Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The god of Kingdom

The god of Kingdom

Any time I read a parable in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) I have begun asking myself, "When is a parable about a king not a 'kingdom parable'?" 

I was set on this path years ago when I heard Ched Myers declare out loud that the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30, every capitalist's favorite parable) was not a "kingdom parable." That is, it is not a parable about how the Kingdom of God operates, if we interpret that to mean that the "master" in this parable would be a figure of God. "How could he be a figure of God," Ched wondered, "if the Master is described as 'a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, gathering where you did not scatter seed.'?" In fact, God is described quite the opposite in story after story, psalm after psalm, letter after letter, and even in parables such as the rapacious scattering of seed in the Parable of the Sower. In the end, Ched declared that the one who did not invest his 'talent' (a unit of money, not a special ability), was the one who was acting faithfully, because he was refusing to play along with a 'Master' whose way of life was oppressive. 

I have that same kind of reaction to the Parable of the Wedding Feast, in Matthew 22:1-14. Every person of faith and good will bristles when hearing this parable and its king’s harsh overreactions to his people and particularly the hideous treatment of the guest who is ill-dressed. Of course, commentators – who seem to be bent on making parables safe for consumer digestion – will offer a billion reasons why the king in this story is acting rightly. “The king’s people killed his messengers! They refused his hospitality! And that guy was not just underdressed, he was showing dishonor to the king by showing up that way!” There will even be a “Middle East expert” somewhere along the lines who has found a parchment that might have been written by someone who matters saying that wedding apparel might have been a much bigger deal than any of us dares to imagine these days. Maybe.

Phew! As unstable as that argument is, it’s good enough for us. As long as the people who get the king’s harsh treatment deserve it, we’re safe because God is still the loving God we imagine, albeit with a slight tendency to ‘go postal’ on folks who dis God’s honor.

Well, I’m not buying it and here are my reasons why.
1.     The king in this story responds to rejection with violence (way, way over-the-top violence). In Matthew’s gospel, the kingdom of God is about overcoming evil with good. (See chapters 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount.)
2.     The king in this story is most interested in seeing his banquet hall filled with guests. We think that is a good thing – since we’ve bought into a marketing definition of evangelism and called it good – but Jesus accuses the religious leadership in Jerusalem of being very zealous in reaching out and making disciples, even if they disciple them for perdition. We notice that the king’s son – whose wedding is ostensibly the occasion for this feast – never seems to show up.
3.     The king in this story calls the man who is ill-dressed “friend.” Aw, that sounds nice and godly, doesn’t it? Until we read the next story and we see how perniciously the religious leaders address Jesus as a wise and truthful teacher, all the while they are setting him up for his death.
4.     The king’s messengers are ignored, then mistreated and killed. We immediately imagine that this must be the history of the prophets at work here. We may be right, but we should also remember that the history of the prophets was part of the religious leadership’s own story. They imagined themselves as part of this tradition, and they believed that God’s way of dealing with rejection was with violence.
5.     In the previous parable, Jesus tells of a vineyard owner – also often considered to be a God-figure – whose messengers were killed. Jesus ends by asking the religious leaders, “What will the owner of the vineyard do?” They reply, “He will kill those evil people evilly and give his vineyard to those who will produce!” And Jesus DOES NOT SAY, “You’re right! Ding! Ding!” Instead, Jesus says, “Have you never read the Scriptures?” And Jesus goes on to describe a stone that was rejected. It returned to be the chief cornerstone. That is, God’s response to rejection is not violence, but resurrection.

