I’ve been spending a lot of time with Chris Hoke’s book WANTED: a Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders (HarperOne Publishers, 2015, $25.99 US). I first came across an excerpt in The Christian Century—a magazine that I’ve only this year discovered through my library, and in which I’ve obtained inspiration after inspiration. It’s good and thought-provoking writing. Which is why it is no surprise that Chris Hoke—a self-described “gang pastor” and prison chaplain—was invited to provide a snapshot excerpt from his new book in an issue earlier this year. I was embarrassed to start weeping in the middle of the public library, and then could not be bothered to care whether people saw me openly crying—there in Hoke’s retelling of a prison ministry escapade with a convicted murderer, Richard, I found the answer to the most heartbreaking parable in the Bible, a gospel story that has plagued me since I was little and in which, through misinterpretation, has been used to exclude people from the table of acceptance and community for untold numbers of eons. I am speaking about the parable of the Wedding Feast, in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 22:1-14.
As Hoke tells it, his story is prompted by a “charismatic gang leader”named Richard who became very enthusiastic during the discussion of Matthew 22 during a Bible study session within the local Washington State prison system. The story in the Gospel of Matthew has its ups and downs: there is to be a grand wedding feast for the son of a king; but the esteemed guests who have been invited respond with scoffing, distain, and apathy; the king, flummoxed and outraged, punishes the invitees who ill-treat his messengers, and then invites one and all from the streets—both good and bad—to the grand feast he has prepared; everyone is in the grand hall, enjoying themselves, until the king enters and notices one individual who has refused to wear a wedding garment. Once again outraged, the king has this person shackled and thrown outside the gates of the kingdom “where there will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
The prisoner, Richard, is right on board with the story up through the invitation and revelry with all the regular townspeople—both good and bad. He can relate to the all-inclusive celebration, like the parties he used to throw himself, giving away the food and party favors he would scrounge together just so that people would be enticed to join him for time together. As someone rejected by society, over and over and over again and again, his social gatherings were without limitation as to who was who; as long as you wished to be welcomed, you were. It was as close as Richard ever came to real “family”; even if the people he considered family were coarse and uneducated and violent at times, they provided real affection towards one another.
Richard is fine and on board with the parable right up through the point where the king suddenly decides to pick on one individual, and deem him unworthy of the celebration, throwing him out into the street, seemingly unprovoked. Worse, the king seems to pick on this individual because he doesn’t “look” right; he doesn’t “fit in” with the rest of the wedding party because of the way he’s dressed. Worse still, time is running out to try to explain to Richard the meaning of the story—the Bible study session is wrapping-up, with the prison guards ready to shuttle everyone back to their cells. Hoke, the leader of the Bible study, is forced to try to placate Richard with the true meaning of the story in a very short span of time, pulling on his training and biblical knowledge.
Hoke explains to Richard, “that in first-century Palestine, some scholars believe it was the custom for the host of the wedding feast—and especially a king—to provide these special over-garments for the guests, right at the door, before they go into the banquet hall… ‘like those little birthday cone hats parents give to each kid who comes to their child’s birthday party.’…It’s not about who comes dressed up nice or not; everyone is given the celebration attire. So if this guy’s not wearing it, it’s not about poverty. There’s some other reason he’s choosing not to wear it. It’s an insult, a direct disrespect to the host, in front of everyone in his own home… It’s like this garmentless guy’s refusing to celebrate for some reason.”
…And there it is. A historiographic perspective on why this wedding guest was thrown out into the street to weep and gnash his teeth. Never in my life had I heard this social-archeological tidbit that is so relevant and important to this story. I have a degree in Religious Studies, and never before had I been informed of this social moray in the Middle East during the time of Jesus. Never has a lector interpreted this Gospel reading in this way for any congregation of which I have been an active listener. Always the message was the same—an interpretation of the last line of the story: “Many are called, but few are chosen.” And always that interpretation was that God invites everyone, but if you don’t follow the rules of the Church, then you will be excluded from being able to participate.
