“The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king…” Kings? Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua – some of the great names of Israel’s history. And none of them were king. Yet under the leadership of God, they led Israel from slavery to the freedom of the promised land. Deborah, Gideon, Samson – none of them were kings, yet under the leadership of God, these Judges united Israel to defend itself and its identity against the other nations. To be the qahal Yahweh – the people of God. And the last of the judges was Samuel. It was to Samuel (1 Sam 7) that the people came and said “Now that you are old, and your sons do not follow your example, appoint a king over us, as other nations have, to judge us.” When Samuel prayed about this before the Lord, God said in answer: “Grant the people’s every request. It is not you they reject, they are rejecting me as their king.” And God warned the people of the rights of those other kings:
- He will take your sons and assign them to his army, his fields, and household
- He will use your daughters as ointment-makers, as cooks, and as bakers.
- He will take the best of your fields, vineyards, and olive groves for himself and his officials.
- He will tax your crops, your vineyards, flocks and your income for revenue.
- He will be your king and you will become his slaves.
“The people, however, refused to listen to [the] warning and said, ‘Not so! There must be a king over us. We too must be like other nations, with a king to rule us and to lead us in warfare and fight our battles.’” And so, Israel had its kings. The Books of 1st, 2nd Kings and Chronicles is dedicated to describing how those kings were just like other kings, and how Israel became just like other nations. Which, by the by, was not a good thing.
And so, our Gospel opens a parable with “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king…” That should give us pause…
It is parable, and if you think you have an easy understanding of its meaning, then you are likely missing the point. We are pretty quick to associate the king of the parable with God the Father holding a wedding feast for his Son, Jesus. We have so much imagery that we associate with the end-time banquet as a wedding feast, Jesus the groom, and so much more. But I am given pause because the king of this parable “The king was enraged and sent his troops” … what? … “enraged” – and there are other actions of the king that just strike me as … well more like the very kings Samuel warned the people about.
When the entire legacy of kings had collapsed and Israel found itself exiled to Babylon, the prophet Zechariah (Zech 34) told the people of God’s promise. Because the people had suffered through one bad shepherd after another – shepherd being a very traditional image for the ideal king – that God Himself would come to shepherd the people. There is never a mention that God will come as king… Shepherd, yes… Savior and Redeemer, yes…King? No.
Or if you want to stay with the king imagery, let me suggest what kind of King, we might choose rather than the one offered in the parable.
- He has no scepter but only towel to wash his disciples’ feet
- He wore no crown of gold but one of thorns
- His royal courtyard was a place called the Skull. His courtiers were a criminal on his left and a criminal on his right.
- His royal court was not a place of judgment and execution for those who contested his power, but a place where forgiveness was found
- The King was not separated from the people by a security team, but he walked, spoke and shared the life of his people, like us in all things except sin
- The King did not impose his power, he proposed his grace and mercy
- The king did not lay the debts of his monarchy on the backs of his people, he laid down his own life so that the debt of human sin would be forgiven
- He did not wield the sword of war and conquest but preached the good news that can quell the wars that rage within us and around us
- The King of Kings did not entertain only the nobility and powerful. He shared table with the sinners, the prostitutes, tax collectors, widows, orphans, foreigners, and thieves.
- His kingdom’s boundaries do not delineate, separate and marginalize. Rather his rule and grace extends to prodigals, the Samaritans, the poor and outcast, the lepers, and to all the world
- He invites in and welcomes the one lacking a proper wedding garment.
Perhaps this is a very different take on the traditional understanding of the parable. Something to think about. But consider this: in all of salvation history, kings were never promised, only grudgingly given, and never worked out. “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king…”
And what about us? We are like the people who came before the Prophet Samuel – each day we are at a personal tipping point. What do we want? King or shepherd?