Sometimes a king is just a king. The king in this story must be God, right? Hold on – not so fast. It’s not, I think, as if Matthew wants us to compare the mean, enraged king of Jesus’ story to the King of the Universe. The God we worship and adore is hardly consistent with a picture of a king-off-the-rails who murders subjects and burns their cities, all on the occasion of his son’s wedding day.
If we can break away from the idea that this king must be God, then we might be able to begin to catch a glimpse of what Matthew is getting at when he opens this particular episode in his Gospel story with the words, “the kingdom of heaven can be compared to…”
Rather, Matthew is using “compare” more in the sense of the way we would compare – say – apples and oranges. And apple and an orange can be compared alright, but there’s not all that much about them that is similar.
That’s what we have here. These events are taking place in Holy Week. Jesus has already ridden into Jerusalem. The enemies are sharpening their word-swords and preparing to entrap him. The executioner has been put on notice. Have the hammer and nails at the ready. Friday there’s going to be a crucifixion.
Jesus is telling this story describing how the world is – his own world and ours as well. It is a world gone mad. A world in which then and now the headlines read, “terror reigns down in holy lands.”
The world that is lining up in these final chapters of Matthew is also a world in which an earthly king’s word is not to be trusted. He says one thing and does another. On the one hand he wants wedding guests, then throws one out because he didn’t dress the part.
Into this world-gone-mad steps Jesus, “comparing” the world of violent, earthly kings who rule with nothing but impulse and control to the alternative world that the God who sent him envisions: a world of compassion and justice, mercy and peace. It’s that kind of worldview that is going to get Jesus judged by the world then and the world now as dressed-all-wrong. So in just a few days, he’ll be bound hand and foot and thrown to that place in his nation’s capital where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Jesus is about to be thrown to the dogs. Jesus is about to die for nothing more than showing up and telling the truth. Compare that to the reign of the king in his story and in Christ’s blessed homeland who wouldn’t know truth if it jumped up and bit him.
And so, by the world, for the world, Jesus is stripped of the only clothes we ever are told he has and hung out to die while the ridiculing world looks on and scoffs. Before his accusers, he is speechless, much like the rejected wedding guest in his very own story.
In the end, there is no comparison at all. The kings of this world continue to rage. Bombs made of words and bombs made of shrapnel continue to be dropped on cities near and far. Death is the order of the day. In every kingdom but one. For in the kingdom of the real king, the only king, King Jesus, death is not the end. What was once thrown on the scrap heap where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth has now been refashioned. Raised up. Recreated. Jesus is the first born of the new creation.
Sometimes a king is just a king. But a cross, at least the cross of Jesus, is never just a cross.
The cross of Christ, erected outside the city walls of Jerusalem on an ordinary Friday long ago… The cross of Christ, erected at the place where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth… The cross of Christ, erected in utter darkness, the darkest moment the world has ever known, to be exact… The cross of Christ is never just a cross. The cross of Christ is the crossroads of the Universe. It is the place where all the horrid, lying, enraged kings of this world are brought down, and where the one king, the only king, the king of creation is raised up high in love and mercy for the sake of the world. It is this cross, the cross of Jesus, that newly baptized Clara now wears on her forehead. In holy baptism she has been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with this cross of Christ forever. Just like all of us who have been named and claimed by Christ in the waters of our baptism.
It is because of this baptism into Christ that we can trust that all that is death and pain, cruelty and suffering will be swallowed up, destroyed forever. We would probably rather not think about it, and pastors more polite than I would probably not bring it up, but Clara Jean has some days of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth out there ahead of her. In spite of how adorable she looks today (and doesn’t she look adorable?), one day – one day a long, long time from now we hope – she like all of us will be thrown from life into the outer darkness of death. Our baptismal robes all get stained and torn, don’t they?
Kings who willy-nilly murder their so-called friends, diseases that riddle us with fear and decay, sins that destroy relationships and ruin lives soil our beautiful baptismal robes. But they will not have the last word. Christ, the first-born of the dead will have the last word. And until that day when all things are made new, Jesus will walk with us, and with all who suffer, as a daily reminder that death and destruction and their kings and their cronies will not have the final word. That word belongs to God. And it is a word of life. Once stripped bare, Jesus dresses us in baptismal wedding clothes woven from folded grave clothes.
It is these clothes that Clara Jean is now dressed. She wears the wedding robe of baptismal promise, as do all who are counted as children of God. And the love divine, all love’s excelling, the joy of earth from heaven come down has now fixed a humble dwelling with us. With us.
That is the promise of Christ to the baptized. That my brothers and sisters: that is the final word.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.