Text: Matthew 22:1-14
Have you ever been inappropriately dressed? Looking around I can tell that this would have come easier for some of you than for others. Let me tell you about an occasion when I was slightly overdressed.
Back in my student days I was invited to a Caribbean themed party – fancy dress – an ideal opportunity, I thought, to try out my Carmen Miranda look! Younger worshippers will want to google that later though after the following description you may neither need nor want to.
Picture a younger slimmer, clean shaven version of myself wearing – flip flops, a wraparound skirt in tropical colours, a bright pink boob tube with matching 38 D boobs, a chunky bead necklace, bright red lipstick, rouge, blue eye shadow, mascara and all topped off with floral headscarf with a basket of plastic fruit sown on. Stunning!
Now picture me standing at the top of Byres Road in Glasgow, opposite the Botanic Gardens, trying to hail a taxi. Imagine my disappointment when arriving at said Caribbean themed party to find the other guests in sunglasses, shorts and t-shirts. After all my efforts!
Our first reading this morning featured, at the very end of the parable, another inappropriately dressed man for whom that has dire consequences. This is one of those biblical passages which make us squirm in our seats, shocked by the violence and dismayed by the God that is portrayed. No wonder such ‘texts of terror’ turn many people off religion and perplex believers.
Jesus told a parable about a king giving a wedding banquet for his son. This royal figure sends his slaves to invite the who’s who of the day to the great celebration. Surprisingly, they all decline. Too busy, too preoccupied, too focused on their own wealth, those invited disregard his request. Shockingly, some don’t even send an apology – they kill the messengers, the king’s slaves.
The people who first heard this parable would have had no trouble in identifying the kind of king Jesus was talking about. They would all have been raised with tales of the arrogance and cruelty of Herod. They knew what a tyrant looked like.
‘The Kingdom of God is like this…’ says Jesus. However, please note that nowhere in the parable itself is the figure of the king said to represent God though that is the traditional, way of understanding such passages. What if it is not the figure of the king that Jesus holds before us as the ‘Kingdom’ example, what if it is the figure of the unrobed man? So let us assume this morning that it is not about God and try to discover what the parable might be actually be about.
The treatment of the slaves in this parable shocks us. In performance of their duties to their master they are murdered – killed by those who would have been guests at a royal wedding.
The biblical narrative is clear that the slaves die at the hands of the rich and powerful.
To avenge the loss of his property, the slaves, the king sends his troops to destroy the murderers and burn their city. We may conclude, therefore, that this is a parable about the use and abuse of power. This is a parable about privilege and poverty, about entitlement and impotence. This is a parable which was probably written in defiance of Roman imperialism and its abuse of power, and within a Jewish community trying to make sense of persecution and internal conflict.
The king in the parable uses those under his authority to advance his personal cause and they lose their lives as a result of their subservience and submission. The slaves are fodder in a feud between the wealthy and the powerful. The king is dishonoured and shamed by the refusal of his invitation and the loss of his property. The king needed, therefore, some means to recover from this public humiliation. Firstly, he uses his power to shame and kill and dishonour those who offended him and secondly to extend the invitation more widely to demonstrate and re-establish his status and his honour.
The people came in off the streets, they had never been in the palace before, never had an invite to the garden party before, they all think the king is a great guy, which is the purpose of this PR exercise. And the people can’t wait to see the royal wedding photos in Hello magazine. Except there is one poor guy out of place, out his depth, and out of favour. We are told he is inappropriately dressed, not wearing a wedding robe, and this brings dishonour to the king. The king then does what those with power usually do – he uses that power ordering the unrobed man to be bound and cast into outer darkness.
So what works for you? Do you believe this passage is about God and gives us a better understanding of God? Or do you believe that this passage is about the abuse of power and gives us, as Christians, a better understanding of the way power and privilege work even today in our world? The people who first heard this parable would have been pretty clear about who they most identified with in the parable – the poor sucker in the wrong clothes.
