To hell with the bully god

Weekly Notes in Preparation for Preaching: Matthew 22:1-14

"For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:14)

Have you ever felt left out? Been left out of the game by your peers because you weren't good enough? Because you didn't fit in somehow?

It is a common image. Most of us know how the story goes because we have been on one side or the other of playground politics. But don't be fooled, it happens in the classroom too, often with the teacher as the prime instigator. For slow learners, teachers can be the biggest bullies. And as most of us church folk know all too well, it happens every Sunday in our most hallowed spaces.

On the playground, there is a game always going on somewhere--and only a few get chosen. There are the cool kids, really good at the game, who know all of the right moves and all of the right answers. Then there are the unchosen, those who are slow-witted, no good, unfit, unskilled. And if they finally do get to join in, it can be even worse; those who are not good at the game get ridiculed for their mistakes and called names, only adding to what seems obvious to everyone--those who cannot play well do not belong. And because it is better to be unchosen than to be ridiculed for not being as good as everyone else, the unchosen often just give up. The life of the unchosen is far from easy, leaving many kids looking for an easy way out.

As one anti-bullying website explains:

  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, resulting in about 4,400 deaths per year, according to the CDC. For every suicide among young people, there are at least 100 suicide attempts. Over 14 percent of high school students have considered suicide, and almost 7 percent have attempted it.
  • Bully victims are between 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims, according to studies by Yale University

Those who are unchosen on the playground or in the classroom are also unchosen the rest of the time. Or it might be better said, they are the ones chosen for ridicule and violence. The slow-witted, unfit, and unskilled are also those who are easiest to abuse.

A common misperception about bullying is that it is always about a big kid punching on some little kid. But the truth is, bullying is a mindset which creates a dangerous environment that, all too often, the entire community participates in. It is the endorsement of a wider outlook on the world that believes that some belong and others do not. For many, it's even embedded in their theology.

[See this recent post by NakedPastor asking the question, "Which came first, the thug or the theology?"]

Unfortunately, some brands of Christianity teach that God's politics are like this. God chooses only a few. For whatever reason, the rest of us don't fit in. We are those who God has chosen to cast out. We don't know how to play the game, we are slow-witted, unfit, unskilled. When the game is over we are left with no reward. And beware!!! When it is all over, when the end comes, God has made a place of special torture for those who were not chosen. I can hear the voices in my head now of those preachers I once heard in my youth: "Oh, the fires of hell are ready for you if you don't shape up and come to Jesus."

Our passage this week from Matthew 22:1-14 is another of Jesus' parables about the Kingdom of Heaven aimed at shaming the politics of the religious leaders.

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so 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 a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

--Matthew 22:1-14, NRSV

It is about a wedding banquet, and it has all of the pieces of a story about playground politics and bullying. There are those who are chosen and those who are left out. And in the end, one of the attendants who doesn't quite fit in is thrown "into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Mt 22:13). Thrown into hell, some will even say. Without reading beyond the surface and paying attention to its context, the God Jesus portrays here looks an awful lot like a big bully.

Our Bible sure is a dangerous book.

I believe, however, God is often portrayed in ways that are the exact opposite of Jesus' teachings about the Kingdom of Heaven--this parable in particular. If anything, this parable is part of the larger teachings of Jesus aimed at putting an end to teachings that present the God of Israel as a bully, ruling at the expense of the weak and left out.

Just a few weeks ago, the lectionary reading reminded us that Jesus' teachings created quite a challenge to the authority of Jerusalem's religious leaders (Matthew 21:23-32). Last week, we read how Jesus continued his response to their challenge by telling a parable that showed these leaders to be wicked tenants of God's vineyard. The charge was that they were abusing their authority rather than caring for God's people (Matthew 21:33-46). This week's parable goes even further.

Read in context, it is clear to see that those who were first invited to the wedding banquet are Jerusalem's religious leaders, those who the people looked up to for guidance about God. They were those who actually claimed to know something about God. But those in the story who were first invited to the banquet either didn't take the king serious enough or used the invitation as an opportunity to abuse the king's servants. The story ends with everyone who had originally been chosen murdered, with their cities burned, allowing the wedding banquet to be opened to everyone else who had originally been unchosen. The man at the end of the parable was punished, not because he didn't fit in, but because he was one of those who originally had abused his invitation.

Rather than the portrayal of a bully god, I believe this parable should be the anthem of the unchosen--those who are treated like they don't fit in with everyone else. This parable is aimed at putting an end to teachings that portray God as a bully. The religious leaders who are Jesus' audience know by now what Jesus is saying. Because they have not cared for God's people, because they have sought to build their own kingdoms rather than God's, they will no longer be welcome to the party. In the end, it is not the slow-witted, unfit, unskilled outcasts who are left out of the game, it is the bullies who treated the game as if it was all about them.

Of course, if we want to talk about who is chosen and who is unchosen in the context of what it means to follow Jesus, Jesus is the original outcast. If Jesus' life offers divine revelation in any sense, it is clear that God should be identified not with the bullies but with the victims. Jesus' death was, after all, a crucifixion--a most horrendous example of unrestrained bullying. And that is something that those of us who claim to follow him are going to have to get comfortable with.

This passage is a warning for us today. It should be a reminder to religious leaders to beware of focusing more attention on those who build up their ministries at the cost of caring for their community. It is a warning against those who teach that God chooses some and not others, The left behind in this passage are not unchosen because they failed to pray the 'sinner's prayer.' They are those who were guilty of defaming God by using their religion as an excuse to abuse others. In the end, you might say, the "weeping and gnashing of teeth" is not a place where God puts the unchurched or those who do not fit in. Rather, according to this parable, it is a place reserved for those religious leaders who use God's name to justify their abuse of power. You might say that this passage teaches us that hell is reserved, not for the unchosen, but for the bully god.

Perhaps its better we leave the choosing up to God. Once we get in the practice of deciding who God has chosen, we might find ourselves unchosen and left out of the party...or even worse.

[See also this fantastic video and commentary about Philippians 4:1-9 about bullying from the Odyssey Network.]