Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
The opening lines of one of the most famous and most loved poems in the English language – indeed probably any language. Shakespeare brings into the mind of the reader the image of a summer’s day. How does that image feel to you? Do you see the glorious colours of garden and hedgerow? Do you feel the warmth of the sun on your skin? Do you smell the delightful fragrances of flowers in full bloom? Do you hear the lark singing? Is there anything that offers such joy, such beauty? The answer, of course, is yes – it is the beloved to whom the poem is addressed. Being with the beloved is like being bathed in summer. And being with the beloved is also not like being bathed in summer. The beloved is more lovely and more temperate than that. And as the poem continues, it gets worse for the summer’s day. Shakespeare goes on to notice that the sun can get a bit too hot for comfort, or it can be blocked out by a cloud. What is more, summer is very soon over, and even the most wonderful summer’s day can be turned dark and chill by the thought that summer will soon come to an end. All this is in sharp contrast with the beloved’s perfection whose ‘eternal summer shall not fade’ and with the lover’s love, which is stronger even than death.
When Shakespeare makes his comparison, he is showing what two things have in common, and also what makes them different. Any comparison must do the same: if two things are identical, there is no comparison, no points of difference.
Jesus was very fond of offering comparisons. Just think how many parables you know. Sometimes his emphasis is on what the two things have in common, like the comparison between the kingdom of God and the mustard seed: neither might seem significant, but both are capable of prolific growth. But what of this king and this wedding feast? It is tempting to jump in and see the king as representing God and the king’s actions as being like what God does. Tempting because the kingdom of heaven is spoken about as a banquet; tempting because this parable can be read as reflecting the fate of Israel, whom God invited into the Kingdom, but they rejected the teaching of the prophets, they killed the king’s slaves. On this understanding the people who come to the feast are the Gentiles. So far, so good. But what about the way the king treats the poor soul who hasn’t got a dinner jacket? Is God such a capricious and violent tyrant?
There is a clue in Jesus’s words that suggests his parable is not saying that the kingdom in the parable is like the kingdom of heaven. What Jesus actually says is not ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.’ What Jesus says is: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man, a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.’ A man, a king. This is how a human tyrant acts, not the divine God of love. Remember what happened just after Jesus was born? Herod the king, feeling threatened by news that the king of the Jews had been born, ordered the slaughter of all male children under the age of two. I suspect that when Jesus’ original audience heard his story about a violent king, Herod would have come quickly to mind. And they may have remembered how Isaiah described a lavish feast laid on by God. ‘On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.’ It is for everyone, no-one is expelled for violating the dress code. God will be destructive, but what he will destroy on this mountain is ‘the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death for ever.’ God does not take life, God gives life. In Jesus God gives the gift of eternal life. It begins to look as though the wedding banquet thrown by this man, this king is not at all like the kingdom of heaven.
So what about the man without the proper clothing, the man who did not fit in? Do you remember when Jesus was invited to supper by a Pharisee? The host took exception to the fact that Jesus did not wash before eating, did not observe the traditions. Would Jesus really have minded if someone turned up in the wrong dress code? The man-king, however, sees this gate crasher and takes exception to him and the fact that he flouts tradition. The man-king then accuses him. The man remains silent. The man-king condemns him to death. Does that sound like a familiar story. Is not this what happened to Jesus? Jesus did not use violence, rather, he suffered violence at the hands of violent earthly rulers, people who had much in common with this man-king.
In sharp contrast with the way powerful human tyrants use violence, Jesus uses love, only love.
Lord, shall I compare thee to this man, a king? When I do, I see that
Jesu, thou art all compassion; pure unbounded love thou art.