We all seek the kingdom

Week of Sunday October 9
Gospel: Matthew 22:1-14

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. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again 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.”5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” 10Those 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, 12and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. 13Then 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.” 14For many are called, but few are chosen.’

We are all looking for The Kingdom of Heaven. We might not call it that. We might call it The Peace, or The Good Life. Whatever we call it; all folk want that Sunday afternoon in the spring sun just after the start of daylight saving, when all is right with the world. The afternoon goes on forever, all is safe, and life is good.

We long for an end to the arbitrary vicissitudes of life, and its injustices, with the constant uncertainty of tomorrow. Even an understanding of why things are so, would be better than this lonely struggle in a world which seems to promise so much, and yet serves up pain and terror on the toss of some invisible dice.

We are all looking for the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Kingdom  is what Jesus came preaching. The kingdom of God is like... His heritage did not quite think in the imagery of glorious Sunday afternoons in the garden! The image in the mind of people living in a much harder age than ours, was this:

For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.
When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,
5 the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,
you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;
the song of the ruthless was stilled.

6 On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
7 And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
8 he will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth... (Isa 25)

We are all looking for the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus was not alone in his kingdom vision. The ruling elite had their own vision. They considered him an imposter. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matt 21:23.)

I am fascinated by a chapter of Borg and Crossan’s book The First Paul, which I am currently reading. In Chapter Four, Jesus Christ is Lord, they point out the astonishing chutzpah of Paul; there is in his developing Christian theology an almost line by line, word by word, challenge to the theology of the Roman Empire.

This highlights something that is easy to forget. The “world” is not a vacuum devoid of theology and mythology. It is not a blank slate eagerly waiting for our Good News. We are all looking for the Kingdom of God, and everyone, especially including the rich whom the Gospel of Thomas says “will not enter the places of my father” already has a theology of the kingdom. It may be an “eastern suburbs” theology that says “I deserve more than you in the north; this is my right.” It may be an imperial theology; truth, justice and the American Way; whatever it is, most people already have strong opinion on what will make the kingdom for them. They may not be able to articulate it well, but they will quickly recognise if Jesus arrives with a counter claim.

Jesus is posting a counter claim to the kingdom. I am using the old word kingdom very deliberately, because it has something implicit with it; allegiance. Whom will I serve? It’s the question of allegiance which so upsets everyone. It does not take from them their hold on power, so much as tell them their idea of kingdom is wrong. It destroys their world. It pushes them back out into the “blast of the ruthless,” and under the “shroud that is cast over all peoples.”

So it is not surprising that Jesus’ authority is challenged in Matthew 21:23 ff. Jesus answer is not merely a devastating debating technique. It highlights a choice of kingdom theologies. Because of the rejection of John Baptist  (21:28-32) the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of the priests and elders. (31) Likewise, the parable of the wicked tenants which attacks those who have ruled Israel and not borne fruit, is about competing theologies of kingdom. It is not merely political power. The vineyard in this parable (33) is Israel. But it is not the vineyard which is taken away from the rulers! The kingdom of God is taken away from them. They lose the hope of experience of the Good Life. “Therefore I tell you the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the Kingdom.” (43) The leadership was meant to be providing Israel with the experience of Kingdom, and was not. So the leadership will not eat the fruits of the vineyard.

Allegiance is writ large here; “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone one on whom it falls.” (44) There is a serious clash of world view, and claim for authority here. But it is not simply the authority of acceding to a belief or doctrine. There is an element of lived experience within it all.

And now we come, very clearly,  to the relationship of Jesus and the Kingdom. The Son of the King has been killed. (21:39). Yet the King is giving a wedding feast for his Son. (22:2) We have moved into the realm of the completion of the times, the not yet of the now but not yet Kingdom.

"All is ready" is clear eschatological language.  One should ask:  How is it that "all is ready"?  Note that the figure of "the son" does not actually appear in this parable.  This "son" had been killed in the parable of the wicked tenants immediately preceding.  Yet, in this parable, the son is obviously alive.  The parable of the wedding banquet assumes that the son has been raised from the dead.  In his death and resurrection, "all is ready." (Petty)

There is not much doubt that something like this is in Matthew’s mind. He has clearly dressed up a common story of the time for his purposes.  Luke (14) has mention of neither king nor wedding.  In Gospel of Thomas (64) the story does not contain a king. The Palestinian Talmud has a similar story of a feast, lacking both king and  wedding.