The current issue of the New Statesman magazine is guest edited by Grayson Perry, the artist and well known cross-dresser, there is a bit of a theme developing here. Perry comments on those who have power in Britain today, the professionals and politicians who all look the same. You know the look – the Great White Male with the smart suit, the smile, the haircut, the sound bite. They urge us to ‘Look’ or ’Listen’, as if it is because we do not see or hear that we do not appreciate how wise and wonderful they are. Grayson Perry labels them as examples of Default Man. Default Man comprises 93% of executive directors in UK companies, 77% of MPs in the UK Parliament and nearly 70% of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament. Perry comments:
Somehow, (Default Man’s) world-view, his take on society, now so overlaps with the dominant narrative that it is like a Death Star hiding behind the moon. We cannot unpick his thoughts and feelings from the “proper, right-thinking” attitudes of our society. It is like in the past, when people who spoke in cut-glass, RP, BBC tones would insist they did not have an accent, only northerners and poor people had one of those. We live and breathe in a Default Male world: no wonder he succeeds, for much of our society operates on his terms.
Default Man believes that whatever he has achieved has been done on merit, his own ability, his own hard work and if he can do it so can everyone else. Default Man has a great sense of entitlement and his own superiority and very little awareness of recognition of the tribal advantages of his identity as a Great White Male.
Writing in the Guardian newspaper in the run up to the Scottish Independence Referendum, Suzanne Moore commented,
‘I do not know what it is to be Scottish and utterly disconnected from Westminster politics. I only know what it is to be English and feel like that.’ (The Guardian, 25/8/14)
Moore is not alone in expressing dismay about this disconnection. Many of us despair at ‘Broken Britain’s’ increasing levels of child poverty, widening gap between the rich and the poor, the undermining of the Welfare State and the centralising of wealth and power in London which acts as ‘the dark star of the economy, inexorably sucking in resources, people and energy’. (Prof T Travers, London School of Economics)
Millionaire celebrities, nearly all of them Great White Males, who ‘love-bombed’ Scotland with appeals to ‘stay with us’ did not stop to ask why the referendum was being held, or for whom exactly is Britain ‘great’. They know it works for them and therefore assume that it must work for the rest of us.
How then might we challenge Default Man?
Challenge his entitlement? Prick his self-importance? Undermine his superiority?
How might we envision a different kind of politics, a different economic system, a society shaped by compassion, justice, equality, community.
‘When the king came in to see the wedding guests, he saw a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes’
I wonder in what way the man was inappropriately dressed – was he in rags perhaps, the clothes of the poor? After all he probably did not expect he would be going to a royal wedding. Or was he more subversive – had he gone over the top – dressed like a king or a queen? Was this his Carmen Miranda moment?
Whatever it was the inappropriately dressed man seems to push all the king’s buttons, all his insecurities, all his obsessions. Could it be that he is a bad example to the other guests who not that long ago were outsiders, uninvited, overlooked? Perhaps our friend was a reminder of why that had been the case – wearing the rags of poverty, the stain of the unclean, the stigma of the unwanted, the cloth of mourning.
Is this such an absurd thought? Think of occasions when Jesus inappropriately dressed.
Think of that triumphal parade into Jerusalem which we celebrate on Palm Sunday. Jesus, King of the Jews, the ruler riding on a donkey, the road strewn with clothes and palm leaves, the air filled with the sound of with screaming kids and cries of Hosanna. Jesus, dressed for dissent, playing his part in a bit of agit prop, street theatre, mocking the Roman army entering the city as it did every Passover to strengthen the garrison.
Think of Jesus, in turn, being mocked by the Romans, dressed for dissent, wearing a scarlet robe and a crown of thorns, King of the Jews.
God in Jesus, through this parable, invites us, who are inappropriately dressed, ‘Come as you are! Do not conform to the demands of this world, to the power-plays and prohibitions of class or gender, sexuality or race, physical abilities or ethnicity.
God calls us to be creative, to imagine a world where all are invited and all have a place at the table. Come as you are. The Carmen Miranda look is optional. Amen.
Iona Abbey 12 October 2014
Sermon preached by Revd Peter Macdonald, Leader of the Iona Community