“And he was speechless” (Matt 22:12). That’s what the parable says about the man who was at the banquet without the right clothes, the man who didn’t have a wedding robe like everyone else at the wedding feast. When the king’s eye catches a glimpse of the man with ordinary clothes, the king confronts him with a question. “How did you get in here without a wedding robe,” without the proper attire? (22:12). He has nothing to say for himself. Nothing to say to the king. No response. Only silence. “And he was speechless,” it says.
And so am I, after reading this parable. Speechless. That’s how I felt every time I picked up my Bible and read this passage this week, preparing to get up here today and to have something to say. Speechless, because of the terror of the parable: The villagers who murder the slaves, the king’s troops who kill the villagers in revenge, who burn the city to ashes. And there’s the guest who is thrown out into the darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. There’s so devastation in this parable, so much bloodshed in these verses.
The parable sounds like a storyline from a dream, as if Jesus wakes up from a nightmare with scenes flashing through his mind. He pieces them together, figuring out what one part has to do with the other. It sounds like a dream because the scenes are so vivid, so haunting, and so absurd at the same time—the responses are over the top, senseless, as if you can’t turn down a wedding invitation without also killing the messenger. And the escalation of violence is absurd—like burning down a whole city in an act of vengeance.
Then there’s the shift to the party, and there’s random people there, good people, bad people, all kinds of people, and they’re all wearing the same costume, some kind of fancy robe, except one person isn’t, and so they grab him and tie him up and throw him outside, where people cry and shiver for inexplicable reasons.
The parable is a whirlwind of terrifying images. The parable is a nightmare, a description of this world, a nightmare where kings unleash this kind of violence, and where presidents do the same. A study out this weeks shows that counties that hosted one of Trump’s campaign rallies in 2016 saw a 226 percent increase in reported hate crimes than counties that did not host one of his rallies.
This is a parable of judgment, but Jesus never identifies the judge. All we have is a nightmare of a story, scenes piling awfulness atop of awfulness. And Jesus says this is supposed to help us understand the advent of the reign of God. “Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables,” it says in the first verse of our passage, “Jesus spoke in parables, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to’” (22:1), may be compared to what, exactly?—not the vengeful king, not the violent troops, not the murderous villagers, and not the snobbish feast.
Instead, this parable is about the advent of the reign of God, the story of heaven coming to earth, in Jesus—the Jesus is the incarnation of God’s new world. And when the community leaders see this new world, this vision for life that Jesus embodies, they conspire together to get rid of him, because they know that this Jesus will end the grip of their power of the people.
As we see in Matthew’s Gospel, as Jesus inspires more and more people with his announcement of God’s reign, the religious and political leaders grow more and more agitated, disturbed by words and deeds, threatened by his life—so they make plans to take him out before he organizes a whole movement of people, to snuff him out before their world is undone, before their authority is undermined. The leaders need to kill Jesus before they lose control of their political order, before the structures of their governance collapse. So, as we know, they bind him, hand and foot, to the cross.
In the parable, Jesus is the man without a robe, the one thrown into the darkness by the king. Jesus tells this story about what the leaders want to do to him. With this parable, he confronts them with their world, with the society they manage, a way of life they maintain with threats of violence, with the madness of revenge, a nightmarish world regulated by cycles of vengeance. With this parable, Jesus exposes their desires, he exposes them to the truth about themselves.
They will do this to him. Soon. Jesus knows it. He’s pieced together the signs, in his dreams, the whisperings in the streets, the rumors spreading through the villages. He knows that soon all of this will take place, and he speaks directly to the religious and political leaders, all of them hiding in the crowds, spying on him, listening to his stories—Jesus turns to them, looking them in the eyes, as he gets to the end of this parable, when he concludes the story with these words, the punishment for the man who shouldn’t be there: “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” (22:13).
That’s what happens to Jesus, in a few chapters, when he’s in the Garden of Gethsemane, weeping and gnashing in the night. That man in the parable is Jesus, when they bind his hands and his feet to the cross. That’s what happens to Jesus when he refuses to belong in the world of Roman kings and chief priests. That’s what the speechlessness is about, in the parable.
The man in the story refuses to acknowledge the authority of the king—he responds with silence, just like Jesus does when he’s called before the religious council in chapter 26, and they demand that Jesus respond to the charges of blasphemy against him, and all we hear from him is silence, he’s speechless. “But Jesus was silent,” it says (26:63). Then later, in the next chapter, when Pilate demands answer from him, when he ask for Jesus to respond to the criminal charges against him, and Jesus responds with silence, speechlessness again: “But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge,” it says (27:14).
Here we are, back to where I started this sermon, with that verse from the parable, where the man has nothing to say, when he refuses to offer a defense: “And he was speechless” (Matt 22:12).
After Jesus spends years on hillside after hillside, teaching the crowds, renewing their lives with the words of the gospel, inviting them to welcome the reign of God, where the first shall be last, and the last shall be first, where the hungry are fed and naked are clothed, where people forgive trespasses, where the only law is love, the only justice is mercy, and the only kingdom is liberation—after he declared the hope of the gospel, he comes to the end of his words, as he stands before religious councils and before judicial courts. He has no words for them. Instead, he will offer his life—his body as his word made flesh.
I don’t know, exactly, what this means for us. Maybe we should receive all of this as permission to not know what to say, an acknowledgment that we don’t always have to have the words to respond to this world, a confession, perhaps, that there is so much that’s wrong, with our world and with our lives, that we’d be delusional to think that we could set things right with a word, with an explanation, with an argument.
Perhaps the gospel is a speechlessness that comes upon us when we have nothing else to say, no more reasons to give, and all we can offer is the statement of our lives, because the word has become our flesh too, Christ in us as a word of hope, that there is another world growing in our midst, the gentleness of the Spirit.