Posted by: owizblog | September 20, 2012

Luke’s Pencil and Matthew’s Marker Pen 9 October 2011

Matthew 22:1ff [cf. Luke 14:13ff]

TV

1

Years ago, Hannah and I were walking down Ingram Street in Glasgow when we were accosted by a nice lady and ushered into a hotel. It turned out to be an interesting experience. The lady was from an advertising agency, and they were testing out a new advert they’d just made, for Scottish Blend Tea. Hannah was given a cup of juice, since she’d indicated she wasn’t a tea drinker, and I was given a nice cup of Scottish Blend, and asked to watch the advert.

Then I was asked to fill in a questionnaire with several detailed questions about what I had just seen. Then I was asked to write a brief summary of the storyline of the advert. And then I was shown it again. And I was amazed to see that there were several things I now saw quite differently. One aspect of the advert’s pitch I’d got completely the wrong way round. The lady superintending the test seemed particularly pleased with that, as though it confirmed something she’d already thought about the way the whole thing had been put together. And I was astonished to find that in my recollection I’d completely switched round the order of events in the middle bit of the 45-second long commercial.

I needed another cup of tea after that.

Think of that, and bear in mind, also, that for two generations, Christians told the stories of Jesus before any written Gospel existed, and for a couple of generations after that, these spoken versions of the Gospel stories were still in circulation alongside written ones. And that takes us into the period when Matthew’s Gospel was written. That’s no reason to panic. It just means that the Gospels of the New Testament witness to Jesus Christ in a complex, sophisticated way, and we need to understand it.

perspectives

2

Back to my experience in Ingram Street.

Do you ever find yourself listening to a story – a simple, straightforward, well-known tale – and thinking “That’s not the way I remember it…”? Did you get that feeling as you listened to today’s Gospel reading there, from Matthew? “I remember this differently?” Did you remember, not a despotical ruler proclaiming a wedding feast for his son, but a wealthy man taking a notion of throwing a party for his community? Did you remember, not the calculated yet sucidal disrespect of rebellious subjects, twice spurning the king’s summons through his servants, and then beating and murdering the messengers, but a rather comical series of excuses – sounding a  bit like first-century versions of people’s excuses sometimes for not coming to church:

`I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it; please excuse me…’  `I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I [have to] go to examine them…’  `I have married a wife, and I can’t come.’

Do you remember the rich man’s disappointment, rather than the king’s murderous rage?  “He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city…”

Do you remember a gracious and moving new invitation  – `Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and maimed and blind and lame’ – and when that fails to bring in a full hall, another, even more gracious one, with an ironic twist in its tail: `Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.  For I tell you, none of those… who were invited shall taste my banquet.'” As though them excluding themselves from the banquet were more than punishment enough?

Were you surprised when what you heard a few moments ago didn’t go like that? Instead, acting on orders, “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…” “Both good and bad.” Nothing there about the poor, the disabled, the excluded-from-society. Just “the good and bad.” And just in case we imagine that the king’s graciousness is unconditional: “…when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe…  ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Had you, to use a hideous neologism, “misremembered”? No. It’s simply that you were remembering Luke’s version of this parable while you were listening to Matthew’s version being read.

what do you see

3

Luke’s Jesus depicts a generous impulse, a graciousness flowing out into the world, but then being thwarted, by tiny-minded ingratitude, by an inability of small human beings to receive by giving, or responding at all, other than with excuses. And we smile, sadly. People can be like that. We can sometimes be like that. And the scale of this parable is small enough that we can actually identify with the generous rich man, trying to do something for people, and having it thrown back in his face, because that has happened to us, all of us, in our lives too. “You try to do a nice thing…”

And that’s the scale on which Luke’s Jesus has us think of the things of God.  Grace, kindness, love are frustrated on a scale we can understand. But it doesn’t change its nature. “Blow them! The food’s here, the party’s ready to start, get out there and find me some guests!” Grace, kindness, love, refuse to be thwarted. Indeed, that’s when the scale of grace starts to get a bit surprising. “We’ve rounded up everyone you suggested, and there’s still more room!” And the response is part of the emerging pattern: “Get out there, and make them come! Don’t accept any excuses!” Not the excuses, this time, of the ungrateful, but of those who don’t think they belong. Of course they do. That’s how grace works.

In Luke’s parable, anyway. But not Matthew’s. Matthew’s is like what happens when a small child gets hold of a chisel-tip felt marker, and uses it to “enhance” a picture on the wall. No subtlety, no finesse, loads of contrast, loads of wobbly outline, so much in fact that you lose the figure of the original, and what you get is something very different.

[Break]

4

And that’s what Matthew, we said, has drawn all over it in thick, crude felt pen.

Why did he feel the need to do that? And isn’t that what parents tend to shout at the child who’s just drawn all over their nice picture from IKEA? “What made you do that?!?” “Why, for pity’s sake, did you think Van Gogh’s Sunflowers needed that done to it?” Did Constable’s Haywain really need two more men and an extension to the cottage?”

The Laughing Cavalier by Franz Hals

And the child’s tearful answer will probably be along the lines “Yes…” Yes, at the time it did seem to need it…

So why did Matthew feel the need to doodle all over this nice parable?

What he adds by way of detail is all the same kind of thing. He soups up the central figure from a rich man to a king. He gives him power and authority, and in doing so he turns his ungrateful neighbours into rebellious subjects, and this, in turn, lets the king punish them. He seems to feel that a parable about grace and love needs to be turned into something else, something that really isn’t a parable so much as an allegory. He feels that people need to be frightened into seeing something that’s life-and-death.

