Sunday, 26 October 2014

Whose Son?

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Sunday 26th October 2014 11.00am

Matthew 22.34-46
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together,  35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.  36 "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"  37 He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.'  38 This is the greatest and first commandment.  39 And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." 

41  Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question:  42 "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David."  43 He said to them, "How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,  44 'The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet" '?  45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?"  46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

Leviticus 19.1-2, 15-18  
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:  2 Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.

You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.  16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD. 
17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.  18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

The people of my country have been awaiting his return for a thousand years.

All the prophecies and legends are clear that he is coming back;
            every child learns the stories of his great deeds at their mother’s knee,
                        how his kingly rule united the country,
                        how he brought peace and prosperity to the people,
                        and how he will come again to aid us in the hour of our greatest need.
He’s coming again, we all know it,
            the question is when, and why is it taking so long?
Albion has suffered many trials,
            and still King Arthur has not returned.

The Jews are not the only nation to have a messiah mythology,
            and the archetype of a absent-but-returning hero,
                        of one who has now gone, but will come again,
            runs deep within the psyche of many people-groups and religions.

From the Graeco-Roman gods of Dionysus and Mithras,
            to the Redivivus belief that the emperor Nero
                        would return from the grave to re-take Rome,
            to the English Arthurian legends of the middle ages,
                        to the heroes of the ancient Welsh Mabinogion,
            to Gandalf returning from the fires of Mount Doom
                        to the death and return of Superman;
the trope of a hero who dies, or goes away,
            only to return victoriously, in the nick of time, to save the day,
            is one which we find repeated through many cultural incarnations.

For the Jews, the figure they were waiting for
            was called ‘the Messiah’ in Hebrew, or ‘the Christ’ in Greek.

Originally, for the Jews, the Messiah was a word that had been used to describe
            someone who was anointed with oil to perform their role;
            either as a Priest, or as a King (Lev. 4.3, 5).[1]
So, King Saul is ‘anointed’ by the prophet Samuel as the first king of Israel (1 Sam 10.1),
            and David, who succeeded him, is similarly ‘anointed’.
In many ways, as time went on,
            David became the quintessential ‘anointed one’ in the Old Testament,
                        and a couple of places even record promises by God
                        to secure David’s kingship forever (2 Sam 7.12-13, Ps. 89).
His kingship acquired mythic status,
            not dissimilar to that of King Arthur in the culture of the British Isles.

In the Judaism of the few hundred years leading up to the time of Jesus,
            the term ‘Messiah’ developed further,
                        and came to play an important function in the Jewish imagination.
Though variety exists,
            messianic expectations from this period
                        are typically of a coming Davidic military leader,
            who will free the Jewish people from foreign occupation,
                        and restore Israel’s borders to the extent
                                    that the David stories claimed for them.
                                    (e.g. Psalms of Solomon 17)

The Dead Sea Scrolls, which date from about the time of Jesus,
            reveal an interesting expectation of not one, but two Jewish Messiahs;
            one militaristic, and the other priestly.

And Jesus certainly wasn’t the only important historical figure
            to be named the Messiah.

For example, it was also a term that was applied
            to the non-Israelite King Cyrus of Persia (Isa 45.1),
            who brought an end to the Babylonian exile of the Jews in the sixth century BC,
And much closer to the time of Jesus,
            ‘Messiah’ was used of the leader of the Bar Kokhba Revolt
            which took place in the second century BC.

All of this lies behind the gospel writers’ invitation
            to identify Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, or the Messiah.

It seems that questions over whether Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah
            had been asked of him during his lifetime,
with, for example, John the Baptist asking Jesus
            if he was ‘the one who is to come’
            or whether John and his followers should wait for another? (Luke 7.20).

However, a related question, to sit alongside that of whether Jesus is the Messiah,
            was the question of, what kind of Messiah is he?
Is he a priestly Messiah, or a militaristic Messiah,
            Will he restore the temple, or the monarchy?
Whose messiah will he be?
            The messiah of the religious radicals?
            Or the messiah of the political radicals?

And it is these questions that underlie the exchange
            that Jesus has with the Pharisees
            in our reading today from Matthew’s gospel.

