Julius Henry Marx was born in a room above a butcher shop on the Upper East Side of Manhattan on October 2, 1890. You may know him as the late Groucho Marx.
On stage and screen, Groucho wore a greasepaint mustache and eyebrows, glasses, and a cigar, and adopted an exaggerated, loping stride. Without the costume and the goofy walk, he may have been able to go mostly unrecognized in daily life.
But it wasn’t just his look that made Grouch Groucho. It was brand of humor. Delivered with a deadpan expression, he mixed sarcasm, satire, and clever wordplay. Groucho makes us laugh. And while our defenses are down, we find ourselves thinking.
For instance, Groucho once said, “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”
It may seem like an odd leap to you, but Groucho’s quip made me think about the Kingdom of Heaven. I mean, in the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
It sounds like Jesus believes that God should reign on earth, and that we even want God’s reign in our real, everyday lives, and yet that’s not our experience. Could it be that we don’t want to join a club that would have us as a member?
For the last few years, the impulse toward Christian Nationalism has been growing. But it would be a mistake to interpret what Jesus teaches about God’s Kingdom to point us toward a theocracy. I think instead Jesus is talking about what a struggle it is to be a human being on planet earth.
Let’s go back to Groucho for a moment. He was not wittily refusing to join a club that had offered him a membership. He was resigning from a club to which he already belonged. And there’s the key for understanding what it means to yearn for the coming of God’s kingdom.
God did not create us as self-contained isolated individuals disconnected from one another. From the start God has woven us into an intricate, fragile web of relationships. That’s God’s Kingdom.
God abides at every intersection point: creating, sustaining, restoring, and renewing. That’s what the divine love looks like. When we love, we connect to each other through God. Similarly, violence, prejudice, oppression, and cruelty visited on our neighbor strain and fray our relationship with God. Diminishes the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus said as much in what we sometimes call The Parable of the Wedding Banquet. The short version goes something like this. (Matthew 22:1-14)
The Kingdom of Heaven is like this. A king threw a wedding reception for his son. Nobody RSVP’ed, so the king sent servants to issue a personal invitation. No takers. In fact, some on the original guest list even abused and murdered the king’s slaves. Furious, the king sent troops to kill the original invitees and burn down their town.
Next, he sent his servants into every street, alley, and dive to invite everybody—and I do mean everybody—to the big party. When the hall is full, the king bumps into a guest with no wedding garment and tosses him out on his ear.
Before unpacking this, let me say something about reading parables that my regular readers will recognize. They are not analogies. I won’t be trying to match up who the king is supposed to stand for, who the various guests are, and how the guy just dragged from a back alley could be expected to have a wedding garment handy.
Nope, parables are more like Zen koans. You know, what is the sound of one hand clapping? Instead of teaching a set of principles for us to memorize, parables challenge us to rethink our most tacit, often tenaciously-held assumptions about who God is and who we are.
So, here’s my take. Think of the Kingdom of Heaven like this.
God is throwing a party. It’s already going on and everybody has been invited. Actually, we’re all already at the party, whether we see it or not.
God just wants us to enter into the spirit of the thing. To love all those crazy, quirky, imperfect people that God decided to put on the guest list. But to love them, we have to acknowledge that we are one of them. No better. No worse. Just God’s beloved.
We enter the Kingdom of Heaven when our heart says, “I’m one of God’s beloved oddballs, just like everybody else.” That admission and recognition is our wedding garment.
Our choice is to enjoy God’s party or to refuse to take part in it. To echo Groucho’s phrase, we have to decide whether or not to be part of this club that already counts us a member.
This essay is a reflection on Matthew 22:1-14 from Proper 23, Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary (coming up October 15, 2023). As usual, I’m posting in advance of the church calendar to help out preachers, teachers, and curious listeners.