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Monday, October 13, 2014

Groucho's club at the Messiah's banquet

“I would never wanna belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.”

(Groucho Marx, as quoted by Woody Allen in Annie Hall

I mentioned the other day that I didn’t have a very cogent thought to express about yesterday's gospel, and maybe I still don’t. But in the meantime, I went back to my favorite book about the parables (my favorite populist book, anyway, since it’s more my speed and you don’t have to know Greek to read a chapter.) I am sure I’ve mentioned it before; it’s called Re-Imagine the World by Bernard Brandon Scott. I had read the chapter in his Hear Then the Parable about the banquet parable, but was left with the feeling that the parable is a mystery to scholarship, too, since it appears in Luke in a different form and with a different point from Matthew, and also in the Gospel of Thomas, and that the original parable from Jesus is probably lost or a matter of conjecture. And there’s some of that sense in Scott’s smaller book above, but I did get something else out of it. That is this, and it actually includes a thought about the first reading yesterday from Isaiah 25. One of the ways Jewish people thought about the kingdom, or the empire of God, was as a banquet, the banquet of the Messiah. You recall the words of Isaiah 25, where all will come to the Lord’s mountain, people from every nation, and dine there on fine meat and wine. There are other references in Isaiah 55 and Ezekiel 39 as I mentioned yesterday, and there are more. So, one of the images being floated about the reign of God was a rich man’s banquet, a king’s banquet, where there is lots of delicious and expensive food for everyone to eat. It’s a poor person’s view of bounty: the rich have it, the powerful have it, I don’t have it, therefore I want it and it must be good and what God wants for everyone.

Scott says, Well, yes, but... He suggests that the parable parodies the idea of the messianic banquet. Here you have a bossy king who invites his rich friends over for dinner, and they give him every excuse they can think of, thus dishonoring him and the dinner. Being someone accustomed to kingly things, he slaughters them all with his army. But he still has a son having a wedding, and now there’s nobody left to invite. So he tells his soldiers to go out into the crossroads and bring in anyone they find, nothing will keep anyone out, the “good and bad alike” were invited in. Good king, good company. Only now, he comes across someone not playing by his new rules, and what does he do? Binds him up and throws him outside. Bad news, bad king. Scared company. So what do we make of this? Scott suggests that Jesus didn’t want people to think of a “king’s banquet” as an image of the messianic kingdom. In fact, Jesus was partial to food metaphors: his public life was lived eating and drinking freely with all kinds of people. He was, one might say, already getting people to eat at the banquet of the messiah, only they didn’t recognize it for what it was. And why? Because they were there, sitting at it! The messianic banquet had to be more like what a king would throw, but Jesus  understood that the empire of God is not like empires of this world, so neither were the banquets! People, like Groucho Marx in the quote at the beginning of this reflection, can’t imagine that sharing a little bit of bread, a starvation meal, with one’s comrades and companions and strangers might be the messianic banquet. We can’t imagine being a part of that exclusive club, or, more likely, we can’t imagine those others being a part of the club, and if they’re in it, we’d just as soon not be!

Well, his idea made more sense to me than anything else I read about the parable, but one has to be willing to jettison some of Matthew’s imagery, and really believe that at the heart of this gospel is a parable and not an allegory in which the king is God. I can do that. First of all, the “tag line” at the end of the story, “many are called, few are chosen,” doesn’t fit the story, in which “all are called, and all but one are chosen.” Luke’s telling of the story leaves out a lot of the gory details in Matthew: nobody kills anybody else in Luke’s version. Matthew places the parable in the last week of Jesus’s life; he is in open ideological conflict with the Jewish leadership (and taunting Roman "peacekeepers"?) after his ceremonial arrival into Jerusalem and his eviction of the money-changers from the outer court of the Temple. This parable is one in a string of parables aimed rhetorically at his enemies, and challenging their worthiness and authority to care for the “vineyard” of Israel. This parable is no exception, but as I listened I heard a warning for us riffraff too: don’t start coveting what the rich have. And don’t imagine that God is a king, like the kings of this world, with a great palace and food for everyone to eat until they’re gorged and require a vomitorium. God is abba, he gives us our daily bread, so that there’s enough for everyone, and expects us to do the same. Stop thinking about God like you think about Caesar, or Warren Buffett, or an Arab prince. God is agape: it’s not about having it all, but giving it all away. We’ve got to turn our minds around.

This thought was reinforced in my head as I prayed the Our Father: “thy kingdom come,” we pray. “Thy will be done on earth as in heaven.” Why the subjunctives? Isn’t God, well, God? Can’t God do
whatever s/he wants, and bring the kingdom now? Well, you know, who knows? But what is clear is that God is not doing that in a predictable way, so we’re stuck with trying to figure out why. And maybe it’s because God is not that kind of king, and this is not that kind of kingdom. God’s empire is an empire of invitation, not coercion; of peace through justice, not peace through might. This tied in with another random thought I had this week about the Satan myth, about how the archangel Michael did battle with the archangel Lucifer, who was all Light, and wanted to be like God (in fact, “Michael” means “who is like God.”) And the legend is that Lucifer/Satan’s last words, falling like lightning from the sky, were “Non serviam.” (Apparently they speak Latin in heaven.) This means, “I will not serve,” so he’s choosing to reign in hell, or on earth, rather than to serve God in heaven. But, I randomly thought, what if we just reinterpret this myth and think, maybe God let them all in on a little secret, that the whole “God” business wasn’t about exercise of power and light and glory, but about serving? What if God told the angels that the key to creation and divine life was service, agape, complete self-gift? And maybe Satan’s thought was, “Hell no. I’ll do anything but serve.” And he didn’t mean serve God, he meant serve anyone.

Well, that’s just a story. Maybe my daughter can think about all that myth-making business. It was the play on “serviam” that caught me, but since there weren’t any witnesses, it’s all just a story anyway.

So, fellow members of The Groucho Club, you have met the messianic banquet, and it is you. And we’re all sitting at table with the last people on earth we expected to see here. Roll up your sleeves and put on the wedding garment, or at least, put on a happy face. And pass the bread.