The Pharisees have heard that Jesus has managed to out-smart the Sadducees,
            and they decide that it’s now their turn again to play ‘Ridicule the Rabbi’.
So they wheel in their specialist lawyer,
            to ask Jesus a tried-and-tested no-win question
            with the intent of trapping him whatever his answer.

‘Tell us, teacher’, they say, ‘which commandment is the greatest?’

The idea is that whichever command Jesus picked,
            would get him into trouble.
If, for example, he picked ‘having no other gods before the Lord’,
            they would accuse him of moral laxity
            because he was relegating the command about adultery.
However, if he picked ‘thou shalt not commit adultery’,
            he’d be accused of idolatry because he’d ignore the first command!
And so on – the perfect no-win question
            to derail the cock-sure carpenter from Nazareth.

But, as with the Pharisees previous trap,
            the one about paying taxes to the emperor, which we heard about last week,
Jesus shrugs off their trap with ease;
            giving them an answer that covers all the bases:
            ‘Love God, and Love Neighbour’, he says.
Both commands, but neither ‘commandments’.

Jesus takes the popular Shema command from Deuteronomy (6.4-5)
            and combines it with a lesser-known injunction
                        to love of neighbour from Leviticus (19.18)

The Pharisees would have been right in there
            with the ‘Love of God’ part of Jesus’ answer,
but by adding to it the love of one’s neighbour, as an equal command,
            Jesus highlighted to the Pharisees
            the weakness inherent in their own super-religious ideology.

So far, so clever.
            Well done Jesus!
Not only has he, once again, dodged the trap that has been set for him,
            but he has also managed to prick the pomposity of the Pharisees,
            unmasking their potential for heartless religious conservatism.

However, this is not just a story
            about Jesus beating the Pharisees at their own game.
Because the story continues,
            with Jesus taking the opportunity to push the Pharisees a bit further
            by setting them a riddle of his own.

‘Tell me,’ he says, ‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’

This is a classic riddle, one with a seemingly obvious answer,
            which will turn out to be unsustainable.

The clue to this being a riddle is in the phrase, ‘what do you think…’,
            which is something we’ve heard from the lips of Jesus before
                        as he has asked a variety of difficult questions
                        to stimulate thought from both disciples and opponents alike.
                                    (17.25, 18.12, 21.28).
            But most recently, it is the phrase that the Pharisees have used
                        when asking Jesus their previous question about paying taxes.[2]
            ‘What do you think,’ they asked Jesus,
                        ‘is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ (22.17)

‘So’, says Jesus back to them, ‘what do you think… whose son is the Messiah?’
            And the Pharisees, after a few moments of careful thought,
            supply what they believe to be the safe and scriptural answer:
                        ‘He’s the son of David’.

He’s not the son of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth,
            he’s not the son of Kokhba,[3]
            he’s not the son of righteousness,[4]
he’s the son of David.

However, in giving this answer,
            the Pharisees have been forced into revealing their hand,
because it turns out that what you hope for, tells a lot about what you believe in,
            and the Pharisees were hoping for a Davidic Messiah,
                        a military messiah,
                        a messiah who would overthrow the oppressors,
                        and restore the nation to its former glory.

The answer they give to this seemingly innocent question from Jesus,
            is far more revealing of the Pharisees’ deeper motives
            than they realise.

So Jesus decides to push it a bit,
            and takes his riddle to the next level:

‘Right then,’ he says, ‘so the Messiah is David’s son, is he?’
            ‘So how then is it that, in one of the worship psalms written by David himself,
                        he calls the messiah his “Lord”?’

The logic is simple:
            If David calls the Messiah ‘Lord’,
            how can the Messiah be his son?

At this point the Pharisees back off,
            but not simply because they’ve been caught out on a technicality
                        in some obscure game of Hebrew Bible proof-texting.
            Rather, they back off
                        because the whole basis of their belief in a Davidic Messiah
                                    as a military, politically centrist, nationalistic hero
                        has just been unmasked and exposed to ridicule.

They have just discovered
            that what you hope for, reveals a lot about what you believe in.
And Jesus, in subverting the neat logic of their hoped-for Davidic Messiah,
            has also subverted the cold logic of their militaristic, nationalistic God.

This, it turns out, is not simply a story
            about how Jesus is cleverer than the Pharisees.
Rather, it’s a debate about the nature of faith itself,
            and it raises fundamental questions about what is meant by salvation.

