Grace to you all and peace, from God our creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus, who is the Christ.
The dominion of heaven or the dominion of God. This phrase has become familiar to us as we have been journeying through the Gospel of Matthew this year. In the last few weeks, we read that “The dominion of heaven will be taken away,” and before that, “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the dominion of God ahead of you.” We’ve also heard that the “dominion of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning,” and before that “the dominion of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts.” And this is just the last four weeks of Gospel readings.
In the gospels, the stories about Jesus’ life, the dominion of heaven is both the message of Jesus and the message about Jesus. When Jesus says in today’s reading that “The dominion of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son,” I encounter what my teachers called “cognitive dissonance.” This dissonance, or pause, comes about because the dominion of heaven is something that we should look forward to, that we could anticipate, but when we encounter this story of the king, I don’t find myself doing that.
Because this story of the King throwing the wedding banquet – it is filled with violence! This king that Jesus says may be compared to the dominion of heaven orders that people be “destroyed” and that their city be burned. That very king orders a person be bound hand and foot and “thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”–Simply because he wasn’t wearing the right clothing.
Does that seem like dominion of heaven to you? Does that seem like the message of Jesus and the message about Jesus? I’m not so convinced.
Yet, throughout the history Christian engagement with scripture, there have been countless saints of the faith who have sought to soften and make this parable more palatable as an example of the dominion of God.
One way many interpreted the parable was an allegory: God as the King, Jesus as the son. Those rejected slaves were the rejected prophets, and the first guests who refused to attend the wedding banquet were God’s chosen people, the Israelites, while the last-minute guests were the gentiles. Us.
And if we are those people who are invited the banquet that filled the wedding hall, I suppose that this would be good news for us. But it would only be good news for us. And then only if we didn’t care what happened to anybody else. If we didn’t care that the people who had been un-invited would all die in a burning city, destroyed by the host of the banquet. Destroyed by…god, in this story.
So I guess someone could say that was good news. But they would have to acknowledge that it was definitely not good news for all of creation, or even all people.
No, dear people, I don’t think we can believe that this understanding, this interpretation is good news. In fact, this understanding which places us in and the Israelite people out is blatantly anti-Semitic, which as Christians that claim Lutheran heritage should especially renounce.
As theologian Debie Thomas writes, “this traditional interpretation of the story, the Jewish people get everything wrong, lose their coveted place on God’s A list, and take a backseat to the more faithful and more deserving (gentile) church. What a dangerous and wounding angle on the story — an angle that participates in the long, bloody history of the church’s abusive relationship with the Jewish people from whom we come.”
But that isn’t the only challenge with this interpretation, because what about God in this story? If God is the king, do we really believe that God is so petty that if people refused to listen to God that God would burn down an entire city to appease God’s ego? Is that the same God who Jesus described with the affectionate term “father?” I don’t know.
So let us return to this parable, searching for a different understanding that might redeem it from this history of harmful interpretation.
So what if…what if Jesus in his telling of this parable isn’t telling us what the dominion of God is, but rather what we imagine it to be? Maybe Jesus tells this parable about the horribly harsh king exactly because that is the God who many of us grew up believing in and that still dwells within our heads and our hearts?
What if this description of the king in the parable isn’t describing God, but rather exactly what God isn’t? Maybe this king is actually representative of the kings and rulers that would have been familiar to the people hearing this parable in first century Palestine. For example, rulers like the roman emperor Nero who is rumored to have set a fire that destroyed 2/3s of Rome supposedly to make room to build a new palace for himself.
Have we applied our understanding of a violent, easily offended, easily angered God and then presented this to the world as our God? Have we presented a God who’s love and care has strings attached? Love and care that we then reflect with similar strings attached? Probably…
We all know friends and family who have experienced the church as being a place that is exclusionary and judgmental. In conversations in bible study, we have talked about how the fear of God many of us were taught could sometimes be more of a simple fear rather than a respect that we understand that term to mean.
“The dominion of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son” is where we began, and it is where we return to. If this parable is not an allegory for what the dominion of heaven should be, but rather reflects how humanity has mistaken the ideal dominion of heaven, what next? Where do we go with this new understanding? How can this be good news not just for us, but for all of creation?
Good news that is truly good news, must be good news for all of creation. Not salvation or comfort or hope at the expense of others. Good news, Jesus’ good news was a message so radical and disruptive that it led the governing authorities to have him crucified. Where is that good news in this parable?
I again return to Thomas, who suggests the unexpected of experiencing Jesus in the parable not as the son of the murderous king, but as the guest who was thrown out from the banquet? Jesus, who didn’t wear the garments of power, who didn’t fit in with the preconceived notions of the messiah, as the one who is thrown into the outer darkness. A person who entered the pain and death of the cross and the grave?
I am reminded of a camp skit that the counselors would do every year. In the skit, there is a person who receives a call, and the call is from Jesus. Jesus says that he is coming by this person’s house for dinner, and for them to be waiting for him. So the person prepares a great feast, and then the doorbell rings! But when they answer it, it is just a stranger with ragged clothing asking for som food, and the person is expecting Jesus so they give the person some cans of old green bean, and send them away. Then two more times other people come asking for food, and the homeoener sends them away. Then when it is getting later in the evening, there is another Phonecall from jesus, and the homeowner says, “When are you coming, the food is getting cold.” And Jesus says, why, I have already been there three times, and you didn’t invite me in to eat.
In our walk of faith, how are we like this homeowner–looking for what we expect of Jesus? What would change for us in our lives if Jesus was not the son of the king, but the poorly dressed person at our door?
How might we have to be open to recognizing Jesus in our midst in ways that we never would have expected him? How might we be open to experiencing god as anything else than a ruling king, in majesty?
As followers of the crucified one, we need the reminder that within the parables, we can recognize who God is and who God isn’t. So as we embrace the God of love that we know through the life of Jesus, we can better recognize the ways in which the heartless kings and rulers of the world do not represent our God. Amen.