Dan's Groin and the Kingdom of Heaven

October 9, 2011

Clay Nelson

Pentecost 17     Matthew 22: 1-14

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I’m going to attempt the impossible this morning. I’m going to try to get through this entire sermon without once mentioning Dan Carter’s groin…oh bugger! It will shock you as much as me to learn that there are bigger disasters afoot than whether or not our All Blacks will survive the quarterfinals today without him. I know this because this week I saw some of the first signs of spring: Posters and billboards popping up in local parks and along roadways in a cacophony of reds, blues and greens. Someone who isn’t into rugby – must be a Communist – told me it happens every three years. “It means a general election is coming up soon.” Being from America I said knowingly, “Oh, you mean in two years?” “No,” he said, “In a little more than six weeks.” Aghast, I said, “but the World Cup isn’t over for two week. If they win, there is at least another week of celebrating and if they lose there is a mandatory four-year period of mourning and recriminations. There isn’t time to have an election!” My knowledgeable friend nodded wisely, “Convenient, eh?” (Maybe he is a Canadian Communist). He then pointed out the obvious to me, since Americans can be a little thick, “Holding an election no one notices is the best kind for those in power.”


But I get it now. It is important that we find the time to notice, not just because it is a requirement of good citizenship. Today’s parable points out why. It calls us to come to the party. The kingdom of heaven is at stake. 


On the face of it, Matthew tells us a terrible parable. It is his version of Luke’s parable of the wedding feast everyone is too busy to attend with a large dollop of gratuitous violence added in. Unlike Luke, Matthew has the king’s minions killed by the intended guests. The king promptly responds in kind and has his soldiers kill them and burn their cities. Just in case we aren’t repelled enough he then binds and throws out one of his guests who is not properly dressed. Jesus begins by saying we should compare this to the kingdom of heaven. He closes with the mysterious line, “For many are called but few are chosen.”


This parable gives biblical scholars more fits than All Black fans are having over Dan Carter’s…um…you know what. There are all kinds of efforts to reconcile this vengeful story with the storyteller, who is better known for telling us to love our enemies, not kill them. Most of their efforts I found convoluted and amusing, but there was one suggestion that made some sense. When Matthew told the story it was after Rome had destroyed the temple and much of Jerusalem during the Jewish Wars. For Jews this was an event as traumatic as the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11 was for us. It changed the world, as they knew it. It left them in shock. The suggestion is that Luke’s version was an earlier version that Matthew reinterpreted in light of that event. This interpretation suggests Matthew was challenging the idea that we need to accept and adjust to the present reality.


When Jesus said compare this story about a king giving a wedding party for his son with the kingdom of heaven, it was for us to contrast the way this world is against a world where love, hope, compassion and forgiveness reign. The king and his son are not an allegory for God and Jesus as often suggested. If they are an allegory at all, they are an allegory for the Empire. If Jesus is in the story at all he is the one cast out of the party. He is the one who stands in opposition to the present reality where the powers that be do unspeakable things. To stand up for justice, peace, and compassion for those on the margins is not going to endear anyone with the powerbrokers. Few are willing to pay the price of such rejection by speaking in opposition although we are all called to do so.


I saw the movie The Help this week. It is based on an excellent book by the same name. It tells the stories of black maids in Jackson, Mississippi who raised white people’s children and took care of their homes. There is one particularly painful scene. The mother of the storyteller confesses in shame to her daughter that she fired their maid of over 20 years. The reason? The maid’s daughter used the front door to enter the house instead of the back door when there were guests from a racist women’s group having a lunch there in the mother’s honour. Rather than be judged by their bigotry she cast out both the mother and daughter, who were like members of the family, into the outer darkness. Compare this to the kingdom of heaven.


In addition to this movie, Matthew’s parable and Dan Carter’s groin (Bugger!), I’ve also been confronted by Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. It is a very painful book to read that tells how Milton Friedman, a professor at the Chicago School of Economics, and his countless students over four decades have brought us to a world where unfettered capitalism is considered moral and in our best interest. Where it is considered acceptable that a very small percentage holds most of the wealth while the numbers in poverty continue to increase. Compare this to the kingdom of heaven.


Friedman’s vision of a perfect world was one not hampered by government taxes and regulations, unions, state owned assets, consumer protection laws, tariffs protecting local industries, social spending, public education, protection of natural resources, superannuation, government health care, or a minimum wage. The Chicago School of Economics has one article of faith. It is that the state’s sole function is to protect our freedom both from the enemies outside our gates and from our fellow-citizens. In other words, to supply soldiers to kill our enemies and police to cast out those in our midst who do not conform. Compare this to the kingdom of heaven. 


Disciples of Friedman believe that we as a society would never rationally accept such a sweeping restructuring of the social contract unless we are shocked into it. They look at disasters that traumatise us as useful. When the tsunami hit Sri Lanka in 2004 and while people were still shocked and disoriented, developers gained access to coastal land. They built resort hotels for international tourists rather than rebuild the fishing villages that were the livelihood for the locals. Compare this to the kingdom of heaven.


When Hurricane Katrina levelled New Orleans Friedman wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times saying it was an opportune time to “reform” education in the city. It was critical to strike quickly. The Bush administration was happy to oblige. The result 19 months later, while levees and the electrical grid waited to be rebuilt, public education in New Orleans was essentially decimated. Before Katrina there were 123 public schools and 7 private charter schools. After Friedman, only 4 public schools remained. The others were replaced by 31 private schools. The teacher’s union was shredded and 4700 teachers lost their jobs. Compare this to the kingdom of heaven.


When Mother Nature does not provide a crisis, any crisis will do – manufactured or real. New Zealand experienced this in 1984. In response to a monetary crisis Roger Douglas swiftly instituted a major restructuring or the economy in line with the doctrines of Milton Friedman. While for the more affluent these changes were seen as positive, 76,000 manufacturing jobs were loss. Unions were crippled. State assets were sold off. The cost of living rose. And to this day the gulf between rich and poor continues to widen. Compare this to the kingdom of heaven.


The list of crises created by advocates of an unregulated free market advantageous to multi-national corporations is long and onerous: Coups initiated by the CIA at the behest of multinationals in Indonesia, Chile, Brazil; Argentina cost millions of lives. “Shock and Awe” at the beginning of the Iraq War were straight out of the Friedman handbook to stun the Iraqi people into giving up their natural resources quickly and without resistance. The most recent crisis – the shocking meltdown of Wall Street, which has cruelly impacted the globe, has not stopped true believers in Friedman from gaining even more wealth at the expense of the common good. Compare this to the kingdom of heaven.


As important as Dan’s anatomy is at the moment, we need to pay attention to the signs of spring. There is a party going on that we need to attend. We need to engage and enquire. Our task is to compare those who would lead us with the kingdom of heaven. If necessary, we need to be amongst the few who do not conform to a world according to Friedman. It would be easier not to, but then, compare us to the kingdom of heaven.

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