Is our hoped-for salvation
            simply synonymous with divine vindication of our shared ideology?
Is salvation to be understood in terms of victory for ‘me and mine’?
            With ‘them and theirs’ of, at best, secondary concern?

You see, the answer we might give to the question
            of what kind of Messiah we hope for,
will tell us a lot
            about the God we believe in.

And Jesus, it seems, is challenging in no uncertain terms,
            any kind of belief in a Messiah that is understood
            as a politicised, nationalistic, tribal, partisan, Davidic hero.

And yet, the people of God, both in the first century,
            and in the twenty-first century,
            and in all the centuries in between,
have found it all-too-easy
            to become trapped in a belief system
            that is predicated upon a Davidic ideology.

Any attempt to equate national identity with the people of God
            represents an expression of Davidic messianic ideology.

From the Christianisation of the Roman empire under Constantine,
            to the development of Christendom and the Holy Roman Empire,
            to the alliances of the middle ages between Church and Monarch,
            to the contemporary tabloid-esque assertion
                        that ‘we are, after all, supposed to be a Christian country!’
            to the anointing of the Monarch in Westminster Abbey
                        by none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury…

We have repeatedly, through Christian history,
            revealed that what we long for is a Davidic Messiah.
The people of Christ have joined their voices with those of the Pharisees,
            in answering that the Messiah is the son of David.

But this is not how Jesus describes himself.

Every time, in the gospels, that Jesus is called ‘Son of David’,
            it is someone else using the language.
He never calls himself the ‘son of David’,
            and in fact, when he does use the term, here in Matthew,
                        and in the parallel passage in Mark’s gospel,
            he does so to undermine its use of him.

Jesus does not, it seems, see himself as a Son of David,
            he is not the Davidic Messiah.
He is not the answer to the put-upon-people-of-God’s desire
            to have their powerlessness reversed,
and he is not the ‘just cause’ in whose name
            armies might march to overthrow the evils of the ‘other’.

Rather, Jesus uses a different title for himself:
            Consistently through the Gospels,
                        Jesus describes himself not as the ‘son of David’
                        but as the ‘son of man’.

The pursuit of a Davidic ideology has taken the people of God
            into conflict, division, and violence.
It is a failed ideology based on nationalism and power-politics,
            and it is not the path that Christ sets his face to.

He does not go to Jerusalem to overthrow the Romans,
            leading the longed-for rebel-army to victory over the oppressors
            and establishing the kingdom of Davidic justice and peace on earth.

Rather, he breaks out of the Davidic ideology,
            by identifying himself not as the son of David,
but as the son of man from the Jewish apocalyptic tradition.

The Messiah Jesus is the son of man,
            he is the son of the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel,
            he is a child of the margins,
                        not of the centre,
            he is the offspring of the oppressed,
                        not the progeny of power.
            He is the scion of the kingdom of heaven,
                        not the spawn of the kingdom of David.

And as such he challenges those of us who bear his name,
            and in whose lives his spirit is active,
to turn our backs on our dreams of a Davidic messiah.

He challenges us to give up our dreams of power,
            and our hopes for vindication for our deeply held convictions.
He calls us to step away from our ideologies
            of militarism, nationalism, and imperialism.
He calls us to abandon the cause of the ‘Christian Country’
            and to look instead for the in-breaking kingdom of heaven,
                        which knows no national borders,
                        and transcends all political creeds.
He calls us to relinquish our dogmas of certainty,
            and to embrace the quest for questions

He calls us to love the Lord our God,
            with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind,
And also to love our neighbour as we love ourselves.

The ‘love of God’, on its own, gives birth too easily
            to a tribal understanding of faith,
where we are defined in opposition to those who love God differently to us,
            or those love a different God to us.

The ‘love of God’ on its own, all too easily makes Pharisees of us all,
            as the quest for the Davidic messiah takes shape in our midst
            and we seek to ‘take the world’ for the God we believe in.

The ‘love of God’ on its own, all too easily justifies a desire to win the world for Christ,
            it justifies the Cross of St George on the Shield of the Crusader,
            and it justifies the all-too-frequent equation
                        of earthly territory, with the kingdom of heaven.