But knowing this archeological, historiographical detail… it changes everything about that shallow interpretation.
Knowing that the garments are handed out to each and every guest at the entrance to the feast, and that one individual refused the garment, opens the possibilities of interpretation of the story. The likely meaning is that one of the earlier, well-respected, “invited” guests who had earlier refused to come, showed up at the party (“for many are called…”), but seeing the riff-raff and lowly guests that were in attendance, he refused to participate or associate himself with them. In other words, he refused the garment in order to exclude himself from association with the commoners around him; he felt too high and mighty to be considered in the same social level with them. THIS is what enraged the king, and why he had the man thrown out into the street.
I’m not sure whether Chris Hoke realizes the schism he has created with this interpretation—the countless people who are suddenly redeemed and accepted at the table because of this interpretation, the countless years and years of misinterpretation of this parable that has left individuals bereft of the feeling that we might ever be allowed into the feast hall of God… I’m not sure that Chris Hoke understands that this interpretation doesn’t just redeem repentant gang members, prisoners, and convicted murderers, and allows them into the feast… but also other social untouchables, like gay and lesbian and transgendered persons, like the mentally ill, like the homeless, or any other marginalized group. THIS. IS. REVOLUTIONARY.
And thus I wept in the library, wept for years of being told the wrong version of this parable, wept for years of being told I would ultimately be excluded from God’s feast in Heaven. It’s not true. Chris Hoke finally told me the true meaning of Matthew 22:1-14.
Hoke is a true master of the vanishing art of storytelling. Matthew 22 isn’t the only Biblical story that he wraps in a modern context. Take note of the retelling of Acts 12:6-19 as a nail-biting adventure through airport security in order to get two immigrant friends on a plane across country. Take note of the interpretation of the First Letter of John 2:15-17 in the crass and attention-grabbing neck tattoo of a prison inmate. Take note of what the fable of St. Christopher means during a high-adrenaline motorcycle ride through the gang-riddled slums of Guatemala’s capitol city. As the review title for this book in Christianity Today states: “There are parables everywhere you look.” We just have to open our eyes, and Hoke is turning the highbeams on full blast into the dark crevice corners that society would like to otherwise forget.
I won’t say that this book is an easy read. It plumbs the depths of human atrocity; it creates mental imagery that is hard to forget; it doesn’t shy away from coarse and vulgar language. While I want to shout about the value of this book from the rooftops, I am not certain that I can recommend it to the delicate sensibilities of my sweet great-aunt (as much as I would like to). This book is not for the faint of heart, the easily offended, and certainly not for the supporters of Donald Trump’s ill-conceived 15-minutes of presidential-contention-fame. (Come to think of it, I would LOVE to hear Chris Hoke’s perspective on Donald Trump’s platform…)
But if you love good writing (damn, it’s good), if you want a real-world slap-in-the-face about the corruption of the United States penal system, and global poverty, and gang-and-drug violence with a twist of Gospel response (the true Gospel), then I HIGHLY recommend picking up a copy of Chris Hoke’s book WANTED: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders. This is one of those books that will always have a revered place on my most-treasured-and-influential-books’ shelf—a book that shifted my perspective, enlightened me, and changed the game. It’s one of those rare books that I will purchase over and over again for friends and family as a gift. (I have already bought several copies to give away.)
Chris Hoke is a new hero of mine, whether he wanted to be or not. Bless you, Chris Hoke.
I am humbly adding this review to a slew of amazing reviews already spreading around the internet and in press publications. Everyone is throwing accolades at this book. You need to read it. Let this book be the Christian anti-Donald Trump response to doing unto the least of our brethren. Let the blind compassion for diversity of human experience and skin-color found in this book be the response to the cowardice and violence of the massacred nine in South Carolina. Let this book start your civic outrage and ignite your response of love. Read. This. Book.
Photos are taken from Chris Hoke’s website. (Hope that’s okay, Chris. They’re beautiful.)