The readings set in the Churches Lectionary this week are from Exodus 32 and Matthew 22 and are about the unexpected. We live in a world of the unexpected. Just look at events over the last year or so with fire, flood, political incompetence and a Pandemic. Moses has been up on the mountain for a long time and the people are getting worried, even scared. They don’t really know where Moses has gone, or why—they don’t understand. Like so many times during their journey, they are confused and scared, and they lose faith which is not surprising. They ask Aaron to make gods for them and he makes a golden calf which of course God sees.
God tells Moses to go back down to the people, whom God threatens to destroy. God’s anger is not so surprising, but Moses begs God to reconsider, and reminds God of the promises made to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Then comes the surprise, the unexpected: God changes his mind and relents.
In Matthew we have the strange story of the king who held a wedding banquet for his son. The invited guests would not come, so the king sent his slaves out to bring people in from the street. He seems surprised to find a guest who is not dressed “appropriately,” and orders the slaves to bind the man and toss him “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” We might think that this is just a strange, rude, unkind man, full of himself and his power as king. We might think this is just an odd story, if it weren’t for the opening sentence of this passage:
“Once more Jesus spoke to the people in parables, saying: ‘the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.’” “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to….” We get the part about the kingdom of heaven being like a wedding banquet. The story starts out in a seemingly normal way, but quickly takes a strange turn when the guests refuse to attend the party. This is unexpected behaviour. We can understand the connection between the kingdom of heaven and people being invited in from the streets—this makes sense to us.
But then there is the unexpected behaviour of the king toward one of the guests who was probably poor and from the streets but isn’t dressed in appropriate wedding clothes. The king has him bound and thrown out into the darkness. What does this say about the kingdom of heaven? We are shocked and surprised, as were those listening to Jesus because in many cultures, hospitality was very important to people. It would have been unforgivable for guests or hosts to behave in such a manner. The listeners would have been shocked and offended, especially when Jesus compared this story to the kingdom of heaven.
Perhaps that was the point as Jesus often made unusual, surprising or uncomfortable comparisons in his parables. Once again, he challenges the assumptions of those listening, shocking them with a surprising or unexpected story. But why would he tell such a story about the kingdom of heaven? It was not just for shock value as Jesus wants to expand people’s perceptions. He was not saying that the kingdom of heaven is like the king or the banquet or the guests. He is saying that the kingdom of heaven is beyond our expectations, beyond our assumptions, beyond what we can analyse and think through and get our heads around.
It is saying to us that there is always more than what we can see. God will always surprise us; will always confront us with the unexpected. We are called to be open to more and not just to rest in the comfortable assumption that we know all about God. The Parables of Jesus make us uncomfortable. We don’t know what to do with them, these strange, confusing parables. We usually ignore them or try to find some way to explain them away— “well, this is what this really means.”
But there is a way of understanding them, without taking them literally. Jesus is deliberately provocative and challenges our preconceived ideas about what God and the kingdom of heaven are like. We all have our favourite ideas of what the kingdom of heaven might be like. Jesus is telling us that it will be like nothing we can imagine. In that over-used phrase, Jesus is inviting us to “think outside the box.” Because the truth is that we cannot know for certain.
This does not mean we are stupid, but we are human, and our knowledge and our understanding are limited. Even though we contain a spark of the divine, even though we are made in God’s image, we are not God. The most we can hope for in this lifetime are glimpses—through story and scripture, through prayer and meditation, through music and through our experiences. If we are open to the Spirit, if we listen, if we pay attention, we can catch a glimpse here and there of the kingdom.
These are the glimpses when Paul the writer of Philippians speaks in the Letter to the Philippians. He says,
beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable,
whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing,
whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and
if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
These are all things of the kingdom. The only things Paul left out of his list might be “whatever is surprising, whatever is unexpected.” It is often through those things that God speaks to us.