The current crisis in Iraq and Syria is predicated upon an ‘us and them’ dogma,
            where two sides, each believing that they are right, and that the other is evil,
            are fighting for territory, resources, and ideological superiority,
                        all in the name of God.

Both sides believe that the end justifies the means.

            And so Islamic State fighters are prepared to perpetrate terrible acts of brutality
                                    on innocent aid workers and local populations alike,
                        because they believe that this furthers their divinely sanctioned objective.

            But we in the West are prepared to live with the unfortunate phenomenon
                                    which we call ‘collateral damage’
                        because we believe that we are in the right
                                    and that the enemy must be stopped.

This is where Davidic messianism take us.
            This is where devotion to our God, and our God alone, takes us.

And so Jesus says to the Davidic Pharisees,
            that they need to learn to love their neighbour as they love themselves.

And who is my neighbour?
            Well, that’s another story for another day…

But what if my neighbour in this global village of ours doesn’t look like me,
            or believe like me, or speak like me.
What if my neighbour in this great city of ours
            is an immigrant family from another part of the world,
                        ‘coming over here…’
(Actually, my neighbour is an immigrant family,
            they’re from India, and they’re really nice,
            but you know what I mean!)

The rise of xenophobic, anti-immigration, racist politics
            in the so-called Christian countries of the western world,
is another function of our embracing of a Davidic ideology,
            that sees us-and-ours as more important than them-and-theirs.

And it’s got to stop, and it’s got to stop with us.
            because if it doesn’t stop with us, it’s not going to stop.

It is directly challenged by Jesus, the son of Man,
            who calls us all to love God,
                        with all of our hearts, and all of our souls, and all of our minds.
But not just to love God, and not just to love ourselves,
            but to love our neighbour as ourselves.

[1] See ‘Christ’ in Beavis, Mary Ann, and Michael Gilmour, eds. Dictionary of the Bible and Western Culture: A Handbook for Students. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012, p.87.
[2] See Tom Thatcher, Jesus the Riddler, 2006.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Faith and Thought Symposium on Homosexuality

On Saturday, I was one of the speakers at the Faith and Thought symposium on homosexuality, a forum that brings together both scientific and pastoral/theological insights. The talks are now online. I'd like to highlight three of these as of particular interest to those wanting to explore a more inclusive position.
Firstly, Eleanor Whiteway (Cambridge University) offered a clear scientific analysis:
Then, Stephen Keyworth (Baptist Union of Great Britain) gave a presentation on social developments:
And then Luke Dowding and I spoke to the topic of pastoral care:

Sunday, 12 October 2014

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
12th October 2014

Matthew 22.1-14  Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying:  2 "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.  3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come.  4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, 'Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.'  5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business,  6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.  7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.  8 Then he said to his slaves, 'The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.  9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.'  10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.  11 ¶ "But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe,  12 and he said to him, 'Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?' And he was speechless.  13 Then the king said to the attendants, 'Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'  14 For many are called, but few are chosen."

Isaiah 25.1-9   O LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.  2 For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt.  3 Therefore strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you.  4 For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat. When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,  5 the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place, you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds; the song of the ruthless was stilled.  6 ¶ On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.  7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations;  8 he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.  9 ¶ It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

I don’t know what sermon you were expecting to hear on this passage this morning,
            but possibly it might have gone something like this:
God’s kingdom is like a wedding banquet
            which is he throwing for his son, Jesus.
Those whom he first invited, the oh-so-religious and pious Jews,
            have declined to attend,
            and have even killed the messengers that God has sent to invite them.

So God has send his messengers to the highways and byways of the world
            to invite everyone else to the party instead,
                        from tax collectors to prostitutes,
                        from riff-raff to nobodies,
                        from the blind to the lame;
            God drags into his party the people who thought they’d been forgotten.

However, whilst God may have invited everybody,
            this isn’t a no-strings-attached invitation.
Because whilst God loves everybody,
            he doesn’t want them to stay as they are:
                        after all, who would want the serial killer to get in
                        without him changing his behavior?
The invitation might be for all, but people must still accept it,
            and must behave appropriately if they are to stay in the party.

So a person who comes, metaphorically speaking, in the wrong clothes,
            who doesn’t clothe themselves with garments
                        of love, justice, truth, mercy and holiness,
            is in effect saying that they don’t want to stay at the party,
            and so they are thrown out into the outer darkness.

