October 15, 2017
“The kingdom of heaven may be likened to …” These are the words by which, in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus introduces his parables. We’ve heard this phrase so many times, by its repetitious use it has become so familiar for us that its meaning for us probably is not more than the words with which the fairy tales begin: “Once upon a time there was…” From time to time we need to be jolted from our complacency and reflect a little on the deep, rich meaning of frequently used words or phrases so that they’d regain in our minds their original luster.
The most common misunderstanding of the words “kingdom of heaven” is that it means that heavenly kingdom where we hope to get after we’ll die. But only Matthew uses the form of “kingdom of heaven”, in the two other synoptic gospels of Mark and Luke we read “kingdom of God” instead. Matthew, by substituting “heaven” for “God”, follows the custom of the rabbis of his time who wanted to avoid in this way the possible sin of “taking God’s name in vain.” Thus the phrase also in Matthew means “kingdom of God.”
The kingdom of God is the main topic of Jesus’ preaching. God’s age-old promise and the Jews’ age-old dream was the arrival of a great kingdom under the rule of a glorious, holy, powerful, perfect king, a descendant of David, a king to whom the name “Messiah” was given, in Greek Christos, in English, “the anointed One.” In the first reading of today’s Mass we saw the happiness connected with the arrival of this messianic age by the customary name “on that day”, and “on this mountain,” on Mount Zion where the Temple was standing in Jerusalem when “the Lord God will wipe away the tears from every face.” With the coming of Jesus at long last this promise has been fulfilled: the kingdom of God has arrived. But this kingdom turned out to be very different from what the Jews at Jesus’ time had expected. This kingdom is not a geographic or political reality: the kingdom of God is a community gathered around Jesus, the community of those people who voluntarily surrender themselves to God and are ready to do His will. The kingdom of God is the community of those who allow God to rule over their lives, who allow God to be their ruler. Thus, the kingdom of God is not identical with the membership of the Church because there are - unfortunately - quite a few Christians whose way of life is not exactly a total surrender to God’s rule. Even so-called good individual Christians belong to the kingdom only as much as they allow God to rule their lives. Only a saint does belong to the kingdom completely, 100%. Thus the full arrival of the kingdom will happen only in heaven but, partially, the kingdom of God is present also here on earth, in the midst of us as Jesus says, “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you”. The kingdom is already here, it is already present, yet we continue to pray for the fullness of its arrival: “Thy kingdom come.”
Jesus as the best educator knew that the most effective teaching happens through means that the audience can visualize: through images or stories. People, and particularly the Middle-East people, love stories. Jesus was teaching, most of the time, by telling stories: He was a great story teller. Some of His stories, like the one about the Prodigal Son, or that of the Good Samaritan, are literary masterpieces. Of course, by His stories He wanted to teach, not just to entertain, and so his tales were stories with a moral: stories that are called parables. The Greek word “parable” means simply placing two things next to each other for the sake of comparison. A parable-story is a word-picture of something familiar that shows the likeness between this familiar item and a less-familiar subject. The less-familiar subject in Jesus’ case is the kingdom of God and the story of the parable is the familiar item to which the audience can relate immediately.
Well, let’s compare the story we’ve heard in the gospel today and the idea of the kingdom of God: let’s try to find out what the parable tells us, people of the 21st century, about the kingdom of God. We’re told that the kingdom of God is like a wedding feast of the son of the king. If the king stands for God the Father, the son must be the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. The bride is not introduced to us: she remains in the background, unnoticed. The image of a wedding banquet was not unfamiliar for Jesus’ audience: the prophets frequently spoke about the messianic kingdom as a happy wedding celebration, a wedding between God and His people. But here in Jesus’ story the celebration does not turn out to be a happy one at all. Yes, the “fullness of time” has arrived, everything is prepared for the wedding feast, the invitations were sent out but the guests failed to show up, they simply ignored the invitation and went after their own business; some of them even laid hold of the king’s servants (these are the prophets), mistreated them, and killed them. After this the king (God) sent his troops to destroy the murderers and their city: these were the great tragedies of the Jewish history, wars, sieges, exiles, culminating with the siege, occupation, and destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Land by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C. Then the king sent other servants on the roads to invite everybody they could find: these were the apostles and their successors preaching to the Gentiles, the non-Jewish nations. The servants gathered all kinds of people, good and bad, and the hall was filled to capacity. Up to this point we, Christians, could listen to the parable as outsiders but from here on the story talks about us: this is already our story, the story of our invitation and entry to the Son’s wedding feast.
Going back a little bit and add some new element to the idea what a parable is, it frequently happens that the parable has an unexpected twist, a sudden quirk of surprise that may shock the audience and pose a challenge for them. In our story here is the twist: after all those people from the streets had filed in the hall and took their places at the table, the king singled out one of the guests and reprimanded him: “How come that you entered without a wedding garment?” Then the man’s hands and feet were bound up and he was thrown out into the outside darkness which evidently signifies the state of damnation. Why was the man thrown out? After all, the guests were all picked up on the streets: how and from where could they have provided wedding garments for themselves? But this is exactly the shocking detail: no matter where you’re coming from, you must wear spotless wedding garments for the banquet, which means, you must live a blameless moral life: our way of life is our wedding garment. Notice the word: you must be dressed not just in a nice suit or dress but in wedding garments! Why? Who’s wearing the most beautiful wedding gown? The bride, of course! Here, in the last minute the beautiful bride of the king’s son steps forward: it turns out that you are the bride, you and you and you and me, we, the Church are the bride whom the Son of God, Jesus Christ has washed clean in His own blood, prepared, dressed, and adorned for the wedding feast which will never end, it will last forever.
Rev. Julius Leloczky, O.Cist
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