Once again, we had some audio issues this morning that made it hard for people listening at home to hear Molly’s sermon. So here is the full text. It really was a fantastic first homily, and I’m so grateful that Molly offered it to us.
I’ve got some doozies of passages from Scripture to talk about with you today. We have the grand slam combo of the golden calf and the violent parable of the wedding banquet. And then, the icing on the cake, a letter from Paul telling two female leaders of the early Church to get along and setting some nigh impossible standards for doing so, while encouraging a man to step in and set them straight. They say, “preach what you know,” and I’m Jewish, so I might know a thing or two about the Exodus passage. I’m also a woman so I’m really tempted to take on Paul, but I thought “hey, I’ve never had a wedding so I should definitely talk about the parable.”
No, in all seriousness, I was initially super hyped about discussing a parable because I’ve actually been reading this wonderful book on parables by a renowned Jewish scholar of the New Testament, Amy-Jill Levine. Yes, you heard that right: Jewish scholar, New Testament. The book is called “Short Stories by Jesus” and I highly recommend it, but, much to my dismay, it does not discuss this parable specifically. Like any good teacher or rabbi, like Jesus, Amy-Jill gives us the tools but she does not give us the answers.
Some highlights from Levine’s book will serve as my tools today. One of her central theses is that Jesus’ parables have been domesticated over the years into what have become traditional interpretations, but interpretations which are often subtextually anti-Jewish. She rejects the all too popular inclination to fit parables into the “Old Way (read: Jewish law way)-bad, New Way-good” narrative arc that seems to have become a bedrock of modern Christian thought. It helps that she’s Jewish and rather astutely points out that so was much of the audience of Jesus’ parables when they were first spoken. I’m inclined to agree with her on this point, and I think Jesus, the author of the parables, would too, given his famous line, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.” Judaism existed for thousands of years before Jesus walked the earth and has continued for thousands of years since Jesus was alive. Largely, during all that time, Jews were oppressed, not by internal rules and regulations, but by outside corruption in the dominant culture. It seems clear that God himself did not become a Jewish man to die on a cross simply to liberate Jews from the oppression of Jewish practice, but I digress.
Nevertheless, Levine does argue that parables should still be disruptive to the status quo, just not necessarily to Judaism in particular. They are Jesus’ way of shocking our systems into contemplation. She writes, “The parable should disturb. If we hear it and are not disturbed, there is something seriously amiss with our moral compass. It would be better if we perhaps started by seeing the parable not as about heaven or hell or final judgment, but about kings, politics, violence, and the absence of justice. If we do, we might be getting closer to Jesus.” To do this, Levine will often recast where we traditionally place God and ourselves in relation to one another within the characters of a parable.
Finally, Levine is often not fond of Matthew’s presentation of parables, asserting that he turns them more into metaphors by giving a moral to the story. In this case, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Touchy word, there, “chosen.” Whenever possible, Levine will look to other Gospels, usually Luke, to see if there is another telling to which we can make a comparison and in doing so, derive clearer meaning, without necessarily taking Matthew’s word for it. Indeed, there is a similar passage in Luke, but instead of a wedding feast it is a more quotidien dinner party, and the folks on the original guest list offer specific excuses along the lines of “it’s a bad weekend, I just bought five oxen,” while it is explicitly stated that the new guests are “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” Certainly, this is much more on-brand for the Jesus we know and love as a champion of the downtrodden, and it completely drops the most disturbing, weeping and gnashing of teeth part where a guest is bound and thrown out of the party for violating dress code. But it still concludes pretty petulantly: “For I tell you, ‘None of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”
These final aphorisms from Matthew and Luke have been invoked over the years by fire-and-brimstone preachers who use Jesus’ words to force us to reckon with the concepts of heaven and hell, the very concepts that Levine directs us away from: “Will you be one of the chosen? Will you be there to dine at the glorious feast of heaven or do you have other plans of earthly concern?” Or, in tamer words more palatable to us mainline Protestants, “The last shall be first so make sure you walk the walk all the way to the pearly gates.”
I will note that this parable appears in the context of a Jesus vs. the Pharisees theology showdown in both Matthew and Luke, so it is very possible that he is in fact intending to scare them, if not with a physical threat to be thrown out and tortured, then a spiritual one. And, it may be easy to cast the Pharisees as the dinner party guests who shirk their invitation in order to attend to their new cattle, a heavy-handed metaphor for their concern with earthly law. The Jews who do not follow Jesus to heaven are then the impolite first wedding guests, who were called but not chosen and hold the servants of God captive.
There’s one problem with that though, which is that most Jews, in Jesus’ audience then and still today, were not as much concerned with the afterlife as with how to live a God-honoring human life. And while God has criticized the Israelites in the past for corrupting this passion by idolizing earthly things, like the Golden Calf, time and again throughout scripture, God has honed and honored Jewish pursuits for justice and peace on earth. Not once has that goal been questioned or compared to petty excuses for getting out of going to a banquet. We’re God’s chosen people. If God didn’t smite us at Sinai, why give up on us now? It just doesn’t sit right with me.
