These last few weeks of readings have been quite the ride, haven’t they? Just look at the gospels we’ve had over the last few weeks:
- We usually think of it as “The parable of the wedding feast.” But it’s more like: The kingdom of heaven is like an angry king who sends a poor guy (obviously an introvert like me!) to hell. He was dragooned to a party, but because the cops wouldn’t let him stop at the tux rental shop, he wasn’t in black tie. So he’s a goner.
- We usually think of it as “The parable of the wise and foolish virgins.” But it’s more like: The kingdom of heaven is like a bunch of bratty bridesmaids who won’t share their oil, so their friends get sent to hell.
- We usually think of it as “The parable of the talents.” But it’s more like: The kingdom of heaven is where the rich get richer, and you go to hell for not ripping off your friends.
- We usually think of it as “The parable of the sheep and goats.” But this week, it’s more like: The kingdom of heaven, sends you to hell because you produce chevre rather than feta. Or, if you prefer:
- We usually think of it as the justification for the baptismal promises. But this week, it’s more like: The kingdom of heaven sends you to hell because you didn’t visit somebody in prison because you didn’t know they were there.
I don’t know about you, but this leaves me frustrated. Deacon Steven, last week, did a great job at turning the parable of the talents into something I could swallow, but it was still a pretty big and rather bitter horse pill, if you ask me.
And Matthew tops it off, as we celebrate “Christ the King”, with the King doing the sorting. So much for the compassionate judge we think we worship.
Steven helped us out by telling us one of the best ways of understanding a parable is by looking at how Jesus “flips” our expectations. We might be able to find how these three parables turn, the axis on which they flip, by just looking at the parables. But the lectionary gives us three readings from which to get the point. I need all three to get to where I think Jesus is going.
The Old Testament reading gives us a great place to search for the axis on which to “flip” our understanding of these last few gospels. Somebody thought it was a great idea to attach Ezekiel’s proclamation of hope to to the second and third generation of Jewish “aliens without paper trails,” living in central Iraq, to today’s lectionary, so let’s see what it can tell us about Kingship, and Jesus’s Kingship in particular.
Did you notice how often Ezekiel mentions “king” or “royalty”? Yes, David, the second king of Israel shows up, but not as King. He is there as shepherd, and as servant. The Septuagint—the Greek Old Testament—calls him “my deacon”: not priest, not prophet, not king. Shepherding the sheep is a job for servants, slaves, and youngest children. You remember hearing David called “prince.” Don’t be fooled. The word, in both Hebrew and Greek is really rooted, not in royalty, but in being the point-guy. So David is the “alpha sheep” in a species that doesn’t really have alphas?
Alongside David, God, Godself, will be the shepherd-boy?
This is God, abandoning heaven. This is God, becoming the youngest child. This is God, returning, once again, to walk with God’s people in the cool of the evening in a new creation. This is God as lover, seeking union with the beloved, not some King.
This God, the God most humble and the God beneath all things, contradicts the domination of kingship from the opposite end of the spectrum in St. Paul’s words to us in Ephesians. There Christ, risen from the dead, is with God “above the heavens”; he is so far beyond all power and authority that “King” isn’t even in the vocabulary. For Paul, describing Christ as King is almost an insult, for Jesus turns rulership on its head. Kings wallow in the mud; Christ and his sisters and brothers fly like eagles in the sky!
And so we return to Matthew and his three parables (for they are only in Matthew’s gospel). Matthew is a consummate artist; he knows what he is doing, and while parts of these parables make wonderful sense, they are full of flips. In first century Palestine, goats were brought indoors at night, because they needed to be kept warm; sheep left outside where, in their thick coats, they would comfortable and cool. So God as shepherd is going to stick everybody where they will be least comfortable? Huh?
The scene switches from “Jesus in Glory” to “Kings and Fathers”. Just like the kings and bridegrooms in the previous parables the king proceeds to reward and condemn nations, groups, not people. Everyone is confused. It seems so unfair.
This whole chapter of Matthew’s gospel only makes sense when we get to the first two verses of the next chapter:
And When Jesus finished all these sayings, he said to his disciples, "You know that after two days is coming and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified."(Matthew 26: 1-2)
This king is not going to rule; this king is going to die. The one who is the the true king is king by giving up all kingship. Venantius Fortunatus, the sixth-century poet laureate to the king of France, wrote in his hymn to Christ’s imperial majesty:
Fulfilled is all that David told in true prophetic song of old, how God the nations’ King should be, for God is reigning from the tree. (Hymn 162)
The flip in these parables isn’t between who gets to win and who is forced to loose, between who rules and who is enslaved, between who gets the extra million dollars and who goes home hungry, but on the very concept of judgment.
By Jesus’ cross and passion, God gives up on judgment.
It is a flip between the king who says “go to hell because you didn’t feed me” and the Jesus who says “If I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everything into myself.” (John 12:32). Jesus kingship isn’t rule—it’s a vortex of unending and transforming love.
In a hour or so a number of St. Paulites are going to be drawn more deeply into that vortex, that glory, that dance, that is the love of the Holy Trinity, through their claiming, once again, the love poured on them in their baptism. It is not just them who will become transformed, but because they are our sisters and brothers and we are part of the same Christ, we are drawn into that same love with them. And in just a few minutes, I will call you to eat, and to become what you eat in this bread and wine. You and are not just the church, we are the literal Body and Blood of Christ with our brothers and sisters who are renewing their baptisms. There is no real barrier between us and all the universe drawn into Christ, for we bring that universe with us as we become one with each other and with Christ.
This is the kingship of Christ: his love
This is the kingship of Christ: our servanthood bound into his
This is the kingship of Christ: the entire universe drawn together in God’s unbounded love.
This Kingship calls for total devotion, without boundaries. In the words of another hymn, Were the whole realm of nature mine, (and it is, for we are the sisters and brothers of the Word who made all nature) that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all. (Hymn 474) AMEN.