The God I do not want: a mangled parable

When I first looked at the lectionary Gospel for this week (Matthew 22.1-14) – my immediate reaction was to reflect that , underlying it, was a very similar issue to that which seemed to be reflected in the lectionary Gospel for last week: namely the puzzle in the early Christian church – and certainly in the part of the church which provided the Gospel of Matthew’s own immediate context – over why so many of those from Matthew’s original Jewish religious tradition had failed to become disciples of Jesus Christ. I was (for a brief moment!) tempted simply to write for this week’s blog ‘See last week!’ So I am grateful to my husband Alan Amos for taking up the challenge of exploring this passage for us. I am also grateful to Canon John Newsome for sending me a photo he took some years ago of a plaque at the cathedral in Magdeburg which depicts sorrow and repentance for the widespread hostility towards Judaism in many places and times over the last 2000 years. We use this photo as an illustration below.

As Alan suggests, our ‘joy’ this week is prompted not by the Gospel, but by the other readings, especially Philippians 4.1-9. One of my personal ongoing theological quests is to explore ‘What is Joy’. So after Alan’s reflection I offer a number of ‘definitions’ of joy. (Though in truth I suspect joy may be undefinable!).

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

Spurned sister synagogue, forgive our blindness which has brought so much death. God’s promises remain valid for you in all eternity as they do for us’ (Plaque placed at Magdeburg Cathedral, Germany, near to traditional Ecclesia/Synagoga statues)

Roger Penrose of Britain, Reinhard Genzel of Germany and Andrea Ghez of the US have won the Nobel Physics Prize for their research into black holes.  (Ghez, it’s worth noting, is only the fourth woman to receive the honour in nearly 120 years of Nobel history.)

Despite sometimes describing himself as an atheist,   in the 1991 film A Brief History of Time Roger Penrose said, ‘I think I would say that the universe has a purpose, it’s not somehow just there by chance … some people, I think, take the view that the universe is just there and it runs along – it’s a bit like it just sort of computes, and we happen somehow by accident to find ourselves in this thing. But I don’t think that’s a very fruitful or helpful way of looking at the universe, I think that there is something much deeper about it.’

‘Something much deeper about it’:  this phrase can draw us into a conversation where human awareness of beauty  and harmony in creation and in music open up questions about the purpose of our existence,  and as Christians this phrase reminds us that wonder is an essential part of our response to the divine.  

I not only regret that so many of our scientists are atheists,   but that our churches have been so unsuccessful in pointing towards  ‘a God who is believable.’   Sometimes I think that a slavish and uncritical use of Scripture plays its part in this.   I do wish that this Sunday’s Gospel reading was a help,  but in my view it is not.   This mangled parable probably is linked to the one we find in Luke 14. 16 – 24,  the invitation to a great feast.   Unfortunately the version we find in Matthew   can most easily be interpreted in terms which portray the God that none of us wants (It is interesting to compare and contrast the different feel of the parable in the two Gospels).  The parable seems to have been reshaped by the intense pressures on the Gospel writer’s home community and the divisions between church and synagogue that Clare referred to in last week’s blog.    A writer whom I much admire,  Debie Thomas,  has made a brave effort to turn the parable upside down,  and her attempt is well worth a read :  https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2777

I cannot travel with her to her conclusion,  but it was a journey worth taking!

Icon of the Parable of the Wedding Feast – which includes the portrayal of the man without the wedding garment.

So this Sunday I shall turn for spiritual refreshment to our other readings.   However,  I feel sorry for the members of our congregations if the Gospel is read to them without any further comment on it.   I leave you to think out what comment you might make !  

By contrast,  the reading from Isaiah (Isaiah 25.1 -9) is a refreshment to the soul.   The feast is a universal one provided for all people,  and  salvation is proclaimed to all the nations;  the tears on all faces will be wiped away,  and the love of God for Israel is set within the context of the love of God for all humanity.  

And then,  turning to  the reading from Philippians (Philippians 4.1 -9),  we find the words  we treasure :  ‘Rejoice in the Lord always,  and again I say rejoice!’   and  the reference to the peace of God that passes all understanding.  

It is that holy nugget of scripture that I rest in from this Sunday’s readings.  I might rephrase it,  “’he peace of God which by-passes my understanding.’  In other words,  in a wonderful way the presence and peace of God is known beyond our inner arguments and strivings,   beyond even our wrestlings over the meaning of scripture …. having thought both our best and our worst,  we are invited to lay aside the strivings of our minds,   and rest in the God who loves and cares for us,  yes and for all people,   all those whom he invites to the great feast of love.

Some definitions of joy

  • There is no aspect of human life and emotion where God is not present. Yet God’s way of being present often confounds our expectations and our preconceived notions. Moments of joy, of intimacy, of confusion and despair can be the opportunity for a deeper awareness of God’s presence. (Gemma Simmonds)
  • Joy comes when faith is alive, curiosity is inflamed and the mind is stretched (Nick Baines)
  • Gratitude transforms the torment of memory of good things now gone into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
  • Joy is not a requirement of Christian discipleship, it is a consequence. (Eugene Peterson)
  • Joy is the great enemy of narcissism. (Stanley Hauerwas)

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