Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Great Banquet

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The Parable of the Great Banquet (LK. 14:16-24) is always read on the Second Sunday Before Nativity, also designated as Sunday of the Holy Ancestors of Christ. Thus, at last Sunday’s Liturgy, we heard this parable as we continue to draw closer to the Feast of the Nativity of Christ. In this parable, Christ employs the biblical image of a great banquet as an image of the Kingdom of God. This is a very biblical image that the Lord draws on. To give just two examples: this image can be found in the Prophet Isaiah (25:6-9) and the Book of Revelation (19:9). This is the eschatological messianic banquet that God will bless His people with, signifying fellowship, joy and communion with God and in God’s presence. The Eucharistic banquet that we celebrate within the life of the Church is the foretaste and anticipation of this “banquet” without end in the Kingdom of God. Yet, in the parable as told by the Lord, we discover that the very people invited find excuses for their unwillingness to accept the master’s invitation to attend. (In fact, in the Orthodox Study Bible, this parable is given the subtitle “Wordly Entanglements, Poor Excuses”). These are, of course, very 1st c. Palestinian excuses: “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them; please have me excused.” These excuses sound legitimate enough in their practicality. However, these very practical excuses do not impress the master, for the parable tells us that they “angered” him. This was not an invitation to treat lightly. The master then sent his servant out on a further mission as we hear in the parable: to invite those who are on the margins of society – “the poor, and maimed and blind and lame;” and those basically outside of that society – “Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in.”

In its original setting and intention, the parable is a clear rebuke to the Lord’s fellow Jews for rejecting His invitation to enter the messianic banquet that the “master” (His heavenly Father) has prepared through His own ministry as the (Suffering) Servant of God. To replace those whose lame excuses prevent them from entering into this great banquet, both those marginalized by restrictions of the Law and the Gentile unbelievers will be invited in to the feast. And this may come as a shock to those initially invited. Those who were initially invited must suffer the consequences of the master’s final pronouncement: “For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste of my banquet.” We, in turn, must look beyond the original intention of the parable so that we do not succumb to that moralizing complacency that allows us to judge others of the very sin we may be committing. We must leave to God whatever judgments that God may determine for unbelief and the rejection of the messianic ministry of Jesus; a ministry fulfilled in the Death and Resurrection of God’s Messiah and the establishment of the messianic banquet in the Age to Come and anticipated today in the Eucharistic Liturgy.

Perhaps there are some contemporary members of the Church who excuse themselves for rejecting the “invitation” to the Liturgy celebrated on the Lord’s Day – perhaps only from “time to time,” or perhaps with some regularity. As said above, since the Liturgy is the foretaste of the great and heavenly banquet of the Age to Come, we also may incur the displeasure of the Master by our own excuses, though they may sound as legitimate and practical as those recorded in the parable. In our contemporary society there are many seemingly innocuous reasons (excuses?) for not participating in the Liturgy on the Lord’s Day with faithful regularity. And these reasons are only going to multiply over time. Sunday mornings are no longer that nice wide-open space on our pocket planners or refrigerator calendars that are unquestioningly left open for God and the Liturgy. The society we live in continues to encroach upon that empty space and is threatening to squeeze it out of existence. The parable of the Great Banquet has something to say about that. Thus, we have the opportunity to think long and hard over our choices.

Yet beyond that issue, we must seriously listen to this parable and discover how it is actualized in our many decisions on a daily basis. We may have the “Liturgy issue” under perfect control in that we are unfailingly faithful to our commitment to be present at the messianic banquet table of the Lord from which we partake of the Bread from Heaven. (Hopefully that is reason for rejoicing and not simply an act of obligation). However, we may have our own litany of excuses as to why we fail to work on our ongoing relationship with God, thus extending the application of this parable to embrace all aspects of that relationship. If we fail to pray with regularity, or read the Scriptures, or confess our sins, we have an excuse. If we fail to fast, or to be charitable, we have an excuse. If we fail to support the Church – and its local manifestation in the parish - with our time, talent or treasure beyond the minimal, we have an excuse. If we are less than a neighbor to those in need, or neglect the marginalized of society, we have an excuse. The human mind is a veritable factory of creative excuse-making when we need to rationalize or justify a certain behavior or lack of behavior. (see GEN. 3) Perhaps a sign of Christian maturity is when we no longer come up with excuses, but simply admit to our shortcomings and lack of focus.

To offer a generalization, it seems that the excuses given in the parable seem to fall under the rubric of “being busy.” Or, rather, that we are simply “too busy” to do what is needed, and/or even to concentrate on the “one thing needful.” Perhaps we can avoid sin, but we cannot avoid our busy schedules. We are too busy to even sin – at least “big time!” This is the human condition as lived by contemporary human beings. And there is no easy solution.

Perhaps it is only our vision of life that can begin to help us move beyond this impasse: “Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (COL. 3:1). A vision of life nourished by an abiding faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and that believing we have life in His Name (JN. 20:31). Yet, also further nourished by the Great Banquet of the Eucharistic Liturgy that we are invited to every Sunday, which is therefore the Day that first and foremost belongs to the Lord before and beyond anything else. This vision of life would also be future-oriented so as to embrace the “life of the world to come” – described for us as a Great Banquet in which we will experience the indescribable joy of fellowship and communion with the Holy Trinity, the saints and with each other. By participating in the Liturgy we prepare ourselves for that life with God, because the Liturgy is probably the most perfect expression of what we anticipate and look forward to in God’s heavenly Kingdom – fellowship, joy, communion and love inexpressible. If we can only hold that vision of life up to our gaze, then we can “make time” so as to hold God at the center of our lives. I suggest that a modest start is stop making excuses, and make an honest assessment of what we need to repent of and confess to. Then, we have always at least the potential for a new beginning.

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