The Kingdom May Be Compared To
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 6, 2015
The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (22:2-14)
Understand. Parables are never to be taken literally. That is why the Lord begins this one saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…” Parables are by nature metaphorical.
This parable is a difficult one to parse. It has deep layers of meaning as all parables do. They are meant to make us think more deeply by directing us to focus on the inner landscape of our lives and that is something most of us seldom do. This parable about the kingdom is surprising because it is filled with turmoil. We expect parables about heaven to be peaceful, don’t we? But not so this one and it makes sense. Where is the kingdom then in this parable? Let’s look at this question for a few minutes.
Jesus pointedly tells his disciples that the kingdom of heaven is within. And what do we usually find when we first look within? Chaos! In a work ascribed to St. Simeon the New Theologian entitled “Three Types of Prayer” his readers are instructed not to become discouraged when they turn their awareness inside and find chaos! He encourages them to keep at it and watch as chaos gives way to open space.
When we look within we find a condition like Jesus describes in this parable. There are parts of us like the moody king, parts of us like the ungracious guests, parts of us that are avaricious and murderous, parts that are forgotten like the second group of guests from the “highways and hedges” and then parts that are like the man in the end who finds himself cast into “outer darkness” because he wore the wrong clothes.
And yet, in the midst of all this chaos the beating heart of the parable is the image of the Great Feast. The representative of God in this parable is not the king, it is the Heavenly Banquet, a symbol of the Eucharist and the Marriage Feast of the Lamb, of communion and deification. The parable has a sacramental theme. It is like a finger pointing at the moon.
And, as it is, the beating heart of every human being is the kingdom of heaven. It is our reason for being, our energy, our purpose, recognized or unrecognized. When the light of Christ shines upon the interior darkness and compassion is brought to bear upon all our disparate parts, then the Banquet Table at the center reveals its presence and we discover that we have always been invited, we have always welcomed to come to the Feast. We have simply refused to attend.
There is another important aspect of this parable I would like to point out. It is the all-inclusiveness of the kingdom. The king throws open the doors of the banquet and invites both the good and the bad to come just like God who makes the sun to shine on the good and bad alike. He makes no distinction. He simply wants his banquet table to be full. And when we turn within we must bring this spirit of inclusion with us. All the parts we find must be made welcome for all of them are in need of the food of heaven.
God is always merciful. He sees into the depths of everything by means of his infinite compassion, he sees into the heart of us. He knows who He has made us to be, and what we have made of ourselves and those are often two very different things and this takes us to the last, and most unsettling part of the parable. Why, after this, does he cast out the man who is wearing an inappropriate garment?
We often choose to wear garments that do not fit us. We put on attitudes and behavior that hide our inner beauty and are not natural to us. What ensues is an interior war St. Paul speaks of in Romans as we end up doing what we do not want to do and in opposition to the truth of who we are. In this way we cast ourselves into “outer darkness,” a darkness of our own making. Ask yourselves. If we take from our inner darkness and project it onto the world around us, what harvest can we expect to receive, but more darkness?
And yet all that is false cannot last, nothing that is untrue is eternal. The darkness cannot extinguish the light, in fact, the darkness makes the light even more obvious. “Outer darkness” has a shelf-life. Love always wins. To love, to do good, to be compassionate, these are our natural garments. Our unhappiness stems from the fact that we often think and act in opposition to love. It is for us to become follower of Jesus and friends of Love.
The Lord sees through our disguises. He knows us because he made us. His face is most truly our face and ours is his. “The glory of God is a human being fully alive,” wrote St. Irenaeus long before Maslow and contemporary psychologies of self-actualization. Both were right! It is interesting to me that the message of Irenaeus and the Gospel, though not attributed to either, can be found at supermarket checkout stands all over the world in one form or another. There is a thirst that only this truth can quench.
There is another interesting way to understand the “outer darkness.” Not as punishment; rather as initiation. Entering into the “divine darkness” is a classic image in Orthodox spiritual writing. It represents the entry into a knowledge of God that can only come through “unknowing,” by casting off the garments of thoughts, imagery, concepts, and even theology with which our minds attempt to understand God. Entering the “divine darkness” is the way of direct, unmediated experience of the Unapproachable God.
In this parable putting on the appropriate garment can be interpreted as taking a step into deeper communion with God. St. Paul speaks about all his righteousness being as “filthy rags.” So, we must change our inappropriate garments, the rags of our small and limited understandings, and replace them with “robes of light” that are woven from direct experience of God in whom “we live and move and have our being.”
We could go on, but that is enough for now, I think. Parables are inexhaustible resources of living water. Some food for thought if nothing else.