Ancient Answers


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Two Kings, two separate ways

Our Gospel reading today (Matthew 22:2-14)  is a very troubling parable – violent, condemning, exclusionary at the same time that it is inclusive. I usually focus on the inclusive aspects, but not today. In light of what’s going on in the world – the violence, the exclusion, the hatred and terrorism – it’s incumbent that I take this parable head on, in its full force, not only the part that suit my preferences.

Note first of all the language in the original Greek: ὡμοιώθη ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν ἀνθρώπῳ βασιλεῖ = The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king… but the English translation is missing a word: the word human, highlighted in red in the Greek! None of the most used translations bother with that word – only two less commonly used translations, Lexham English Bible and Young’s Literal Translation bother taking account of it. It’s not a minor, insignificant omission. A contrast is implied between heavenly king and earthly king. It’s easy to miss this contrast if you don’t translate that word, and that’s not a minor problem.

Continuing with the Greek text: ὅστις ἐποίησεν γάμους τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ. καὶ ἀπέστειλεν τοὺς δούλους αὐτοῦ καλέσαι τοὺς κεκλημένους εἰς τοὺς γάμους. The word for wedding is not in the singular, γάμος, but in the plural, γάμους! There’s good reason for this, and easy to miss if the translation does not take into account the plural. (Young’s Literal Translation does.) The Jewish custom of marriage involved seven days of celebration! So what we translate as “wedding banquet” was not just a dinner but a wedding celebration that included the marriage ceremonies and several days of celebration! I believe that’s the reason why the plural γάμους is used. Perhaps now the refusal of the guests to attend might be a little more understandable?

But some of the guests did not just refuse to attend, but killed the messengers of the king! And the king sent troops to destroy them and their city. Overreaction all around, wouldn’t you say? Not something that happens when guests refuse to show up. This is an extreme parable, meant to make us uncomfortable.

We don’t like to be made uncomfortable. The media shielded most of us from the more “disturbing” photos of 3-year-old Aylan’s dead body this past week. We are very sensitive creatures, after all. But Jesus had no problem making people uncomfortable. Right before today’s parable, at the end of last week’s parable reading, Matthew tells us that the priests and pharisees understood that Jesus was speaking about them. Jesus was speaking to them with every intention of disturbing them.

Jesus is mixing metaphors here. The violence is in the realm of the human king. The open invitation is the act of the heavenly king. The violence is extreme and unjustified – but violence in general is unjustified, in ancient or modern times! Is there really any acceptable excuse for what we see happening in Middle East or in any neighborhood in America? Can violence ever be justified? Especially violence committed in the name of religion?

This entire section of Matthew (ch. 21-23) is controversial to the nth degree. Jesus entered Jerusalem and went straight to the Temple, where he violently drove out the sellers and money changers. A huge blow at the heart of the marriage between money and religion – a marriage that persists to this day. He then gets into a series of confrontational exchanges and parables. Jesus was at war with the habits of the powerful – he still is – so he uses images of power to get their attention. But just as he did not enter Jerusalem as one of the powerful, so in today’s parable he throws a switch that the powerful can’t relate to.

But regardless of what Jesus says, the religious and the powerful still believe they are the in crowd – even after they have refused the invitation to enjoy the kingdom of God instead of the kingdom of their own making. But they can’t bring their ways into the kingdom of God – the two kingdoms are incompatible. That’s why a man is thrown out at the end. He has sneaked into the banquet! He is not wearing a wedding garment. He is not wearing the garment Jesus has prepared for him!

This parable has been interpreted as aimed at Israel and Jewish religion. Certainly it was aimed at the leaders of the Jewish nation, but we are misusing it if we limit its meaning to ancient Israel and the Jews. It is for all times and all places. Every religion, every nation, every individual stands under the same judgment.

I personally do not like this parable the way it’s written. Whether Jesus himself spoke it exactly as Matthew reports it or whether Matthew did a major edit and rewrite we cannot know. Matthew clearly wants it to be taken as an attack on the Judaism of that time. We can see its broader significance.

I take two messages from this reading:

  1. God’s salvation is always for the poor – not only the economically poor, but the “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3) – everyone who recognizes that without God we have nothing.
  2. Jesus became one of us so we could be clothed with him – we put on Christ (Romans 13:14, Galatians 3:27); it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20). That’s the meaning of the wedding garment; it is Christ’s garment of righteousness. 


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Where is your god?