Matthew constantly uses the term “those who have been called.” It sticks out in the Greek; mantra like. Keklemenou has the same root as the word for the church (ekklesia.) The highways are described using the word hodos; the Way. There are broad hints and echoes for Matthew’s listeners of the place of the church in the coming Kingdom.

The thing about this Kingdom is that it is gift. The eventual guests are not those you invite to a wedding. Think of the typical wedding guest: to be sure, the young couple today wish to invite friends and dear family. But convention and wisdom dictate significant Uncles, and friends and business associates of the parents, and other allegiances. The parents will have their own list!

This is so much more the case for the wedding of the King, where the guest list has little to do with friendship and much to do with politics. You get invited because of your status and usefulness to the ruler. The point of the parable, of course, is that these guests refused to come, and are “not worthy” of their invitations.

The Pharisees (22:15) are no more impressed by this story than they were at the end of Chapter 21. Afraid to arrest him (21:46) they will try and trap him by his own words (22:15)

The gift of the kingdom is that the king sends his slaves out to bring in all those whom (the unworthy elite of the ) society has deemed “not worthy.” Invite everyone you find, and yes, the kaleo root of ekklesia is the word used for invite.

I think the NRSV makes a translation error here. It is stylistically cofortable to say “both good and bad.” (10) That is the rolling off the tongue style of our culture. In the gift culture of the Kingdom,  the Greek reads the slaves gathered together as many as they found; both bad and good...

I suggest the order is deliberate. The “bad” are no afterthought. The reading is deliberately uncomfortable. The kingdom is gift for everyone.

But in case we in the church should be complacent, there is a sting in the tale.

‘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. (22:11-12)

Petty notes:

This person is called "friend" (etairos).  Matthew uses this word three times in his gospel--once to describe the "friend" who complained about the justice of the owner in the parable of the laborers of the vineyard, its use here, and once in relation to Judas, the betrayer.  The word carries a certain chill.

He goes on to exegete the passage in this way:

Robert Capon imagines that the host of the banquet supplied the wedding garments.  Otherwise, how could you expect people rounded up off the streets to have the proper clothes?  You don't leave for work in the morning by packing a tux in your lunch box on the outside chance that someone might call you to a wedding party.

The host supplied the wedding garment of the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The Great Banquet has been made possible and ushered in by that and that alone.

One person has apparently thought the banquet is based in something other than that.  He wears some other garment.  We are not told whether the man wore rags or a tux.  It matters not which.  Anything other than the wedding garment of Christ's death and resurrection is irrelevant.

What does this  image actually mean? What are we doing to our life if we think we have arrived in a ‘kingdom’ or at a place of peace, which is not based in the death and resurrection of Jesus?

We are all looking for the Kingdom of Heaven. Does this image suggest we should not let ourselves be too easily satisfied that we have arrived, or we may find we are not in weddng clothes at all? Might we find we are dressed for some other feast, or we have gone to the wrong place?

Is being wrongly dressed a symbol of  dissatisfaction with the feast to which we have been called (ekklesia)?

I’m reminded of a feast somewhere in my past memory; perhaps I am imagining it. I see Doug Mills arriving. He looks around to see if he can help, then sits down anywhere and relaxes next to another person. Doug is living in the moment, enjoying it for what it is, and glad to be present. Essentially, he is living in one of those precious Sunday afternoons with which I began. I see another person, anxious, trying to prove himself, wanting to be higher up the table ,(Luke 14) but afraid he does not even belong where he is. It all comes out in a slightly petulant picky pride.

Matthew’s mean streak and outrage emerges  again in this parable. (As well as the burning of the city Jerusalem in verse 7,) the man without the wedding robe is bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Bill Loader makes a stunning comment about this, which relates back to the grace-full nature of the banquet. He says of the reading:

Beyond the strategy to save the party at the story level is the much richer notion of God's generosity, not as an afterthought, but as God's enthusiastic being and delight in all people and pain at their refusal to share the life freely offered. A theology in retreat pictures a miffed god in retreat with a pretty violent temper, typical of a closed group of elites under siege. From Matthew you could take off along that track, but you need not. It was against such elitism that Jesus protested the universality of God's love and goodness. [My emphasis]

I wonder if the mark of our wedding gown is the ability to let go of our need to punish and exclude, and thereby build ourselves up. In the party which I remember, Doug was old and ready to let go of life. But the second person really was a person “under siege” in life. Censorious and critical, it seemed like he had not noticed what he had been given, or had not yet found what he was looking for.

We are all looking for the Kingdom of Heaven. If we find it, we will find it has been given to us; even to we who belong.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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