That’s the sermon I’ve heard preached on this passage before;
            it’s the sermon with the established weight of interpretation behind it;
            and I think, frankly, that it’s a terrible sermon.
Let’s think for a moment about where this sermon takes us,
            if we follow it through to its logical conclusion.

Let’s start with the king,
            the one who is focussed on throwing a wedding banquet for his son.

What do we know about him from the parable?
            Well, to start with, he’s pathologically obsessed
                        with giving his son a magnificent party.
            It doesn’t seem to matter who the guests are,
                        just so long as the party is good.

He also keeps some very dubious company:
            let’s not forget that his preferred guests for the party
            are themselves hardly the nicest people:
                        they are, we are told, arrogant, landowning businessmen,
                        with a tendency towards murderous violence.

The king is also a military man of means;
            we know that he has slaves, and that he has troops,
            and that he is ready to use this power to its full capacity.
So he thinks nothing of putting to death anyone who slights him,
            and he’s happy to send in the troops to burn an entire city to the ground
            if they don’t give him the respect to which he believes himself entitled.

He is, in short a military, self-aggrandizing,
            capricious, despotic, dictator.
He looks very much like the Herods of the early first century,
            or possibly the more psychotic of the Roman emperors.
What he doesn’t look like, if we’re honest about, is God.

Or perhaps he does look like God,
            if you’ve got an image of God as a military, self-aggrandizing,
                        capricious, despotic, dictator;
            which is exactly how some people do picture God.

There are many who believe that God is just waiting to catch them out,
            to throw them out, to cast them into the place of darkness,
            where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.
There are many who believe that God’s gracious inclusion only goes so far,
            and that if we don’t respond properly,
            we’ll find ourselves on the receiving end of his sacred violence,
                        levied in judgment on us and the rest of the sinners.

But I want to suggest something
            which by now may seem obvious: this is not God.
What this is, is a huge case of mistaken identity.

So I’m going to suggest that we try to set aside
            the sermon we thought we might get on this passage,
and we try to put out of our minds
            the sermons we’ve heard before on this parable before,
and that we try reading it afresh,
            to see what might emerge from it if we read it a bit differently.

What if the king in Jesus’ parable isn’t God?
            What if his son isn’t Jesus?
What if the first-invited guests aren’t the Jews?
            What if the forced-in guests aren’t grateful to be there?
What if the man with the wrong clothes on isn’t a sinner?

What if people have been reading this parable wrong all these years,
            because they have been reading it through the lens of a wrong view of God?
What if God isn’t a violent dictator after all?[1]

Let’s try and her the parable as those listening to Jesus might have heard it…

‘There was a king who had a son,’ Jesus begins…
            And his hearers would already have been nodding along,
                        ‘wasn’t there just!’ we can almost hear them thinking….

Herod the Great had been appointed ruler of Judea
            by the Romans some seventy years previously,
and after a reign of nearly half that
            had died and handed over the kingdom to his descendants,
                        the Herodian dynasty, as they became known.
Through a careful series of strategic marriages,
            he and his descendants had ensured that they were able
            to continue their despotic rule of Israel for generations.

And there’s nothing like a royal wedding to reunite the population
            behind the fading appeal of an aging monarch, is there?
And royal weddings, as we all know, lead to royal babies,
            and so fresh life is breathed into the tired old family firm,
            and everyone is won over for another generation.
Or at least, that’s the theory.
            Some of us are not so easily seduced.
            But that’s another story…

The Herodians had been ruling Judea for generations,
            their power-base carefully propped up by strategic alliances and marriages,
            supported by the world class Roman military,
                        and legitimated by a string of propaganda exercises
                        designed to keep the people happy.

What’s interesting, in Jesus’ story,
            is that the invited guests to the latest Royal Wedding choose not to attend.
We know what kind of people they are:
            they’re exactly the kind of people you’d expect to find at a Herodian wedding
                         – one of them owns a farm, another one is a businessman.
            They’re the elite, and they’re turning against the king.

