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Understanding is overrated.


I love getting to interact with Scripture, to open God’s Word and study it or sing the words and let them become part of me. I love to study and listen to experts who have deep knowledge of Biblical languages and culture, who can interpret the stories and scenes and the audience and the history. God is working in all of these ways, and God meets people on their own level, to provide whatever is needed.


The parables of Jesus present their own challenges—what’s he talking about? Who are the characters in the parable and how do they correlate with the real world? Exploring these questions can be a fun thought exercise or even a pathway into prayer.


But it’s a problem when someone claims to have secret knowledge or special access to a Scripture’s meaning. It’s a problem when we try so hard to manage a parable that we miss the entire point. It’s a problem when we read a parable and assign parts that dehumanize entire groups of people.


Matthew’s Gospel has a lot of references to Jewish leaders and the people of Israel. When Matthew writes his Gospel, he isn’t afraid of sounding critical of Jewish leaders, and he doesn’t mind speaking of eternal salvation in an exclusive way. We can discuss the theology, the dangerous consequences of Matthew’s reporting and a troubling history of anti-Semitism.


But we can’t manage these parables out of existence. Somehow, Matthew’s Gospel and these parables of Jesus made the cut, and now they’re part of the canon—the body of teachings of a religion or school of thought. So what do we do with a parable like this one?


First I’ll tell you what we’re not gonna do: we’re not gonna interpret this parable in a way that makes Jews look bad. Christians throughout history have already interpreted Scripture in ways that exclude Jews from salvation or from God’s acceptance—Martin Luther is very much included, since he could not understand why Jews would hear the stories of Jesus and not believe that Jesus is the messiah.


We’re not gonna misinterpret parables, especially not at this moment, as the Holy Land is at war, Gaza has become a battlefield, Palestinians in the Middle East and around the world are mourning, and Israel is mourning its dead and the nation of Israel is attacking Hamas in response to their deadly attacks a week ago.


We can hardly make sense of all this, though that hasn’t stopped some Christians from getting excited about war in Israel because they believe this will hasten the return of Jesus. Lutherans do not share this belief, and we’re not about to celebrate death and destruction anywhere. We condemn violence against civilians, and we advocate for peace and the flourishing of all creation.


So then what do we do with this parable about a wedding banquet to which many are invited but almost no one RSVPs so the wedding hall is filled with all sorts of other folks but not the guy who wasn’t dressed properly?


Maybe we’re not meant to understand every single thing.


If we look at Jesus’s parable and try to find a way to reconcile this king’s behavior with a gracious God, we’re probably going to come up with a God who is unfair and behaves like a jerk. And if we find ourselves judging God, we’ve drifted far from humility into some mighty dangerous territory.


Or: we have created an idol. Whenever we domesticate the parables to make them comfortable, then what we’ve done is create a god in our own image: an idol. We don’t always craft our idols from carved stone or mold them from precious metals. We probably think we’re too sophisticated for that.


No, sometimes the idols we create are ideas. Like the idea that we should be able to explain and understand everything. Like believing that humanity is on a track of relentless progress, nevermind the evil in which humans are frequently engaged.


Or we make an idol out of the Bible, claiming to understand and interpret everything contained within it. And if we cling to a rigid understanding of God, then guess what: we can make an idol out of God, too.


In the Old Testament reading, we encounter the story of the people of Israel in the wilderness while Moses has been on Mount Sinai talking with God, and it’s been a long time, and the people are restless. Moses’ brother Aaron tries to fix the situation by creating a golden calf and worshipping it.


Maybe it’s easy for us to laugh at this scene—what’s a golden calf gonna do for anyone? On Working Preacher’s Sermon Brainwave podcast this week, Karoline Lewis asked, “When we feel the absence of God, what do we fill it with?…Think of all the idols we have put in place of God’s presence.”


Where do you put your time and money and energy? This will tell you a lot about what you believe and what’s in your life that threatens to become an idol. If you’re not sure about this, speak with God about it. Get to know God, the same God we read about in Scripture, and ask questions. Have a dialogue with God—we call this “prayer.”


Just don’t imagine that your lack of understanding is a liability in the presence of God. God knows we’re not perfect and loves us anyway.


So what we are gonna do is trust in God, even when we don’t understand. Petra, who is five months old, is our sister in Christ today in the sacrament of baptism, and I guarantee she doesn’t understand what’s going on. But she trusts in the ones who hold her and bring her to the font, and that’s enough for now.


The apostle Paul really sums it up best: “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”[1]


Apparently, God’s peace doesn’t require understanding. Peace doesn’t have to make sense. You don’t have to explain everything before you can receive God’s love. You don’t have to have everything figured out before you can trust God. Maybe we’re not meant to understand everything.


But the God of everything understands us. God continues loving us, keeps inviting us, and blesses us continually with the peace that passes all understanding. May that peace hold us together, and may God’s peace heal the brokenness in this world.


Amen.

Pastor Cheryl

[1] Philippians 4:7


 


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