The banquet

The Banquet…. Isaiah 25: 6-10, Luke 14:15-24,

Have you ever noticed that Jesus liked a good nosh up.  He talks a lot about feasts.  He turned the water into wine at Cana to have a good banquet.  Zacchaeus had an interesting meal with him, Simon the Pharisee got more than he bargained for when he invited Jesus to a banquet.  The feeding of the 5000….The upright Pharisees accused him of eating and drinking too often and too much. 

Feasts still are an important part of most cultures.  Take a wedding feast for example.  Some of you will remember agonising over the guest list trying to decide who to invite and who to leave off.  Those you invite are honoured and those you leave off are … well sometimes it turns into major family issues.  Ouch….The insiders belong, the relationship with the host is strengthened, but for those on the outer there is a message that somehow they don’t matter so much.  That hurts.  Then there’s the food because you want the best for your guests, but there are also practical issues like costs.  The last thing you want is people going home hungry or thinking that was a stingy affair.  Feasts are a celebration and you want the assembled guests to have a good time.  There are all sorts of important messages being conveyed in feasts.

In Middle Eastern culture where hospitality is such an important virtue, magnify this by ten.  Feasts were and remain incredibly important.  

Our scriptures have stories and images about a special feast called the Messianic Banquet.  The idea is that sometime in the future when the earth is transformed according to the will of God, God will host a great feast.   In Christian imagery it also marks the return of Jesus although in my eyes Jesus remains with us in Spirit.  

Whenever we celebrate Communion we are remembering the Messianic banquet…. And our scriptures quote Jesus as saying at the Last supper that he looked forward to the time when he would share a meal with all people at the great reunion. I wonder if you have any thoughts of what that may look like?  (No more hunger because everyone well fed, healing of all the barriers, caring for creation, Shalom – Peace)

Our passage from Isaiah is pre Jesus but it’s typical of the images we have about this great banquet.  Remember as with so much of our scriptures you need to turn on your imaginary brain, your poetic brain, which we are not always good at.

On this mountain the Lord of all hosts will throw a feast for all the people of the world, a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food lavish with gourmet desserts.  And God will banish the pall of gloom hanging over all peoples, the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations, and God will swallow up death forever.  God will wipe away the tears from all faces and every sign of disgrace of his people.  All will be well fed, and all the earth will be healed and resonate with the joy of salvation.  What an image.

You can hear the resonance with the final passages in the book of Revelation.  There is a new intimacy between God and humanity.  The shroud referred to is the temple curtain that separated people and God.  Heaven and earth become one as all peoples sit down to the great feast hosted by God with the best wine and food.  Exquisite flavour, goodness, rich food.  MasterChef eat your heart out.

But note who is there…all peoples, all nations.

Actually that was too radical for the good religious folk in our past.  Around the time of Jesus there was a translation of some of the scriptures into Aramaic, the everyday language of the day.  This added text to try and explain what the original Hebrew said a little like the Living Bible or the Message does in our own day.  It was called the Targum and in the Targum this vision of Isaiah is given a whole new twist.  All people will come to the mountain but also that they would be inflicted with plagues, plagues from which there would be no escape and they will come to their end.  Where did that come from?  The universal welcome is changed into judgment and destruction for the outsiders.

About the same time another piece of writing called the book of Enoch emerged and that too speaks of a great banquet with the Messiah to which the Gentiles were invited.  But Enoch tells us the angel of death will be present and will use his sword to destroy the Gentiles.  The banquet hall will run with blood and the select few believers will have to wade through the gore to reach the meal and sit down with the Messiah to enjoy the feast.

The Qumran Community also active in the time of Jesus and from whom we got the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered last century has a number of writings about the Messianic banquet have yet another take on who would be invited.  It was a feast for the pure ones, the faithful ones who were part of the select community.  So the Gentiles didn’t even get a look in, but neither did anyone with a disability, the blind, the deaf, or anyone smitten with a visible blemish which clearly was a sign of God’s disfavour.  Oh dear,  people can so often get the wrong end of the stick.  Only the select few who are good enough will be invited.