But, you may protest, the parable must be a “kingdom parable” because it begins with the words, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king …”

Well, it does and it doesn’t. The verb here is not a ‘subjunctive’ verb, which is typically translated ‘may be ….’ It is an aorist (past tense) passive verb and is probably best translated something like, “The kingdom of heaven has been compared to ….” For all of the reasons that 8th grade literature students are told not to use the passive voice, Matthew very deliberately does use the passive voice. Jesus is not owning this view of the kingdom of heaven. He’s throwing it out there as what is said – and I’d say it is the view that is said specifically by the religious leadership with whom he is in a pitched argument in these chapters of Matthew.
Jesus is not offering his own view of the kingdom of heaven here; he is critiquing the way that others describe the kingdom of heaven. Why, they even try to limit God’s grace by claiming, “Many are called, but few are chosen”! How does that square with the God whose covenant with Abram is established so that, in him, ALL NATIONS will be blessed? What kind of king is this, anway?

Ah, there’s a good question. What kind of king strikes back against rejection with vicious violence? What kind of king offers a banquet which his subjects loathe to attend? What kind of king seems more interested in the appearance of support (by a crowded banquet hall) than in the persons who were invited in the first place?

There’s an answer to that question, which every 1st century Jew in Jerusalem and Galilee knew well. Herod is just that kind of king. The power of the Roman Empire instilled just that kind of repugnance, even when it was displayed with flash – like a beautifully ornate temple or a lavish religious feast. When we hear ‘king’ we assume the parable is about God. When Matthew’s audience heard ‘king,’ don’t you think their first impulse was to think Herod or the other kings of that region who were kept in power by the violence of Rome? At least for them they didn’t have to explain away the violence and impunity of the story – that was exactly what they had grown to expect from kings of the Herod variety. And that is what this parable describes.

When is a parable about a king not a ‘kingdom parable’? When the king in question is a vicious, violent Herod-like ruler who only knows the language of coercion in response to rejection. Like this one.


  1. Kingdom of God has taken from the Jews and given to another nation. This has been prophesied by Jesus that is written in Matthew 21:(43) Therefore, I say unto you, that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and will be given to a nation that will produce the fruit kingdom.
    Kingdom of God has given to all the people in the outside world (according to the prophecy of Jesus, above) by the Arabs in the form of Islam.
    More can be seen on blog: http://ishamerdeka.blogspot.com/

  2. Agus: I disagree with your reading of Mt.21:43. I do not believe that Jesus is speaking to "the Jews," but to a group of Jewish leadership that was acting in bad faith. The word 'nation' in your text could mean many things, including just 'people,' without reference to Jews, Arabs, or whomever.
    As a Jew and as one whose followers were Jews, Jesus was not speaking against the history, people, or nation of Israel in general. He was in the stream of Jewish reformers, who spoke out against corrupt and unfaithful practices - not that God was breaking God's covenant with Israel.

  3. Isn't this parable one of 'ultimately's? First century history quite possibly being valid with reference to Herod, etc (thanks for this perspective by the way!), Jesus here also illustrates God's grace when the guests do not come. When they don't come a second time and even kill the messengers, the response by the king is the ultimate response God will have on those who reject his message; it will be one of judgement. This side of the parable is not a fire and brimstone, angry, lightning-bolt God; it is the result of a choice the guests made, and will be applied when Christ returns, not in the lifetime of the guests, and certainly not immediately. The guest who is thrown out of the banquet is someone who made the right noises perhaps, and so seemed genuine, but ultimately his heart was not right, because he did not consider the king important enough to fully commit to. His fate is like the first wave of guests. God is not angry; he holds out choices to us, each with consequences. The fact that one consequence is unpleasant or even violent is not a reflection of God's disposition; we as humans ultimately choose that path.

  4. Aj: Thanks for chiming in. And thanks for focusing on the ultimate. I guess I have a fundamentally different way of naming the ultimate word. I believe that the ultimate word lies with the God who spoke the originating word - the alpha and omega. I believe that the ultimate word is not condemnation, but salvation. I'm particularly taken with Paul's language in Romans 4&5, when he uses the language of "superabundance" to describe how, if the first Adam's sin brought the world under judgment, "much more surely" will the second Adam's death bring redemption for all.
    In the end, I believe it is the redemption of God's choosing, not the punishment for human choosing, that is the ultimate word.
    Thanks again for your comment.


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