This Sunday many churches will be reading aloud a parable that should unsettle everyone. (Matthew 22:1-14). This is a prophetic parable, one that is supposed to be deeply troubling, to awaken us to our misplaced attention. But instead of being awakened, a number of us will just be confirmed in our hopes that we belong to the chosen, instead of among the folks unready to party down at the king’s banquet. Some of us will also sit back and scratch our heads and wonder how it is that the kingdom of heaven is like a king who throws a dude into the dungeon because he wasn’t wearing the right clothes. I once heard a sermon that translated this passage into a call to dress for success, an injunction to go and buy the clothes of wealth so we could attain wealth. The kingdom of heaven has fashion police? I’m writing this in faded clericals and stained working jeans and my sneakers are recently sewn up again at the seam. No wonder I should tremble and be afraid!
The description Jesus lays out in Matthew should concern us. It is deliberately provocative, the sort of thing a good teacher relates when everyone gathered round is very sure that they and not their neighbors are doing it all right, and they’re just there to have their report card stamped with another gold star. Yay-rah, teacher likes me. Jesus’ teachings often surprise; they’re frequently what’s not to be expected, and we probably should be startled enough to knock the wax from our ears and open our hearts to ask, “how’s that square with abiding love and mercy? Where’s God’s goodness and graciousness in this?”
Since the kingdom of heaven is also likened to yeast, hidden treasure, mustard seeds, and a thief breaking and entering, we’re probably doing a disservice to Jesus to understand this parable as a clear separating of people between heaven and hell. What understanding would connect us to the expansiveness and the continuing process of yeastiness? To the search for hidden treasure? To tiny common things that grow large and shelter many? To being surprised?
Jesus relates a story where people are ignoring what’s good and gracious and instead go out and mistreat and kill people. Misery and disaster follow. Perhaps we are like the people listening to this story, either originally or in the early years after Jesus’ death, and we identify well as part of any number of people who have a history of forgetting to take care of the poor and those in danger and be kind and generous and give thanks and praise to the Holy, and have ended up in personal and communal exile or occupation. When we aid and abet misery and disaster, more misery and disaster follow.
Problem is, the king still has the feast all set, so throws open the doors, no limited guest list. When Jesus shows up, during the era of Hellenistic Judaism, there’s widespread agreement among the Jewish people that God is the God of all creation, all the nations (Pamela Eisenbaum, Paul Was Not A Christian, 2010, p.197). You might have heard or been taught differently, because sadly, this parable has also been used to justify anti-Semitism and persecuting the Jewish people. But that’s later interpretation and tradition speaking, and we would do well to set that reading aside. Yes, there’s a group that’s chosen for special covenant, but God still is there for everyone. Everyone gets invited to the feast. People respond. They show up, ready for a wedding feast, not really knowing what to expect (“groom’s side or bride’s?” “um, actually, this dude just gave me this invitation, so, wow! let’s celebrate!”). But then there’s this one person who shows up, hands over the invite and isn’t ready to join the dancing. Because we’re like that. We think we’re ready and we get over to the party and distracted by something and we fail to be ready, to celebrate the moment.
My colleague David Breeden translates the kingdom of heaven as the dance of wonder (his book of meditations and translations of the Gospel of Thomas, News from the Kingdom of God, will be coming out soon, from Wipf & Stock). Are we ready to dance with wonder, really ready? Or are we so focused on trouble, so easily distracted, that we’re not really ready and we find ourselves sucked out of the possibility of dancing with wonder and bound in a jail we helped build? We’re going to know sorrows, plenty of them. What startles is the ever-present possibility of dancing with wonder. Are we really ready?