Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost
S. Pentecost 20.23
“…and he was muzzled. And the king said to the servants ‘bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there will be crying and chomping of teeth.”
It’s a strange and violent little story, this one, that Jesus tells this morning. “Lotta killin’ in that one…” to quote Rick Dalton. It’s probably not the story most turn to, searching for a paradigmatic expression of what Jesus and his kingdom are all about.
It’s a simple little tale of: king throws wedding feast, invites wedding guests who shun the king, kill his messengers; so king sends armies, destroys murderers, burns down their cities, invites hobos instead, spots gate crasher with no wedding garment, muzzles, throws miscreant into outer darkness where there’s a lotta crying, teeth chomping. This is the word of the LORD. Thanks be to God!
And this is what heaven is like, Jesus says. Huh! What’s our takeaway, then? Maybe you shouldn’t take royal wedding invitations lightly? Maybe ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ is not quite the whole story? Maybe ‘clothes make the man’?
I’m going with the last one. Clothes make the man! I saw a meme that captures it nicely: “Always be yourself! Unless… you can be Batman. Then, always be Batman”. How did I get there? Well maybe we should take it from the top…
Actually, there are two Greek words that I have translated more literally for you and that make a massive difference in how you hear what’s going on in this little story. The Greek φιμοω is not literally “speechless”. It’s muzzled. The man was not ‘at a loss for words’. He was muzzled by the king’s servants like a dangerous dog that bites! Also the Greek βρυγος is not literally “gnashing” of teeth, but is most literally chomping of teeth, as a wild dog chomps down on a nice bone. That’s the picture.
The interloper without a wedding garment is not some harmless hayseed wandering in, missing the memo ‘the dress is formal’. The original Greek pictures him vividly as a rabid dog who’s strayed in, threatening the king’s guests. And, like any good host, the king will not tolerate wild dogs rushing in and chomping down on his guests. So he is muzzled, bound, cast into outer darkness to howl and chomp away on the prey as best he can (while muzzled 😉
My son tricked me—well, my fault, maybe, for not really listening (we were watching football)—tricked me into watching a disturbing movie “Bones and All” that I would strongly recommend you never watch, unless… a “cannibal romance” sounds right up your street?
“Bones and All” gets a solid 9.5 for casting, acting, directing, cinematography, creativity; and a 10 for terror! It’s your typical meet-cute, “teen girl cannibal meets teen boy cannibal, they fall in love, but just can’t keep their teeth off each other, in the end”. The cannibalism starts 10 minutes in, and I would have shut it right off, but I thought Chris said it was a must-watch.
I called him the next day, went: “Whoa! “Bones and All” is a tough watch! I can’t believe you made it through the whole thing. What’d you like about it?” He replied: “I’ve never seen it, dad! I didn’t say “must-watch; I said it’s on my watch list”. You weren’t listening!” I’m like: “You know when I’m not really listening, and should be more careful what you tell me in that state.” Anyway; do not watch “Bones and All”, kids! Or parents!
But, weirdly; the movie gave me a way in to this parable that’s always puzzled me. I think I get it, now! The vicar was super helpful by pointing out the Greek is “muzzled” not “speechless” and I noticed it’s not gnashing of teeth but chomping of teeth like a wild dog, or er… a cannibal. (They put a muzzle on Hannibal Lector, as I recall 😉 And once I could see this interloper as a cannibal, it all came clear…
Remember it’s a king, not a commoner, inviting his subjects to the wedding feast. For all decent people, an invitation to a royal wedding is a much coveted gift! You can tell these are really bad people, that they shun a royal wedding and murder the messengers bearing the invitation—and a just king for destroying those murderers and burning down their cities. But you don’t really see just how bad they are—until the cannibal hint gets dropped with the muzzling and the chomping. I get why English translations muff these words, intentionally. Because the idea of cannibalism is totally disgusting and I’m sorry (well ‘sorry’ is maybe too strong a word?) that I’m bringing it up in polite company here and now. But we have to be faithful to the text. It’s Jesus’ idea—I’m just the messenger!
When your realize the King is Jesus and his subjects are Israel, his Church—which is us!—you’ll understand why all translations sugar-coat the hard truth about how bad we really are. Jesus tells this story at the beginning of Holy Week, just days before his brutal murder at the hands of Israelite/Roman elites. Israel is like a pack of wild dogs chomping down on human flesh; like cannibals. The worst thing you can imagine is still not as bad as sin has actually made us. So I’m not sorry if this turns your stomach a bit, and you recoil at being pictured as a rabid dog or a cannibal.
If you look at the story, all the king’s subjects are wicked and hate him. Going into the main roads means the servants are finding travelers, hobos just passing through to attend the king’s wedding feast. And, at an ancient wedding, the host always provides clothes to hide your flaws, to make you look better than you really are.
So, refusing to wear the provided royal wedding garments (because it is our wedding! we are not just guests at Christ’s wedding feast, we are, collectively, as Israel, his bride!) is an act of open rebellion. This is either some foreign bandit who wants to prey on the king’s guests, or he may be one of the insurrectionists who escaped the destruction and has come back for revenge.
And this is what hell is: it’s not God punishing people for minor infractions of little liturgical or ceremonial niceties. No. Hell is God protecting his lambs from the wolves who’d eat ‘em up… bones and all. As rabid Israel made Jesus the sacrificial lamb on Golgotha, so his enemies would do to us. He muzzles these cannibals so they will be as minimally miserable in the outer darkness as possible.
Yet, the King invites these awful people to his wedding feast, anyway! His love is truly boundless. Now, the wedding garment is simply the righteousness of Christ, his body and blood that takes away the sin of the world, that covers and consumes our sin and replaces it with his holiness.
This is why I say the takeaway is “Always be yourself. Unless…you can be Batm… er, Jesus. Then, always be Jesus!” You should not be yourself. Don’t “come as you are” to his Wedding Feast. Put on, instead, the King’s disguise. Dress up as Jesus, always. Because the garment he provides you in Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, Holy Preaching, Holy Supper will make you… different, holy… Really!
Jesus turns our sheer awfulness into divine awesomeness. Wild dogs, cannibals that sin has made us, he calls us to eat his body and drink his blood. He makes himself a tasty lamb, roasted in fire, on Golgotha, so that, by his body broken and his blood shed, we’ll be made clean and holy.
I get why so much of Christendom tries to make a mere symbol out of the Holy Supper; symbolism makes our sin more… palatable. But when we really eat him up, as he commands, his body, blood—‘Bones and All’—we’re the ones who get chewed up, spit out, reborn. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.