Perhaps his popularity is running out, perhaps it’s time for a change,
            there’s always a pretender to the throne waiting in the wings
            if the current incumbent oversteps the mark.
The king pushes them a bit harder, and they push back,
            seizing the king’s slaves and killing them.
It’s insurrection time, civil war is only moments away now…

So the king sends in the crack troops,
            to utterly destroy those who have defied him, burning their city.
A response worthy of any dictator in any age.

But there’s still a party to have.
            There’s a succession to secure.
            There’s a population to be wowed with wedding cake and bunting in the streets,
                        and God help anyone else who doesn’t want to play monarchist.
Come in, come in, come to feast…
            And don’t you dare say that you’ve got somewhere else to be…
This is political royalist propaganda at its most blatant.

And, of course, the people play ball.
            I mean, who wouldn’t?
Everyone loves a royal wedding,
            if they know what’s good for them.

Except for one, who doesn’t play ball at all…
            He’s there, along with everyone else who’s been forced to the party.
                        But he’s not joining in.
He’s wearing the wrong clothes,
            he’s silent when he should be singing,
            he’s still when he should be shouting.
He’s the party-pooper,
            he’s the one who makes everyone else feel uncomfortable,
            because he’s showing their forced jollity for what it is:
                        a lie inspired by fear.

‘The kingdom of heaven is like this…’
            said Jesus, introducing this parable.
And we may well now ask,
            ‘in what way is this story like the kingdom of Heaven?’

After all, we’ve just established that the Kingdom is not the banquet,
            and the king is not God;
this is a very earthly story,
            one familiar not just to those hearing it from Jesus,
            but to those in any generation who have looked at their ruling elite
                        and seen self interest and violent corruption.

So where in this parable is the Kingdom to be found?

The Kingdom of Heaven, as we know from some of Jesus’ other parables,
            is not always to be found in the places one might expect.
Sometimes it’s a mustard seed, small, almost invisible,
            fragile, and waiting to be discovered in the most unexpected of places.
I think it’s there in this parable,
            we just need to look for it…

When faced with a murderous regime or a despicable dictator,
            this parable points us to three possible responses.

The first is the path taken by the initial guests;
            it is the response that plays the political game,
            which seeks to effect regime change and resorts to violence if necessary.
The problem with this, of course, is that not only is it a high risk strategy,
                        as the landowning businessmen in Jesus’ story discovered,
            but even if it is effective, you only end up replacing one Herod with another,
                        and so nothing really changes.
This is the path that will most readily appeal
            to those with a vested interest in the status quo,
            to those who have previously been cozying up to the dictator
                        and diligently attending all his parties
            right up until the moment when the wind changed against him.

The second response is that taken by those
            who actually ended up at the feast thrown by the king,
                        and this is the path of least resistance.
It is the path that says,
            ‘I know he’s a dictator, but what are you gonna do?’
It is the path taken by those who feel disempowered,
            by those who live in fear or apathy or both,
            who just want to be left alone and allowed to live their quiet lives.
If others take a stand and die for the trouble,
            that’s very sad, but at least we still survive for another night.
And really, is there anything so wrong with a bit of partying on demand,
            even if it does represent capitulation to state propaganda?

The third response is that taken by the man in the corner
                        who is wearing the wrong clothes.
            In a world of violence and enforced capitulation, he stands apart.
This, surely, is the kingdom of heaven personified.
            This is the kingdom of heaven as the suffering servant (Isa 52.13-53.12),
                        the one who remains silent before his accusers
                        and who goes to his death in defiance of the forces
                                    that seek continued and unfettered reign
                                    to diminish, distort, and demean humanity.

In the world of the prophetic book of Isaiah,
            written some six hundred or so years before the time of Jesus,
            and speaking to a time of military occupation and enforced exile
                        at the hands of the Babylonian empire,
we find the origins of this suffering-servant counter-testimony
            to the ideology of empire.

The Babylonians had declared that the world must bow down before them
            or else face terrible consequences.
Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the Babylonians,
            had declared that all must worship him, and him alone.
And it was in the midst of this world
            that Isaiah started to articulate the dream of a new world.
In the midst of oppression, Isaiah wrote of a hopeful future,
            of a time and place where tears would be wiped away,
            and people would be free to feast with their God
            in joyful celebration of their liberty from subjugation.

