e-mail us


A parable for today, if not tomorrow


The story is charged with ironies.

We have the Christ of “love your enemies” telling about a king who takes revenge on his enemies (Matthew 22, 1-14). This king, in fact, recalls the most savage of Hebrew and Gentile rulers.

The invitation to his banquet declares that everyone is welcome, “both evil and good.” But after the ragtag guests assemble, someone is by no means made welcome. Quite the opposite. He is “bound hand and foot, and cast into outer darkness.”

His offense? Lacking that well-known wedding garment.

This anonymous guest, someone from “the main highways,” perhaps homeless, almost certainly destitute -- where was such a one to come on a festive robe? Imagine a homeless person in New York rounded up to appear at a wedding and then berated for not being clothed in a tuxedo!

And why, when confronted about his attire, does this pitiful guest not explain his plight? Why is he “speechless”? Is this another clue to his status: his hangdog look, inability to explain?

The poor we know are often inarticulate, especially when confronted with the threats and blustering of the powerful. What street person today, hauled into court, finds a ready language of defense?

The timing of the story is nightmarishly awry. We are told that a banquet was “all prepared … everything … ready.” But the first invitation goes nowhere. Those summoned “were unwilling to come.” A second squad of slaves is sent; those invited “paid no attention and went their way … ” Others turned murderous; they “seized his slaves, mistreated and killed them.”

We are in a nightmare world with scores to be settled. And the old savage formula is invoked, reminiscent of the worst pages of the books of Kings; provocation calls for retaliation. “The king sent his armies and destroyed those murderers and set their city on fire.”

Eventually, to fill the banquet hall, the streets are scoured for guests.

The parables of Christ, even the innocent, pastoral, tender, innocuous-seeming ones, conceal just below the surface a whiplash, a shock, a charge of dynamite. The stories set conventional expectations, whether concerning God, religion, politics, vocation, status and class, utterly off kilter.

The parable of the king’s banquet is brutally secular. It tells of the domestic misbehavior of the powerful and the victimizing of the powerless, of war and retaliation.

And when compassion is allowed a meager place, we are uncertain as to motives. Does the king’s energetic moves to fill his son’s wedding banquet issue from compassion or pride, or a brew of both? We are to judge; the outcome and its implications are left to us.

The story also seems to me an instance of the wisdom attached to holiness, whether in the character of Jesus or the stories of our saints. The wisdom takes this form: The virtuous know not only goodness, they know wickedness as well. They are hardly to be accounted innocents; they are experts in diagnosing both good and evil.

And of goodness or evil as such, the wicked know little or nothing. They have other terms for both. They know well and practice expertly and constantly expediency, greed, political chicanery, lies, military solutions, bombings, sanctions against the innocent. Here and there, now and then, ever so rarely they summon a gesture of compassion toward the victims -- but only the domestic victims, be it understood.

The king of the story is two-faced, Jesus implies. In this he is a typical wielder of secular power. He is a host, but he is also a warrior, which is to say a sanctioned killer. In his own regard he stands outside the law. He is a tyrant, a wicked judge.

And yet Jesus insists that the king is a symbol of something that greatly surpasses his own person. Listen again to the beginning; “The realm of heaven may be compared to a king … ” Compared in two ways: the way of likeness and of contrast.

We are invited to imagine a situation close at hand. A president of the United States, perhaps. Let us imagine (though it is no fantasy) that something known as national honor or national interests have been violated. The reaction is sure: It must be vindicated.

Oh, the plenary choices open to a superpower! Smart missiles or depleted uranium-tipped ones -- instruments of redress a president has at hand -- are launched against the offender. The skies crackle with doom.

As a month ago, as last year. As 10 years ago, or 20 or 30. As in Vietnam and Panama and Kosovo and Iraq. As in Guatemala and Salvador and Nicaragua.

Whether or not the enemy is unseated or otherwise disposed of, the innocent are murdered. Host a dinner and make war. This is the mode of empire. The dinner softens the horror of the war. Have you ever seen an underfed general, diplomat, senator or Supreme Court judge?

As to the war, it reminds the world that Americans mean business. So even as the president mounts an assault, he welcomes to the White House a number of distinguished citizens. He praises their achievements, bemedals them, reflects on their contributions to the culture. Then they all sit to a banquet.

In the parable Jesus presents to us the king. You choose, you decide. Is this a valid exercise of authority? Here is a clue: Don’t miss the storyteller for the story.

The One who tells the story knows both goodness and wickedness, because He is good, consistent and compassionate. He longs to see humans standing in the orbit of God’s love. He rejoices to see the speechless and poor, the nobodies, at His table.

In our story, he condemns no one, not even the king. Such a judgment is redundant, the royal behavior being self-condemned.

And to sum up matters, in utter contrast to the worldly king, the storyteller will give His life rather than take life.

For our part, we much prefer the Storyteller to the storied king. This, too, is a choice, and not an easy one. We hear Jesus say, “The realm of heaven may be compared to a king.” And we think to ourselves, well, maybe. Second thoughts intrude; it seems as though the story gets altered in the telling. Was this not the implication: The realm of heaven may be compared to -- Christ?

If the point of the comparison is altered, certain ambiguities are cleared. Some of those invited, we learn, turn up their noses and walk away. Things worsen, and certain of the messengers are murdered. Nevertheless, in our altered story, no sanctioned murder is mounted in retaliation.

At this point an obscure sense hints that the Storyteller has entered the story, the medium has become the message.

The banquet must proceed. At the table are all those “whom the servants found … both evil and good.” Which is to say, ourselves. Not the wicked on this side of the table and the virtuous opposite, as though two species of humans were seated there, well separated, known for whom and what they are. No, the evil and the virtuous are intermingled, juxtaposed, lift glasses together, banter, ponder, feast.

And more: Good and evil coexist within each guest.

Our Host enters. We will not call Him king. That title belongs to the shady satraps of this world, compassionate on occasion but hardly consistent. They are Sauls, subject to darkling moods of violence, retaliation, eviction and torment of those who, however inadvertently or inoffensively, offend.

No, in our story, our Host enters the banquet hall to approve, rejoice, include, welcome. All -- and sundry are included. Ourselves. Nothing of the truculent, blind striking out of the king against a poor, speechless, anonymous guest.

Just as gently but firmly, we amend the story’s conclusion.

In its original form, the words that sum up the parable belong to the king who judged so harshly, who confused his status of host with his black mood of condemnation and retaliation. It is the king who says to himself in dour satisfaction, invulnerable and vengeful: “Many are called, but few are chosen.”

These are not the words of Jesus; they are the words of the worldly host and warrior, the one given to eviction and slaughter.

There is a far different summing up, according to the heart of Jesus.

To the banquet, to life, to love. And all are called, all are chosen.

Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan, poet and peace activist, lives in New York City.

National Catholic Reporter, May 4, 2001