. Then, I want to add one more interpretive angle to the mix: Empire Criticism, which challenges us to read the Christian Scriptures with particular attention to the context of the Roman Empire in which they were written and edited.

I recently heard a sermon from Debbie Blue, who is a pastor at a church in Minnesota, which suggested that this parable was originally an ‘Anti-King’ Parable, not a “Kingdom of God” parable. And I found myself thinking, “She is exactly right.” Following Form Criticism, I would invite you to consider that this parable originally did not include the introduction, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to….” Instead, remember way back in Matthew 2:16 that, “When [King] Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” Our parable for this morning is much more like King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, than the “kingdom of God.” And perhaps Matthew’s confusion regarding this matter has to do with the both the rise in tension between Christians and Jews in the more than five decades between the historical Jesus and the compiling of Matthew’s Gospel and the constant pressure Christians felt to accommodate themselves to the powerful Roman Empire.

I invite you to consider how you understand this parable, as well as what it may mean that the historical Jesus may have told the Parable of the Wedding feast as an anti-king story. Remember that Jesus would have grown up hearing anti-king scriptural themes such as the Exodus story of escape from Pharaoh’s rule or the prophetic warnings against kingship in places such as 1 Samuel 8:

4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5 and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” 6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, 7 and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8 Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 9 Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” 10 So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” 19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20 so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” 21 When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. 22 The Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to their voice and set a king over them.”

In the first-century context of oppressive Roman rule over the Jewish homeland, such scriptural precedents could have inspired the historical Jesus to tell stories such as “The Parable of the Wedding Feast,” not about the kingdom of God, but as a cautionary tale about kings.

For Further Reading

It is illegitimate for anyone to blame the Bible for their hate, apathy, or vengefulness. I would invite you to consider further that whatever does not lead to love, compassion, forgiveness, justice, mercy, and grace — what Paul called “the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23) — has strayed from the way of God as revealed in the life of Jesus.”

Available at

What does Jesus’ Palm Sunday ‘Triumphal Entry’ into the capital city of Jerusalem on the back of a donkey have to do with the public satire of Jon Stewart’s Rally for Sanity in our capital city of Washington? Answer: Jesus riding in on an ass both subverts the pomp and circumstance of Roman ‘kings’ riding in on war horses and points toward a better way: the kingdom of God.

Available at



1 “Matthew’s Jesus” — a common formulation used as a reminder that there is often a difference between the ‘historical Jesus’ and the way Jesus is presented in Matthew’s Gospel (or any other narrative), which, in Matthew’s case, was compiled more than fifty years after the life of the historical Jesus.

2 Three Act Play” — I owe the idea of entering into this parable through the lens of this structure to a sermon by Debbie Blue, “Murder and Mayhem” (Sept 4, 2011) at However, my approach differs from her sermon in that she riffs on the parable as similar to the motif of the number three that is often found in folk tales. The similarities she explores are excellent and well worth the time to listen to her sermon.

3 “Grow up into the sort of whole and complete love with which God loves.” — I am following the translation of Lee Camp, Who Is My Enemy?: Questions American Christians Must Face about Islam–and Themselves, vi. Relatedly, see my review of Camp’s book at

4 morally superior to God” — John Mabry, The Monster God: Coming to Terms with the Dark Side of Divinity.

5 “our image of God” — see Dennis Linn, et al, Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God.

6 justice can be pursued through nonviolent activism” — see my sermon on “Jesus, Overturning Tables, and #OccupyChurch” at

7 “figure in our own day” — for a living example similar to MLK, Day, Romero, and Gandhi, see Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical.

8 Source Criticism — see Steven McKenzie and Stephen Haynes, To Each Its Own Meaning, Revised and Expanded: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Application, 60. The most New Testament example of Source Criticism is the “Q Gospel.” The International Q Project is a cooperative effort by a group of scholars to reconstruct some of the earliest strata of the sayings attributed to the historical Jesus. The initial Q is the first letter in the German word Quelle, which means “Source.” Q is the shorthand abbreviation for the approximately 200 verses that Matthew and Luke share almost verbatim that are not in Mark. The vast majority of New Testament scholars believe that the Gospel According to Mark was written first. And that when Matthew and Luke were composing their respective Gospels, they had on their desks a copy of Mark and a copy of Q, which was, for the most part a list of Jesus’ sayings. From a different angle, Matthew and Luke did not know each other’s work (and John came later), but they did both know Mark and Q. Q is a hypothetical document that has been reconstructed to explain how it happened that there are more than 200 verses which Matthew and Luke share almost verbatim that are not in Mark.

9 “oral tradition” and “there is no ‘original’ version to find.” — see “Part II: Memory and Orality” in John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity : Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus.

10 “needs of their communities at the time” — see Paula Gooder, Searching for Meaning: An Introduction to Interpreting the New Testament, 23.

11 m.o. — modus operandi (“mode of operation”).

12 A similar (but also different) version of the parable can be found in Gospel of Thomas 64, lending credence to the multiple version scenario of Jesus telling this (and other) parables many different ways to many different audiences, similar to a political stump speech:

Jesus said, “A man had received visitors. And when he had prepared the dinner, he sent his servant to invite guests. He went to the first one and said to him, ‘My master invites you.’ He said, ‘I have claims against some merchants. They are coming to me this evening. I must go and give them my orders. I ask to be excused from the dinner.’ He went to another and said, ‘My master has invited you.’ He said to him, ‘I have just bought a house and am required for the day. I shall not have any spare time.’ He went to another and said to him, ‘My master invites you.’ He said to him, ‘My friend is going to get married, and I am to prepare the banquet. I shall not be able to come. I ask to be excused from the dinner.’ He went to another and said to him, ‘My master invites you.’ He said to him, ‘I have just bought a farm, and I am on my way to collect the rent. I shall not be able to come. I ask to be excused.’ The servant returned and said to his master, ‘Those whom you invited to the dinner have asked to be excused.’ The master said to his servant, ‘Go outside to the streets and bring back those whom you happen to meet, so that they may dine.’ Businessmen and merchants will not enter the Places of My Father.”

To compare Gospel parallels visit

The final line, “Businessmen and merchants will not enter the Places of My Father” seems particularly stinging in these days of Occupy protests. For more, see some of my recent sermons with “Occupy” in the title, all available in the archive at In particular, see “Jesus’ Parable of the Job Creator, the Day Laborers, and #OccupyWallSt.”

13 increase in anti-Judaism as well as an accompanying desire to make the Romans (who had crucified Jesus) seem less barbaric” — see John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus? : Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus.

14 Insurrection — on Jesus as an insurrectionist, see Peter Rollins, Insurrection: To Believe Is Human To Doubt, Divine.

15 “Christian Anti-Judaism” — see James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews — A History.

16 For an example of Empire-Critical or Imperial-Critical biblical scholarship, see Warren Carter, Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations. More broadly, see the anthology Empire in the New Testament.

17 Debbie Blue, “Murder and Mayhem: Giving up the whole God-is-a-bastard thing.” Available at You can listen to her sermon “Murder and Mayhem” (Sept 4, 2011) at

18 “anti-king scriptural themes” — see Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals.

19 “cautionary tale about kings” — see John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now.

I welcome continued conversation and insights in the comments sections.

The Rev. Carl Gregg is the pastor of Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook( and Twitter (@carlgregg).

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