Nov. 4 — Relief

A person once gave a banquet and invited guests. When the time came for the banquet, he sent his servant out to summon the guests. And he came to the first guest and said, “Come for the banquet is ready.” But he replied, “Some merchants owe me money; they are coming to me tonight. I have to give them instructions. Please, have me excused from the banquet.” So he went to another and said, “Come for the banquet is ready.” But he replied, “I have just bought a house and I have been called away for the day. Please have me excused from the banquet.” And to a third he went and said, “Come for the banquet is ready.” But he said, “My friend is to be married and I am to arrange the feast, so I cannot come. Please excuse me.” The slave went to another and said to that one, “Come for the banquet is ready. That one said, “I have bought an estate, and I am going to collect the rent. Please excuse me.” So the servant returned home and reported to his master that all those whom he had invited had asked to be excused. And the master said to his servant, “Go out to the streets and bring back whomever you find there to have dinner.” — Thomas 64

 

Before we dig into this – I want you to recall for yourself the version of the story you likely know already. It comes from Matthew. In Matthew’s telling, the servant goes out to invite the guests, like in Thomas’. The invitees, however, not only refuse, some of them attack the servant and kill him. Upon hearing of this the king, who is throwing the feast is very angry and has these murders killed and their village burned.

 

Then he invites new guests from off the street. But the king gets angry again because some of these guests, come immediately without the proper dress. He kills these too. And wishes an eternity of torment upon them.

 

It’s one of those texts that makes a Christian, sensitive to the connection between violence in the world and violence in our religious traditions, want to crawl under a rock until its over.

 

But, if we read Thomas’ version carefully, we are surprised, and relieved. This is not the violent story we knew. In fact, Thomas’ telling of it is tender. There is no blame cast on those who could not make it and no resistance. They are like us – sometimes we can make a dinner date, sometimes we can’t.

 

Typical for a parable of Jesus’ the story is short and shocking. What is shocking in this case is not the anger and the violence, but the graciousness and the generosity. I have a feast prepared! Come and eat! Whoever you are! Wherever you are on life’s journey.

 

I don’t know about you, but the story is so dramatically different, so simply pure, so uplifting and hopeful, that when I read it, I wonder who would have messed with it. And I am sorry for our tradition, which strikes me in that moment to be the poorer for Matthew’s angry retelling.

 

So, I am interested in Thomas 64 for two reasons – first for its content. While I am not a pure pragmatist – that is I do not subscribe to the pragmatist’s notion that there is no telos, no end toward which the human spirit strives, I am a pragmatist when it comes to expressing the truth that leads us in that direction. Thomas’ insistence that what works here is just what works with respect to community. And the interesting thing is that what works has nothing, explicitly, to do with God. He is a pragmatist, not an idealist.

 

But the comparison between the two also provides an opportunity to remind ourselves of the nature of this Bible that we read.

 

II.

In 1906, Albert Schweitzer published a book that was to become a bestseller – superstar in the world of biblical criticism. It is the most read book on theology and the Bible. The Quest for the Historical Jesus, as it was called, was a response to some work that had been carried out years before but ignored. In it, Schweitzer argues that Jesus has to be understood from the framework from which Jesus himself operated – and that framework, Schweitzer argued, was the end of the world – or, as it is called in theology, eschatology. Nothing Jesus was about, could be understood apart from this idea.

 

Schweitzer’s purpose was theological. This is easily forgotten in the excitement about the idea of recovering a history of Jesus. Schweitzer grew up in a Europe that was colonizing the world and he felt guilt for his role in it. He wrote:

 

Who can describe the injustice and cruelties that in the course of centuries they [the coloured peoples] have suffered at the hands of Europeans? … If a record could be compiled of all that has happened between the white and the colored races, it would make a book containing numbers of pages which the reader would have to turn over unread because their contents would be too horrible.”

 

While his purpose was theological, his intent was in no way to undo the previous 50 years of critical, historical scholarship that had been done on the gospels. In fact, he wanted to use those ideas to further an argument he felt was left unsaid – that when we do historical research, we’ll discover that the Jesus of ancient Galilee was a serious upstart. That he was not someone who could be easily tamed for our 20th century and now 21st century sensibilities.

