The readings this week from Exodus and the Gospel of Matthew are about the unexpected. In the story from Exodus, Moses has been up on the mountain for a long time. The people are getting worried, even scared. They don't really know where Moses has gone, or why they don't understand. Like so many times during their journey, they are confused and scared, and they lose faith. This is not so surprising it is a continuing theme. They ask Aaron to make gods for them, so he takes all their jewelry and makes a golden calf.
God, of course, sees what they are doing. God tells Moses to go back down to the people, whom God threatens to destroy. This is not so surprising, either, as the Old Testament contains other stories of God's anger. But Moses begs God to reconsider, and reminds God of the promises made to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.
And then comes the surprise, the unexpected: God changes his mind; God relents. As the psalmist says,
So would he have destroyed them,
had not Moses his chosen stood before him in the breach,
to turn his wrath away from consuming them.
Then in Matthew's Gospel, we have the strange story of the king who held a wedding banquet for his son. The invited guests would not come, so the king sent his slaves out to bring people in from the street. Then he seems surprised to find a guest who is not dressed appropriately, and he orders the slaves to bind the man and toss him âinto the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Now we might think that this is just a strange, rude, unkind man, full of himself and his power as king. We might think this is just an odd story, if it werenât for the opening sentence of this passage: âOnce more Jesus spoke to the people in parables, saying: "the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son."
"The kingdom of heaven may be compared to..." We get the part about the kingdom of heaven being like a wedding banquet. The story starts out in a seemingly normal way, but quickly takes a strange turn when the guests refuse to attend the party. This is unexpected behavior. We can understand the connection between the kingdom of heaven and people being invited in from the streetsâthis makes sense to us. But then there is the unexpected behavior of the king toward one of the guests. This man, probably poor, from the streets, isnât dressed in appropriate wedding clothes. So the king has him bound and thrown out into the darkness. What does this say about the kingdom of heaven?
We are shocked and surprised by this story, as were those listening to Jesus. As in many cultures, hospitality was very important to these people. It would have been unforgivable for guests or hosts to behave in this manner. Jesus' listeners would have been shocked and offendedâand especially so when Jesus compared this story to the kingdom of heaven.
Perhaps that was the point. Jesus often made unusual or surprising or uncomfortable comparisons in his parables. Once again, he is challenging the assumptions of his listeners, shocking them with a surprising or unexpected story.
But why would he tell such a story about the kingdom of heaven? It was not only for the shock value. Jesus wanted to expand people's perceptions. He was not saying that the kingdom of heaven is like the king or the banquet or the guests. He is saying that the kingdom of heaven is beyond our expectations, beyond our assumptions, beyond what we can analyze and think through and get our heads around. This is not to say that we should not think or try to understand. It is only to say that there is always more than what we can see, that God will always surprise us, will always confront us with the unexpected. The point is for us to always try to be open to more, not just to rest in the comfortable assumption that we know all about God.
These stories make us uncomfortable. We don't know what to do with them: stories of the Lord talking about destroying his people, or strange, confusing parables told by Jesus. We usually ignore them, or try to find some way to explain them away: well, this is what this really means.
But there is a way of understanding them, without taking them literally. In the Gospel, for example, Jesus is being deliberately provocative. He challenges our preconceived ideas about what God and Godâs kingdom are like. We all have our favorite ideas of what the kingdom of heaven might be like. Jesus is telling us that it will be like nothing we can imagine. In that over-used phrase, Jesus is inviting us to âthink outside the box.
Because the truth is that we cannot know for certain. In the book of Isaiah, it says, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord." This does not mean we are stupid, it only means that we are human and our knowledge and our understanding are limited. Even though we contain a spark of the divine, even though we are made in Godâs image, we are not God. The most we can hope for in this lifetime are glimpsesâthrough story and scripture, through prayer and meditation, through our experiences. If we are open to the Spirit, if we listen, if we pay attention, we can catch a glimpse here and there of the kingdom.
These are the glimpses Paul speaks of in the Letter to the Philippians, when he says,
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing,
whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and
if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
These are all things of the kingdom. The only things Paul left out of his list might be whatever is surprising, whatever is unexpected. It is often through those things that God speaks to us.