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Politics of Scripture

The Cost of Dissent

Jesus’ parable identifies chosenness in those who resist, dissent, protest and refuse the invitations of the empire.

1 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 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.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 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.

11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 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.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Matthew 22:1–14 (NRSV)

What is common to the lives and stories of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany and Fr. Stan Swamy in India, a brave Jesuit priest and human rights activist, who was falsely accused of plotting terrorism and later died in prison due to ill health in 2021?  Both were critical of the state; both dissented against unjust policies; both valued the people they were serving; and both lived for the values of the Kingdom of God—to the extent that Bonhoeffer was hanged to death and Swamy was imprisoned on false charges. What is politically theological about such a dissent? Building upon the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible, dissent—though costly—is at the heart of the Christian gospel. Exposing the injustices of the principalities and powers serves as a bedrock for political theology. Coloniality of the empire suppresses dissent and exercises violence against those who dissent, for empire cannot tolerate dissent. Courageous and costly discipleship for the cause of justice in the context of empire is the need of the hour today, for the kin(g)dom of God belongs to such people.

In the grand pericope that extends from Matthew 21:23—22:14, Jesus is explaining about his authority. He contrasts his authority with that of the chief priests and the elders and exposes their unscrupulous power exercised against poor, colonised subjects. The third parable in this series is Jesus’ response to the chief priest’s enquiry about his authority—a parable about a wedding banquet (Matthew 22:1-14). This parable reflects the world-view of their times, for Jesus (narrator), Matthew (writer) and Jewish-Christians of the early Church (audience of this Gospel) were all living under the Roman empire, occupied, colonized and governed by the powers in Rome.

Jesus explains, in a satirical way, that the kingdom of heaven is like the kingdom of Rome. It is like a king inviting guests to a wedding banquet for his son. William Herzog explains, “[I]t would seem that the dative introduction to the parable (‘for the kingdom of heaven is like’) is a Matthean construction … It is possible that the introductory phrase is meant ironically or sarcastically: ‘So this is what the reign of heaven is going to be like … more of the same oppression and exploitation’” (97). In this way, the parable codifies the inconsistency of the kingdom of heaven with the kingdom of Rome. Following Herzog’s insight, I employ a reader-response interpretation of the parable to demonstrate how the king in the story might point to the embodiment of the empire’s cruelty, while the invitees might be understood as those who undertake acts of courage and resistance against the empire.

It was a royal wedding, and invitations for the wedding banquet were sent out to all those chosen invitees. Those that received the royal wedding invitation would have been the important people among the colonised communities, for the empire wanted to win them over to the side of the empire by sending this invitation.

The colonial ploy of the empire has always been to divide and rule, and therefore in this parable too the empire invited a few selected people, whom they thought would serve as their agents for the colonial empire. These selected invitees, if they would have responded positively to the royal invite, would have climbed up the ladder in the colonial regime and would have received more perks, favours and medals for their allegiance towards the throne in Rome.

But these selected invitees in the parable took courage, considering this to be an opportunity to express their dissent against the empire by not responding favourably to the royal invite. They “made light of the invite, went away, one to his farm and another to his business” (verse 5). This act of dissent and protest against the empire was an expression of their courage and solidarity with their own struggling community. Jesus, in narrating this parable, was recognising that there were certain people in their context who were bold and courageous in resisting the empire.

Their dissent however, took a different turn, and resulted in violence against the messengers of the empire, committed by the rest of the people. On hearing of this protest, dissent and violence in the colony, the empire was enraged, came back forcefully on them, destroyed and burned their city using strong troops and stronger weapons. For the selected invitees, their dissent against the royal colonial empire came with a huge cost. It cost them their lives and even their city, for they were all turned into ashes. Violence serves as a weapon to display the strength of the empire. For the empire, however, their violence enjoyed impunity.

This martyrdom of the colonized community, created a new dynamic in the kingdom. Now the king was forced to issue an order to “go into the main streets and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet” (Matthew 22:9). The messengers went out into the main streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so, the wedding hall was filled with guests (Matthew 22:10). If it wasn’t for those who expressed their dissent and protest to the royal wedding invite, the wedding wouldn’t have become accessible to the people on the streets, both good and bad. The empire couldn’t tolerate dissent and protest, and therefore along with violence they also wanted to counter the dissent by making the wedding banquet accessible to all people from the main streets. These colonised people from the main streets had no other option than to attend the wedding banquet, out of fear of the violent empire.  

This parable therefore calls the readers of the 21st century to be bold and courageous in resisting the ploy and plots of the empire, which exists in the forms of market, state, institutionalised religion, structures of oppression, systemic injustices, etc. of our times. They must not succumb to the powers and principalities of the empire, nor bow down to them to earn temporary favours. The call for the readers of this parable is to stand firm in the faith of Jesus Christ who fought tooth and nail against the empire, to stand committed with people who are oppressed and struggling in life, and to dissent against the invitations of the empire that come one’s way. This parable is a call towards a courageous discipleship.

This parable also calls towards a costly discipleship. Dissent comes with a cost. Welcome and inclusivity comes with a cost. Without the martyrdom of the dissenters in the parable, the banquet would not have been made open to all. If churches are to be welcoming and inclusive, it will require a cost from those of us who claim to be members. Welcome and inclusiveness today have become a rhetoric that is often claimed by church communities. But it is important to recognise that it comes with a cost, a sacrifice, or even giving up one’s comfy locations by inviting and embracing those on the streets and strangers. Those who follow Jesus’ call for dissent must be prepared for a cost.

Jesus concludes this parable by saying, “Many are called but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14). Many might be called to the kingdom of God, but few are chosen because they resist, dissent and protest against the empires of the world, even though it might cost them their lives. The prophetic ministry of dissent has to be inculcated as part of Christian discipleship. Where is the divine in this parable? For me, I recognise the divine among the martyred people who boldly resisted the wedding invitations and who demonstrated a courageous and costly discipleship. Jesus’ parable identifies chosenness in those who resist, dissent, protest and refuse the invitations of the empire.

The political theology of this parable is its invitation to nurture dissent as a faith imperative. Dissent against injustices in society is a prophetic practice, though it comes with a cost. The crux of the gospel of Jesus Christ is this: the reward for standing up for the kingdom of God which includes dissenting and protesting the forces of empire is sometimes a Cross. The hope that the Christian faith offers is the new life experience that follows such martyrdom or crucifixion. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Fr. Stan Swamy and many such others dissented and resisted the powers of the empire of their times, exemplifying hope and courage to all people of God to be courageous in their faith journeys.

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