The image of a 'banquet’ or 'feast' is one that recurs with great regularity in Christian thought and art, not least in the Bible itself. The reason is easy to see. Religion is about life, and food is essential to life. An instinctive desire for food is the new born baby’s first orientation to the world, and by tradition, an offer of food is the last humane act extended to those condemned to death. Nor is food simply a necessity. Specially prepared food and drink provided in abundance is the universal mark of human celebration – at births, weddings, religious holidays and communal festivals. It was at a wedding feast that Jesus gave his first 'sign', according to John’s Gospel, and at a meal – the Passover – that the rite at the heart of Christian worship was instituted. These familiar facts remind us that it is completely natural for human beings to think analogically about spiritual gifts and blessings, and describe them as ‘heavenly food’. By extension, we can imagine God’s promise of salvation as a ‘heavenly banquet’.
Some of the most famous feasts and banquets that the Bible depicts, however, have a dark side. They are occasions on which sin subverts celebration and turns it spectacularly in the wrong direction. Belshazzer's feast in the Book of Daniel is one famous example, the story to which we owe the expression ‘the writing is on the wall’. An extravagant celebration intended to glorify Belshazzer’s reign signals instead the collapse of his Kingdom. Herod's feast at which Salome dances so well is another example. Her reward, in the gruesome form of the head of John the Baptist on a platter, suddenly makes the partying grotesque. Feasting, then, while it ought to mark a joyful celebration, can go badly wrong.
Jesus' use of the image in the parable that forms this Sunday’s Gospel has something of this ambiguity about it. Once more he relies on his audience's familiarity with Scripture, and in particular the passage that provides this week's Old Testament lesson, where Isaiah envisages salvation in these terms -- "the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear”. With Isaiah in mind, Jesus’ use of a banquet to teach about the Kingdom of Heaven could not fail to resonate with his listeners. However, it is given a special twist. To begin with, the people who ought to come to the celebration can't be bothered to come, despite the status of the host and the quality of the food. In response, the king tells his slaves to go out into the streets and gather “all whom they found, both good and bad”.
On the surface, the message seems to be this; social elitism has been rejected in favour of a wonderfully inclusive love. But, on reflection, things are not quite so simple. For a start, the guests on the original list, who treated the invitation lightly, are not included; they are punished instead. And, it turns out, even the people gathered up from the streets and brought in without asking are not assured of a permanent place at the banquet. The hapless man who did not trouble to dress properly for the occasion, is promptly thrown out.
The deeper message is this. The heart of the Gospel, and key to the promise of salvation, is not to be identified with an easy, open, no questions asked, divine welcome. God does indeed long for everyone to share with him "joys that pass our understanding", and is actively at work in the world to make this happen. That is the good news. Yet human beings have been given freedom, and this means that they can choose evil and spurn the good. In every time and place, history shows, people have done this. But more importantly for most of us, as this parable teaches, indifference, wilfulness and carelessness also have the power to make us lose those joys. That is why Paul has this important advice for the new Christians at Philippi. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
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