Psalm 42 has always been one of my favorites. Like so often in the Psalms, here too the psalmist is besieged by people who mock him for trusting in God. “Where is your God?” they say to him as he suffers torments physical and spiritual. The language of this psalm is pure poetry. The psalmist is like a thirsty deer; his dialogue with God is like deep calling out to deep. This is language worthy of prayer to God, “the living God”:

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
    so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
    the face of God?
My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me continually,
    “Where is your God?”

My soul is cast down within me;
    therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
    from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
    at the thunder of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows
    have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
    and at night his song is with me,
    a prayer to the God of my life.

It’s beautiful, and doesn’t it make you want to speak to God like this? This is not the kind of petty prayers so many of us still pray well into adult and late adult years – prayers to the “man upstairs,” the big vending machine in the sky! No, no, this is “deep” calling to “deep, at the thunder” of God’s “cataracts.” This prayer is fully aware that God is not the “man upstairs” of American vending-machine religion. This is a God whose “waves and billows” have overwhelmed the man who is praying this psalm. And yet, this awesome God of cataracts and thunder and waves, is a God who comforts the psalmist at night with his love and song.

But take away the poetry and this psalm is a prayer for deliverance. The psalmist wants relief, he wants God to do something. The psalmist remembers his joy- and song-filled journeys of pilgrimage, and these memories comfort him. He reminds his troubled soul to trust in God. (Note the “glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving”; not the downbeat, boring, and bored, chants that many people consider correct Orthodox worship!)

These things I remember,
    as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
    and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
    a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my help and my God.

I say to God, my rock,
    “Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
    because the enemy oppresses me?”
As with a deadly wound in my body,
    my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
    “Where is your God?”

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my help and my God.

“Where indeed is your god? Why is he not rescuing you?” The question lingers thousands of years after the psalm was composed. Where was God when 3-year-old Aylan Khurdi drowned with his 5-year-old brother, Galip, and their mother, Rehan, while trying to cross the sea from Turkey to the Greek island Kos?

Aylan and his older brother Ghalib in a happier moment.

Aylan and his older brother Galip in a happier moment.

The body of Aylan washed up on the shore of Turkey’s Bodrun Peninsula. Pictures of the lifeless body created immediate controversy. Many newspapers, TV networks and websites refused to show the pictures because of concern not to disturb readers and viewers. Yes, let’s not offend the dainty sensibilities of European and American viewers. I would understand if the concern was about sensationalizing or cheapening the image of a dead child. But no, the concern is always about offending or disturbing viewers; not about exploiting the dead! We have no problem exploiting the dead; we have no problem blowing up hundreds every day with drones and cluster bombs. We have no problem with death or causing death; we just don’t want to offend anyone. And that’s where the modern mockery lies.

The lifeless body of Aylan washed ashore.

The lifeless body of Aylan washed ashore. Many media outlets refused to show this photo so as not to offend or disturb viewers.

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Aylan’s body carefully and reverently carried away by Turkish solder.

“Where is your god,” indeed? Unlike the psalmist I do not look for miraculous interventions by God. The god who works miracles to save people and prevent disasters and wars is not my God. That kind of god does not exist. The God I believe in is right there in that lifeless child and in the soldier who undertakes the sad task of carrying the lifeless body away from the water. That soldier is like Joseph of Arimathea, who carried the lifeless body of Jesus down from the Cross. The images above are indeed images of Christ. Christ is that child, the same Christ who surrendered his own body to the care of humans: Joseph of Arimathea and a Turkish soldier. There was no rescue.

Perhaps some people might find my statements here contrary to certain things we believe. There was a resurrection, after all – at least in the case of Jesus. Yes there was – and there is (or will be). But the resurrection is a different matter altogether and does not change the truth of these images. I love the poetry of Psalm 42, but I don’t share the psalmist’s hopes for rescue. It seems quite clear that God has left the job of rescuing to us, his alleged followers or believers. How well are we doing in that regard? Or is too offensive and disturbing to ask this question? We are after all, very sensitive people and we prefer no one to question our faith. It’s a private thing after all. Good luck with that line when you meet God.

In chapter 2 of the Book of Job, the wife of Job could not take all the physical suffering inflicted upon her husband. She said to Job, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” It’s interesting that the Hebrew word translated as “curse” in our English Bibles could also be translated as “bless”! It should be interesting to study how a single Hebrew verb can mean both “curse” and “bless” – but clearly in this instance, Job’s wife was inciting Job to turn his back on God, since God obviously was doing nothing to rescue Job. She was, in essence, asking the age-old question, “Where is your god?” The Book of Job, of course, goes on for another 40 chapters after these words of Job’s wife, so we’ll leave that book alone for now.