I want to be clear: Jesus doesn’t really shut up about resurrection or the kingdom of heaven. Among the parables, a large portion of his greatest hits start with “The Kingdom of God is like…” as a “Once upon a time” of sorts. Clearly, these are not unimportant concepts and we should consider them when searching for meaning in Jesus’ words. But I also want to take a cue from Amy-Jill for a moment to ask, what if there is a different meaning beyond the same old story of hypocritical Pharisees and oppressive Jewish law? Of all the ways Jesus could have sent them, and us, a message, why this way?
I think the key to understanding this parable about the kingdom of heaven is probably the key to the kingdom of heaven himself, Jesus. Jesus brings about our salvation through his death and resurrection. And he knows this is going to happen when he’s speaking. He’s just entered into Jerusalem and is doing his final mic drops of preaching. So, where is Jesus, where is God in this story?
Many of us automatically locate God as the king, giving a wedding banquet for his son. This makes sense as we know God as King of All Creation and Jesus as the Son of God. Jesus’ relationship to us as the Church is even described elsewhere in Scripture through the metaphor of a wedding. But in this parable, the antecedent to the king in the story is not God. It’s God’s kingdom. It’s the kingdom of heaven, as in “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…a king.” If the king in this story is meant to represent the kingdom of heaven, then the kingdom of heaven is much more violent than the popular, pristine, white cloudy image would suggest. There are troops burning cities and enslaved people being murdered and rules of engagement that result in a “friend” being thrown into darkness. It sounds more like earth than heaven. So, let’s entertain the idea that the king is not God in this parable, that this isn’t a parable about God as much as it is about God’s kingdom.
Even if God isn’t the king himself in this parable, this should still be strange and disturbing to us. The kingdom of God recognizes the wedding guest, calling him “friend” and then has him bound and thrown out when he doesn’t answer a question about his clothes. What would our interpretation of the parable be like if we located God not as the king but as the wedding guest? Jesus is about to be recognized by his friend and tried against the arbitrary law of the world. He will answer with silence and then be crucified. The kingdom of heaven may be compared to this because it is brought about by it.
If we take Jesus to be the man thrown out from the wedding, then what do we take ourselves or Jesus’ Jewish audience to be? And what do we take the kingdom of heaven to be? Perhaps we are the first guests on the list who squander the opportunity for celebration because we’re just too busy, or perhaps we’re the regular folk who nevertheless get a seat at the table. But perhaps we are the enslaved, the troops, the attendants in this kingdom: oppressed not by Jewish law or even God’s bidding, but by human corruptions of those ideals, killing God and being killed in God’s name. It is very Jewish to identify with the underdog, after all.
This is still an unsettling prospect indeed, but it is a realistic one. And it suggests something very interesting about the kingdom of God. Not to dismiss ponderance about the afterlife, but perhaps the kingdom of heaven that Jesus is talking about here is a bit more of an imminent concern. To quote a great 20th-century theologian, Belinda Carlisle, “Ooh baby do you know what that’s worth? Ooh heaven is a place on earth. They say in heaven, love comes first. We’ll make heaven a place on earth. Ooh heaven is a place on earth.” Of course the goal of making the kingdom of heaven an earthly reality is not a concept original to Carlisle, but her use of both the present and future tense is radically inspiring and parallel to Jesus’ modal auxiliary “may” as in “may be compared to.” It may now be compared today, it may be compared in the future.
Again, I may be off-base here, but there’s something about Jesus’ parables relating to the kingdom of God that make me more inclined to interpret them as being about something more concrete and immediate and even earthly than the abstract concepts of heaven and hell. I will point out that while Jesus’ audiences were familiar with the apocalyptic language of prophets, he describes the kingdom of heaven not with angelic imagery but with a worldly vernacular. The parables are about everyday, albeit somewhat random and obscure topics: a pearl, leaven, mustard seed. The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant, a woman, a gardener, a king. Maybe Jesus is challenging the Pharisees in a different way than we often think he is. Maybe he’s not dumbing down the imagery for us because there’s no way we could fathom heaven. Maybe heaven really is closer to humanity than we think, still held in the ambiguity and mystery of present and future tenses.
Why we think of heaven as more detached from human existence is a whole different topic that I will happily punt to Karl for a future sermon, but I want to conclude by suggesting that the parables we’ve been discussing these past few weeks invite us to think about what the kingdom of heaven may be like. And I’ll invite you to do that with me, with particular focus on the implications of a more immediately present kingdom of God, during coffee hour.
I only really have one guiding question for you to ponder in preparation, which should make up for all the weeks when Karl asked six questions. It’s in the fine Jewish tradition of midrash or what I like to think of as scriptural fan-fiction. The question is this: What is your parable or metaphor for the kingdom of heaven? Maybe it looks like the Israelites being saved time and again by God and then still messing up and pleading for forgiveness. Maybe it looks like two women of faith debating and being chided when their personal rift starts to impede their ministry. I encourage you to borrow from scripture when answering, particularly the construction “The kingdom of heaven is like…” or “The kingdom of God may be compared to…” if you find a mad-lib type structure to be useful. But don’t lean too heavily on it. Jesus is the key to heaven, but his word on the subject isn’t the last; if anything, it’s the first. And he’s a good rabbi, so he leaves us to imagine our own answers.