 

He will not be, he wrote in that now famous book,

 

a Jesus to whom the religion of the present can ascribe . . . its own thoughts. . . . Nor will He be a figure which can be made popular by historical treatment . . . the historical Jesus will be to our time a stranger and an enigma.”

 

One of the ways Jesus was so strange and such a mystery was that he seemed to many of Schweitzer’s day to proclaim an end of the world, before which he called all followers to repent and for which no language was too strong, no violent imagery too inappropriate. The violence that would follow, if the hard sayings were not swallowed like a pill, would make the the old days seem like a walk in the park.

 

The parables become allegory. A simple substitution of God, Jesus and the non-believers for the characters makes it clear that the story is about the necessity of believing in God – Matthew takes the beautiful pragmatism of Jesus’ words and turns them into a warning about the way God will clean up, so you’d better believe in God.

 

III.

Another option – and one which I recommend – is to read these stories, first with an eye to how the author may have manipulated Jesus’ words to help him grind an axe or promote a personal agenda, and second to read them, however they come to us, as stories designed to get us to think, to make us feel uneasy, turned upside down. These are stories that are meant to get stuck in your craw, so to speak, to make you ponder about a kingdom in which all of the usual orders and valuations of the kingdoms we knew, are turned upside down, where love, not violence, is the principal motivating force.

 

Schweitzer’s work – on a most basic level got us to thinking about what life was actually like for Jesus and his Palestinian contemporaries. When we understand that — we can understand why each of the Gospel writers, in his own unique circumstance, wrote about him as they did, each with their own particular agenda.

 

Jesus told his stories to people about people in real, live, contexts. And most of his stories were told to those who lived in the back streets of a village or city, in other words, where-ever Jesus found himself.

 

And he often found himself forced outside too – to find food, perhaps, to scrounge up a bit of money for the family, he found himself, where the slaughterers hung out, the toll collectors, the prostitutes, the beggars, the homeless, the day laborers. Those who lived on the edges, rather than at the center of the village or city.

 

To hear the original story is to hear, in stark contrast to all the moralizing and spiritualizing of the story as we’ve grown up with it, a secular story. I mean by this, not only that God is never mentioned, nor is love, nor the temple or religion, but that positively put, it’s a story about what works – about what makes a civilization a civilization, its about what our better angels look like.

 

IV.

On Friday and Saturday, as New Yorkers and New Jerseyians began to regroup ofter Sandy came roaring through their populations, leaving a wake of destruction that we are now all too familiar with, news began to spread that New Yorkers and New Jerseyians were extending a the kind of nonsensical welcome that he ruler extends – people invited strangers in off the street to take a shower, those who had electricity snaked extension cords and power strips out of their apartments so that strangers could charge their phones on their dime.

The mayor of Newark at a press conference on Saturday reported that the Newark police had not responded to one incident of looting or to one incident of people taking advantage of others stricken by the storm.

It is easy to imagine a different scenario. A scenario where some might take advantage of the plight of others, or might continue in the anonymous way they’re so used to.

Instead a storm has handed New York and New Jersey its worst punch – and strangers have responded with a word –Yes. Yes, I’ll be there. Yes, I’ll help. Yes, we can.

That’s an upside down vision of community. If someone were to have told you last month that residents of Newark would be helping each other in such intimate ways, you might have wondered if it was a joke. Newark? Peaceful? Helpful?

Scott Simon made a point yesterday at the end of his news show on NPR. He said that of course,

Sandy has staggered the country with its death and destruction, and that the lives lost cannot every be taken lightly.

But he said,

in a way, a great and terrible storm has reminded us that though politics can sometimes seem mean, dreary and dispiriting, there are people across the country who still give their lives to public service.”

If we feel, in the days leading up to the election, like the idealism of all the candidates has fallen flat – perhaps its because the tragedy known as Sandy, has awakened us again to another way – a way not run by rules or political scripts, or ideology – but run by care, by gratitude for what we have, and a huge welcome to the seekers of solace.

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