Thursday, August 18, 2022

Upside-down kingdom


The Gospel set for Holy Communion today is Matthew 22:1-14. Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven has been made this way: and goes on to tell a story.

Jesus tells the story of a king who wishes to secure his dynastic line of succession. He throws a banquet for his son and invites the great and the good. But these despise the king and refuse to come—some even revolt—and the king, enraged, has them all killed. He then sends his soldiers into the streets to press-gang whoever they find to attend, that he and his son might look popular and beloved. Think North Korea, Putin’s Russia, or any other dictatorship. One man stages a dignified protest. He is there, under duress, but he refuses to wear wedding clothes. When interrogated by the king, he refuses to speak. And so, he is bound, and taken beyond the walls, to where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The man is Jesus, who will be first dressed in a purple robe by soldiers in mock homage and then have that robe removed; who will be silent before Pilate, refusing to respond to his accusers; who will be bound, and led outside the city walls to the place of execution, and executed, along with others, while their women weep.

When Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven has been made like this, he is not saying that the kingdom of heaven has been made to be the same as the kingdoms of the earth, where those in power will kill to remain in power; but, rather, that the kingdom of heaven has been made to be a subversive, non-violent alternative in the very midst of such kingdoms.

This matters, enormously; because the ‘conventional’ way of reading this parable, where a king must always refer to God, and the son therefore to Jesus, leads not only to a defence of eternal conscious torment but also, and always, to the ‘Christian nationalism’ co-opted by Trump and Orbán. Whenever the Church seeks to hitch itself to earthly power, it results in a bastardisation of the faith, a perverse ‘righting’ of the upside-down kingdom where the weakness of God is true strength and the foolishness of God is true wisdom; a false witness that profanes the reputation of God among the nations (Ezekiel 36:23-28, the Old Testament reading paired with Matthew 22:1-14 at Holy Communion today).

Jesus ends by saying that those who have been invited into the kingdom of heaven are beyond number, but that those who respond to the call are few. A call to refuse to play by the rules of the world, even though the world may very well kill you (metaphorically or literally) is hardly popularism. And yet, it is through these few, who have said yes to God wholeheartedly, that the world may be transformed.


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