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"The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth"

The king is like God; the people who reject the invitation are like the Jews; the servants killed are the prophets; the city burned is Jerusalem; and the people off the street are the Gentiles.

[1] Sean Kenney’s art with Lego bricks
[1] Sean Kenney’s art with Lego bricks

Matthew 22:1-14

October 15, 2023

Dr. Todd R. Wright What do you think of when you hear the phrase “the kingdom of heaven”? About a month ago a group of members gathered to consider the texts we are going to be looking at for the next few weeks … and that was one of the questions they asked! Some said, when I hear “heaven” my mind goes directly to where we go after death; others said it makes them think of the line from the Lord’s Prayer: “on earth as it is in heaven”; and still others reminded the group that Luke’s Jesus talks about the kingdom of God instead. It makes a difference. Jesus doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about where we go after death. He does preach a lot about how God is at work in this world, how far our kingdoms are from what God wants; and how his followers are called to work for a God-reflecting reality!

 

So when Matthew records Jesus saying “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet …” we should understand that he is saying something about this earthly realm – both as a critique of how things stand and a hope for what believers will do. One caution: Since he is telling a parable, there is always a twist, a surprise, an element of the absurd, so don’t take things too literally! That’s a relief because this parable tugs us in different directions. Some have tried to make sense of it by making the whole thing an allegory: The king is like God; the people who reject the invitation are like the Jews; the servants killed are the prophets; the city burned is Jerusalem; and the people off the street are the Gentiles. The problem with that interpretation is that it exalts Christians at the expense of the Jews, and it makes God into a violent, vengeful figure. Neither reflect the Jesus we see elsewhere! So what do we know? Five key things: We know that “an ordinary village wedding in Jesus’ day would have been a multi-day affair and everyone would have been invited and involved. It would have been a rare occasion on which poor people would actually have more than enough to eat and drink! It was a celebration of the future and hope and life.”[2] I imagine a kingly wedding would have been all that, supersized! We know that Jesus told this parable after entering Jerusalem for the last time, when tensions were high and people were either proclaiming him Messiah or shouting that he was a dangerous threat that needed to be silenced. That had to have colored its reception. We know that Matthew and Luke tell a similar story, but Matthew’s is darker (and adds the final bit about the man without a robe being thrown into the outer darkness). He is writing at a time when Rome has put down a rebellion and destroyed the Temple. On top of that there is rising tension within the synagogues between those people who follow Christ and those who don’t. No wonder this parable is full of conflict! We know that in that culture robes were often handed out at the door by the wedding’s host, like paper hats at a birthday party, so the man’s decision to not wear it is a statement, not a signal of poverty or haste. What we don’t know is why he refused to wear a robe. And finally, we know that “when [early Christians] heard the word ‘robe’, they [probably] thought of the baptismal robe. Baptism meant not just a ceremony with words and water, but also a new social location and putting the rest of one’s life in jeopardy in order to enjoy being at the wedding banquet.”[3] As one scholar puts it, “If you weren’t prepared to take steps to show that being at that banquet meant everything to you, then you’d best not be there.”[4]

 

So we come back to the original question, what does this parable tell us about the nature of the kingdom of heaven? What should our world look like? How should the faithful act? Both Luke and Matthew agree that the original invitees reject the offer and that the king generously throws open the doors and invites everyone! As if the king cannot bear to party alone! If that were all Matthew had to say, then our answer would be that we should rejoice at God’s grace to us and that our hospitality should be driven by that same grace. But Matthew adds that robe bit. He wants us to hear something more.

 

What we wear matters. I remember a wedding I conducted while still at the beach. The groom was a marine and proud of it! His groomsmen were marines and they all planned to wear dress uniforms. The happy couple would exit the church through a archway of groomsmen holding swords! The bride’s father had left her mother, but he had been invited to walk her down the aisle. All was good, until the morning of the wedding. The doors swung open and there was the bride in white and her father wearing a costume shop version of a revolutionary war uniform! I’m not sure why. Maybe it was a joke that fell flat. Maybe he was drunk. Maybe he was a jerk. What I do know is that marines do not like being mocked and he is lucky he was not bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness! What does the kingdom of heaven look like? At that wedding it looked like choosing restraint over violence so that joy might rule the day!

 

But surely Jesus is making a deeper point than practical fashion advice and good manners. Karoline Lewis is blunt in her interpretation: “The text simply states a truth — a seat at the matrimonial banquet in the Kingdom of Heaven will require something more than merely accepting an invitation to discipleship. It’s not enough to RSVP and then just show up.[5] She elaborates: “It is not enough to call yourself a follower of Christ and then act as if you were sound asleep during the Sermon on the Mount. It is not enough to pledge allegiance to church membership without then vowing to live out that chosenness in the world. It is not enough say you are a ‘Christian’ and then stay silent when life, liberty, and love are in jeopardy.” If she is right, then Matthew is telling his members (and us) that we cannot reject Christ’s robe of costly compassion and go about wearing nothing but complacency and conformity and any other garb that is content with the way things are under the rule of the kingdoms of this world. In September, when we went out on a prayer walk through the neighborhood, we wore our VC T-shirts. Perhaps I’m being too literal, but we were wearing our robes for all to see! What does the kingdom of heaven look like? Like praying for your neighbors, face to face!

 

Chris Hoke has one more interpretation of this scene. He is a prison chaplain. When he told the inmates attending his Bible study this parable, they resonated with a God who goes out into the streets and invites the good and the bad to join the party! They know that is the only way they are going to get in! And they nodded at the detail about the robe, lamenting that they never have the right clothes. But they got agitated when he read the line about the robe-less man being thrown out. One prisoner, Richard, said, “So you didn’t really want us at all! What’s it say? — ‘Chains and gnashing teeth’? Hell yes, I’d be gnashing my teeth! ’Cuz that hurts so deep, Chris. Better to stay in the streets with the bad people than be told you’re wanted and then find out you’re really not!’”[6] What would you say in response to that? Chris blurted out, “You’re assuming the one not wearing the garment is one of the ‘bad’ people who were invited off the streets. But it doesn’t say that. What if it’s one of the ‘good’ people who feels suddenly uncomfortable around all these ‘bad’ folks pouring in from the streets and sitting next to him? Or her. Someone who’s too good to look just like the trash seated around the table? Someone who needs to set [them]self apart, not putting on the same robe — putting [them]self on the same level — as all the undeserving [rejects]?” Richard’s shoulders relaxed, but [Chris] was just getting started. “How do you think the host would feel, watching his new flood of guests that he invited from the streets to share his joy, now all feeling judged by this one [person], who’s totally killing the party? He’d throw [them] out … let [them] get it out of [their] system, grumble all [they] want — grind [their] teeth — until [they were] ready to come back in and share the joy of the king who wants everyone. Even people like you!” What does the kingdom of heaven look like? Maybe like judgement on those who don’t want to share God with anyone else. Maybe like a chance for the hosts to stand up for the least. Maybe like undeserved grace that is so rare it is almost unimaginable. I think Jesus is pushing the edges of the envelope. He’ll continue in the coming weeks. So be ready to keep thinking about how we are to live in the kingdom of heaven on earth. Amen

[1] Sean Kenney’s art with Lego bricks [2] From “A source of hope” a sermon on the text by Cynthia Campbell, 9/22/23 [3] From “Remade” a reflection on the text by Samuel Wells for the Christian Century, 8/7/08 [4] Ibid [5] Here and following, from “What not to wear” her reflection on the text for workingpreacher.org, 8/8/17 [6] Here and following from “Reading the parable of the Great Banquet in prison”, the Christian Century, 2/4/15
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