The kingdom banquet dreamed of by Isaiah
            is a world away from the wedding banquet of the king in Jesus’ parable.
But there is a common thread…
            and it is the figure of the suffering servant.
The insight of the prophet Isaiah was that the new world of justice and equality
            could only come into being through the suffering of the innocent
            who take their stand
                        in defiance of the inequalities and violence
                        that otherwise dominate the world.
So Isaiah personifies the nation of Israel as the servant of the Lord,
            and speaks of the people of God as the faithful servant
            who is wounded and marred and killed
                        for the sake of the new world that is coming into being.

In Isaiah’s time, this was clearly referring
            to the sufferings of the nation of Israel
            at the hands of their Babylonian oppressors.
And of course the New Testament writers
            used this same ancient image of a ‘suffering servant’
                        to describe what they saw in Jesus,
            who went to his cross to take upon himself the violence of humanity,
                        opening the way through death to resurrection and new life for all.
And it is this figure of the suffering servant
            that we meet in Jesus’ own story of the wedding banquet.

The silent man, who has refused to put on
            the appropriate garments of celebration for the royal wedding,
is seized by the king’s attendants, bound like a sacrificial victim,
            and thrown into the outer darkness.

This is the crucial moment in the parable,
            and it is here that the Kingdom of Heaven finally comes into view.

The guests at the banquet in the parable are in all sorts of trouble.
            They live in world of violence and fear,
                        they are asked to accept propaganda
                        that legitimates their own oppression and coercion,
            and they are in no position to challenge the king,
                        because those who have already tried that are now dead
                                    with their city burned to the ground.

The guests at the king’s banquet are a people with no hope.
            And it is to those who live in the land of darkness
                        that the unrobed man comes.
            Standing there in their midst, one of them, yet not one of them.
                        With them, but not the same as them.
            He takes onto himself the wrath of the king,
                        and becomes the sacrificial victim.
He interrupts their victimhood
            by making himself the victim for all.

So what about us… ?

We, like the prisoner-guests of the tyrannical king,
            live in a world of violence.
There is horror being played out before our eyes in Syria and Iraq.
            And our leaders don’t know how to respond
                        except by trying to bring peace by violence,
            which just perpetuates the suffering to another generation,
                        at best deferring it to another year.

And we might well ask, in the midst of the complexities of war and suffering:
            Where is the kingdom of heaven to be found?
Where is the counter-testimony to the dominant ideologies
            of retaliation or compliance?
Where is the Kingdom when those who were once our friends are now our enemies?
            Where is the Kingdom when those who were once our enemies are now our friends?
Where is truth and justice
            and righteousness and forgiveness and peace
            in a world of terrorism and bloody murder?

Where are those who are taking a stand?
            Where are those who will not bow to the king?
            Where are those who will not comply?

Where, in the midst of the spirals of violence that define our world,
            is the kingdom of Heaven to be found?
Where in a world of dictators and despots,
            of ideology and propaganda,
            is the kingdom of heaven to be seen?

Tomorrow I’m representing the Baptist Union of Great Britain
            at an event in Westminster
            called the National Caucus for the Persecuted Church.
This meeting will draw together various senior political figures,
            members of the house of Lords,
                        political analysts, clergy,
            the Foreign and Commonwealth office,
                        the Refugee Council,
                        and the Canadian High Commission for Religious Freedom.

We will be talking about how best to help those Christians in Northern Iraq
            who have been displaced from their homes
because of their refusal to capitulate
            to the demands of those who hold power over them.
Should they stay put, be granted asylum,
            or should we try to create ‘safe havens’ for them?

Many Christians in Northern Iraq,
            as in so many other places around the world,
have chosen to stand with the suffering servant,
            to stand with the quiet man in the wrong clothes
            at the wedding banquet of Jesus’ parable.
And they are bearing the marks of suffering in their own bodies,
            for their refusal to join the party of capitulation to the dominant ideology.

And by so doing they are bearing faithful testimony, even unto death,
            of their refusal to be conformed to the demands of this world.
They are refusing to be intimidated by the violence of the king,
            refusing to bow down to the system of domination that seems to control all.
They are holding fast to the cross of Christ.

And, Jesus might ask of us:
            Where will we be found standing at the king’s banquet?
Or, to put it another way,
            where are we going to take our stand?

[1] See Marty Aiken "The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence: Discerning the Suffering Servant in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet.”