The Way God Does Things
Matthew 22.2 The kingdom of heaven is like
this. Once there was a king ...
All good stories begin with, "Once
upon a time ..." The phrase is a signal that what's coming is different
from the way we usually talk about the world. It doesn't mean, however,
that the story isn't true, but rather that truth is about to be addressed
using a special method.
It's not easy to get back to the story originally told
by Jesus in this parable because the author of Matthew's Gospel has
performed major surgery on an earlier version of what Jesus really said.
Despite that, if a little digging is done, the original can shine through
Matthew's editorial alterations and polemical purposes.
Before attempting to work out what Jesus may have wanted
to say through this parable, it's worthwhile to pause and ask what we are
to make of the phrase "kingdom of heaven". We don't generally have kings
and kingdoms nowadays. Two initial points can be made.
First, the Greek word which translates into "king" in
English would have meant what we today call a "head of state".
Second, the modern equivalent of "kingdom" is, I think,
"the type of government" or "the way things are done" in civic and
So when we read "the kingdom of heaven" in the New
Testament we might translate it in our minds to "the
way God does things" or "the way God prefers us to run our lives".
Our problem is that we're not really familiar with the
background to this parable - a background which everyone listening to
Jesus would have taken for granted. Two thousand years later things have
changed greatly. This makes it extra hard to understand what's going on.
In normal life in the first-century, a a high-up would
have sent his or her servant to invite each person well in advance of the
day of the party. Then on the day itself, a second servant would have been
sent to escort each guest to the high-up's house. In this story, it was this
second servant who was rebuffed.
The insult is plain. An invitation has been accepted, and
the guests are staying away even though all the preparations have been
completed. This was not just rudeness. It shamed the high-up before others,
it called his honour into question. Then, as now in Palestine, this was one
of the worst things anyone could do.
In the less-edited versions of this parable in Luke
(14.16-24) and Thomas (64), the guests compound the initial insult with
feeble excuses. Ask yourself this:
- Who would fail to inspect a farm before he bought it?
- What fool would buy oxen without first looking them
- How could anyone accept an invitation like this and
forget that he was getting married on the same day?
The message is clear. The high-up is being severely put
One other important aspect behind this parable may escape
most of us. Many people thought that the Messiah when he came to institute
God's rule, would invite all God's people to a gigantic feast. The rest
would be left outside "wailing and gnashing their teeth".
The righteous and elect shall be saved on that day ...
they shall eat and rest and rise with the Messiah for ever ... they
shall wear garments of glory. (1 Enoch 62.13-15)
The angel said to me, "Write this: Blessed are those
who are invited to the marriage supper of the lamb". (Revelation 19.9)
The central point of the story is relatively simple,
which is in line with what I would expect from Jesus as he addressed
crowds of ordinary peasants. Jesus is telling his hearers that if they
think this is the way God does things, they're making a great mistake. The
feast God invites them to is very different.
The way God does things, says Jesus, isn't at all what
might be expected. You may think that God's like a head of state, all pomp
and ceremony, all power and glory. You suppose that only chosen people
come to his banquets, only the spiritual elite who have acceptable
Wrong! God doesn't do things that way at all, says
Jesus. There is no guest list. There are no credentials. Social position
means nothing. Religious rectitude is of no account.
At God's banquet there are only people like you and me,
collected from the highways and byways of life without thought for who
might be suitable and who not. We come to the feast because we choose to,
not because we're suitable or decent or successful or any of the other
things which might otherwise be criteria for an invitation.
Don't think, says Jesus, that God's ways are your ways.