DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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TRINITY 20

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 national affairs.

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 over?
  • 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 down.

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)

and

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 religious credentials. 

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.

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