A parable is something thrown in front of us, to make us think. That’s what the actual word means something tossed, thrown. It actually comes from the same root as “ballistic,” as in ballistic missile – the Greek word ballein, to throw. “Here you are,” says Jesus, “what do you make of this?” You want to know what the kingdom of heaven is like? It’s like a man who trades in pearls, and one day comes across the finest pearl he has seen or ever will see; he goes and sells everything to possess it. You want to know what God is like? “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost…” The Kingdom isn’t a pearl, and God isn’t a shepherd. It’s subtler and more profound than that.

Think of a rich man throwing a party, says Jesus. Think of a generosity, a graciousness, that just offers, and seeks to give, and if it’s spurned, simply goes on to seek a place where it will be accepted. Where does a scenario like that put you? How does it help you understand God? How does it help you understand your relationship to God? Does it help you see, perhaps, that self-satisfaction, smug contentedness, and a sense that my life lacks nothing separate me from God’s grace and close my living in on itself, while people who are dismissed as having nothing and being nothing, and see themselves like that, find themselves invited to something that others have shut themselves out of – because they feel that they are fine the way they are?

Now one of the things Matthew does is to take that line of thinking further. The parable as it came to Luke explores the dangers of being so content with how things are with us, that we miss out on God’s invitation. It’s as though Matthew wants to shout “But this is God’s invitation!! You need to realize what it is that you are in danger of missing….” And that’s why Matthew takes out his big thick felt pen, and starts doodling on Luke’s parable.

Yet oddly, Matthew and Luke are still talking about the same thing.

At the heart of the Christian tradition is the understanding that our relationship with God is the meaning of our existence. It’s in our relationship to God that everything hangs together. It’s in our relationship with God that everything makes sense, even if we don’t, from where we are, see how or why. We’re related to God in the very fact of our existence, just like stones and rocks and stars and animals – but stones just are, and stars just burn their fuel and shine and then come to the end of their processes, and animals just do what they do. We’re different. We have a relationship to God, because we exist – but we also have a relationship with God, because we can come to know God, and respond to, and love – and reject – God. Like the stones and the stars, we exist, like the animals, we are born, live and die – but we have a history with God, and therefore a relationship with God, individually and as a human family, even when that’s a negative relationship.

But what does “a negative relationship with God” mean?

There certainly is a biblical tradition which depicts our negative relationship with God as “rebellion” and “disobedience”. Doing things, living in ways, we know we shouldn’t. That’s what Matthew’s version of this parable is all about. Disobedience, rebellion, these are things that are punished, put down, crushed.

But there is another biblical way of looking at our broken, negative relationship with God. And that’s what Luke’s parable is exploring. It’s actually no less chilling. Perhaps it’s vastly more chilling. It’s to do with the possibility that the very meaning of our existence, the meaning of all that we are, may come chapping at the door with a simple invitation, full of grace and generosity – and we may be so wrapped up in ourselves that we don’t respond. “No thanks – I’m good!” “Things to do, places to be…” Our lives may be so apparently full and good and complete that they swallow us up. We become unresponsive, to God or to anyone else. This, too, is unmistakeably life and death.

Self love

5

And that’s something  with consequences in the real world. What kind of a society is one made up of people who are happy with their own lives, and don’t see anything much beyond them? What kind of a society is one that’s made up or people who think that that’s what life’s all about? What kind of a world?

A world, maybe, in which people starve, and food is wasted, and nobody wants this to happen, but it does. A society in which young people work as never before to fit themselves for the world of work, but there isn’t any work for them. A society which worships personal ease and comfort to the extent that people stop noticing that people around them aren’t comfortable or easy. A society of people whose lives stop at their front door. A society of people who worship the easy, comfortable gods of the way things are, and I’m all right thanks, rather than the difficult, demanding God of truth – who is also the God of love and grace. A world whose economy is organized around letting people have what they want – if they have the money or the credit – and when the oney stops circulating and the credit dries up, has no answer to any of the questions about what it all might mean now…

Luke’s parable, you see, is not a whit less frightening than Matthew’s. In fact, it’s more so. Matthew takes out his felt pen and hammers at the one point. It’s about God, stupid… And he’s right, up to a point. But Luke actually takes us further, because Luke gets us to a place where we can see that it’s the brokenness of our relationship with God that affects the whole of our existence. It has real-life effects. It’s a parable of people who choose easy, meaningless, self-centred living that leads nowhere, over a journey, out over the threshold and into the big wide world, that leads to the fullness of God’s love, and the meaning of their own being. Accepting love and grace is always a challenge, you see. It always means some sort of a move beyond yourself, and it always means accepting that you aren’t complete in yourself. Your completion is beyond yourself. And for the biblical tradition, your completion is in others, and in God.

completion

6

Martin Luther has a wonderful expression which sums up this understanding of what sin really is, really means; homo involutus in se. Man – a human being, a person – wrapped up in himself. His life closed in, curved back in on itself so that it opens out on nothing, no-one. The more you think about it, that’s sheer hell. A universe in which nobody else really exists for you. A universe in which, beyond the things that make your life comfortable, the way you want it, there is no meaning, no anything.

There’s no doubt that there are trite, feelgood versions of the Christian faith in circulation. Some of them are reactions against a furious, hell-fire version of the same faith which wants everything underlined in the blackest permanent marker, and the whole message kept brutally simple. But the central thrust of the New Testament is that we are supposed to grow in the faith, and a sign of that growing-up is that we don’t need the grotesque and the brutally oversimplified to understand that what we are talking about here is overwhelmingly important, and terrifyingly significant.

Because in the end, it is all about God. About God’s love and grace, unconditionally held out to us in Jesus Christ. And that human beings, in their tiny-minded comfort, might just say “No thanks – I’ve other stuff to do…” And that really is scary.

But that’s us, not God. God is grace, and unconditional love. All we have to do is to accept what he gives. God says yes to us. What’s terrifying is that we might say no to God.

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