What a Just Future Requires

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wedding table

Herb Montgomery | September 18, 2020

“Although everyone was invited to the event in the parable of Matthew 22, the event itself required certain attire. And a just future requires a certain something too: the inclusive, just, equitable passion for making our world safe for everyone, the desire to make sure we all thrive together.”

In Matthew’s gospel, we read this story,

“Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. Then he sent some more servants and said, “Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.” But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, “The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.” So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, “How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?” The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, “Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For many are invited, but few are chosen.’” (Matthew 22:1-14)

The stories in Matthew’s gospel were intended to teach their audience something about the just future, the vision for a just human community, that this gospel bases on the teachings of Jesus.

This story progresses in a specific order.

First, the king invites guests to his son’s wedding. These guests would have been those whose social standing warranted such an invitation. Their invitation would not have been universal but for those who belonged to a society shaped by exceptionalism and privilege. I also cannot overlook the patriarchal character of this story about a “king” feasting for his “son” and a social structure that includes slaves and a master. Despite what’s problematic in this story, is there some kernel of truth in it that may speak to us in our contemporary context and justice work?

Let’s see.

When those first invited refuse their invitation, the king’s invitation becomes much more inclusive. Everyone is now invited.

“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready . . . Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’”

Everyone? Does everyone get invited? Yes, and Jesus makes sure to add, “the bad as well as the good.” This invitation is generously and extravagantly inclusive.

But the story does not remain so.

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.”

I used to interpret this parable differently than I do today. I used to see this parable as “Olly Olly oxen free,” a story where everyone gets let in, penalty-free. But when we read this parable from the perspective of those oppressed, subjugated, or pushed to the margins of society, certain things begin to stand out.

First, this is a mixed group from a lower class of society than would normally be invited as guests at a royal wedding, and that class includes divisions as well. In a classist society, the lower class is not a monolith.

Michelle Alexander explains this when she describes the history of Bacon’s rebellion in YEAR. It failed because social elites created racial divisions among the lower classes to prevent them from threatening the economic structure that privileged those at the top.

“Nathaniel Bacon was a white property owner in Jamestown, Virginia, who managed to unite slaves, indentured servants, and poor whites in a revolutionary effort to overthrow the planter elite. Although slaves clearly occupied the lowest position in the social hierarchy and suffered the most under the plantation system, the condition of indentured whites was barely better, and the majority of free whites lived in extreme poverty . . . The events in Jamestown [the failed Bacon’s rebellion] were alarming to the planter elite, who were deeply fearful of the multiracial alliance of bond workers and slaves. Word of Bacon’s Rebellion spread far and wide, and several more uprisings of a similar type followed. In an effort to protect their superior status and economic position, the planters shifted their strategy for maintaining dominance . . . Fearful that such measures might not be sufficient to protect their interests, the planter class took an additional precautionary step, a step that would later come to be known as a “racial bribe.” Deliberately and strategically, the planter class extended special privileges to poor whites in an effort to drive a wedge between them and black slaves. White settlers were allowed greater access to Native American lands, white servants were allowed to police slaves through slave patrols and militias, and barriers were created so that free labor would not be placed in competition with slave labor. These measures effectively eliminated the risk of future alliances between black slaves and poor whites. Poor whites suddenly had a direct, personal stake in the existence of a race-based system of slavery. Their own plight had not improved by much, but at least they were not slaves. Once the planter elite split the labor force, poor whites responded to the logic of their situation and sought ways to expand their racially privileged position. (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 24-25.)

Throughout U.S. history, the elites have repeatedly fanned the flames of racially charged bigotry to divide the lower class. During Reconstruction, after the Civil War, they did it again, and that led to the era of Jim Crow.

“Just as the white elite had successfully driven a wedge between poor whites and blacks following Bacon’s Rebellion by creating the institution of black slavery, another racial caste system was emerging nearly two centuries later, in part due to efforts by white elites to decimate a multiracial alliance of poor people. By the turn of the twentieth century, every state in the South had laws on the books that disenfranchised blacks and discriminated against them in virtually every sphere of life, lending sanction to a racial ostracism that extended to schools, churches, housing, jobs, restrooms, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, orphanages, prisons, funeral homes, morgues, and cemeteries. Politicians competed with each other by proposing and passing ever more stringent, oppressive, and downright ridiculous legislation (such as laws specifically prohibiting blacks and whites from playing chess together). The public symbols and constant reminders of black subjugation were supported by whites across the political spectrum, though the plight of poor whites remained largely unchanged. For them, the racial bribe was primarily psychological.” (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, pp. 34-35.)

Right now in the U.S., we are witnessing a new set of racial bribes being offered to the lower class White population in exchange for November election results.

In Matthew’s story, the king invited everyone, but his own social location stopped him from recognizing that not everyone invited would have had the means to procure the proper attire. I no longer blame the guest who wasn’t properly dressed: maybe he didn’t have anything to wear other than what he had on his back. Nonetheless, the king still threw him out, and the story only gives one explanation: many are invited, only a few are chosen.

What could this mean for us?

Everyone is invited to a future that is just, but not everyone will be chosen to be a part of it. Wedding hosts require certain attire, and a future that is just, equitable, and safe also has requirements. It requires no one exclude others based on their class or sex, gender identity or race, sexual orientation, or gender expression. Everyone is invited to take a seat at the table, yet not everyone is welcome at the table.

If someone refuses to let go of their bigotry, to reject their prejudice and fear of someone else simply because they are different, their death-grip on death-dealing values naturally excludes them from a future that is life-giving for everyone. And, unlike the parable where some could perhaps not afford the attire that the event required, any of us can choose let go of our phobias and bigotry. We have the power to reject the divisive programming we have been taught and to embrace the interconnected reality we are already living in.

I’m thinking, this week, of those who see in the US government a savior for their white privilege yet deny justice to those excluded and even killed under the dog-whistle of “law and order.” And that leads me to our final point.

The parable states that our story ends with weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Gnashing of teeth is not torture as the hell-fire preachers teach. It’s anger (see Luke 13:28; Job 16:9; Psalms 35:16; Psalms 37:12; Psalms 112:10; Lamentations 2:16; Acts 7:54, cf. Matthew 8:12; Matthew 13:42; Matthew 13:50; Matthew 22:13; Matthew 24:51; Matthew 25:30).

It’s anger that someone you thought should be excluded is actually included. And it’s anger that for all your smug assurance that your own place at the table was secure, you find yourself outside in the dark looking in through the window at those you feel are inferior to you. They’re enjoying the feast and you are not. The gnashing of teeth in the story is the inability to accept the king’s invitation to you on one hand because you can’t accept another’s invitation on the other. Someone you feel should be excluded was not merely invited, but is enjoying the party instead of you.

Although everyone was invited to the event in the parable of Matthew 22, the event itself required certain attire. And a just future requires a certain something too: the inclusive, just, equitable passion for making our world safe for everyone, the desire to make sure we all thrive together.

If any are left out of that just future, it will be because they could not stomach the lack of distinction between themselves and their fellow guests that characterizes themselves as somehow superior. It won’t be because they’ve failed to accept an invitation for themselves.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. How many ways can you take care of each other while we are physically apart?

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. A safe, just, inclusive, compassionate future is possible. And it will require something from each of us. What requirements stand out to you from your own experience of inequity. Discuss your experiences with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

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