We are good in all sorts of subtle ways if putting up fences, deciding that some are worthy and some are not.  Jesus seems to have very different ideas. 

He asks his servants to go out and invite others to the feast.  I have to admit I’m not the greatest at going out and inviting others but I’m in good company. 

In a typical Middle Eastern village the host of the banquet invites a group of friends.  On the basis of the acceptances they will design the menu and prepare the food.  On the appointed day the beast are slaughtered and the meal prepared.  When everything is ready the host will send his servants around the village with the message, “please come, everything is ready”.  We do it a little differently.  We invite people for drinks and nibbles and then at the appointed time we say, come let’s sit down to eat.  Whatever when the appointed time came in Jesus’ story there are excuses.  I have to go and inspect a piece of land that I’ve just purchased…. I have just purchased a new car and need to give it a spin….I’ve just married and I want to spend some time in the bedroom. 

Only if you think about it these excuses are not very genuine.  Have you ever purchased a house without looking at it first?  This is pre internet so there isn’t even a picture to look at.  No-one purchases without some sort of pre-inspection.  I guess it could be that there has been a negotiation in the wind for a while that needs to be settled immediately, but that isn’t what the text says.  The response in the text is simply lame and insulting.  So is the second.  You don’t buy a car without a test drive.  You certainly don’t buy yoked oxen without trialling them.  Do they work well together?  They will be hopeless if they don’t pull as a team.  As with props in a scrum you have to get balanced pulling or pushing power or else everything screws around.  No farmer will even bid on a pair of oxen without testing them carefully.  It is an insulting response.  And the third man doesn’t even ask to be excused.  I have a new woman in my bedroom and I am busy with her.   It is rude and insulting.

The master hears the three responses and is angry.  He has been stood up, and he is insulted.  Those invited simply don’t value the master and what he stands for.  The master has been slapped in the face and it hurts, but the anger is channelled into something positive.  Go out into the streets and byways and bring in the poor, the maimed, the blind, and the lame.  The master could have gone after the three so called friends and found some way to get back at them for their rude-ness but instead he channels the anger into grace.  Such is the character of the master.  The everyday people, the nobodies, the common-folk are invited and welcomed into the banquet.  There is no expectation of an invite back because it’s simply not possible for these folk. And despite the fact that there is many of them, there is still room, and so the invitation is issued wider to those who naturally will respond, ‘what me, impossible, look at who I am!”  Some gentle persuasion is required to convince these folk to accept the invitation because the master and they are poles apart.  Why would he invite me?  The Master is a gracious being who seems to care for everyone.

The final sentence is addressed to all of us.  For I tell you none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.  This sounds harsh and judgmental but they were invited and I believe the door would have been open had they changed their minds and come.  God is always invitational giving us the freedom to choose yes or no.

It’s sobering to realise that Jesus was aiming these remarks at good religious folk who one suspects had become well settled in their faith and were no longer open to the leading and activity of God in their midst.  We know it all.  We have God nicely boxed up.  This parable gives me a little jolt to open my eyes wider, to open my mind further, to know I have much more to learn and experience in my journey with God.  It’s actually easy for insiders to make themselves outsiders as their faith and religion becomes simply a settled place of comfort and not an ongoing journey of discovery, learning, and celebration of God’s grace. 

For Jesus the banquet is not just something in the future, but it has begun.  Remind yourself often of the great goodness and grace of God.  What an amazing earth we have been gifted with.   What opportunity we have been given in our lives.  What good fortune has been ours in fining a home in this land called Aotearoa.  What hope we have because God has reached out to invite us to join the feast and to look forward to the culmination when Shalom will be found in every corner of our planet.  

And knowing this  is not the challenge of this parable really to invite others to the banquet of grace and belonging where God welcomes us all. 

Dugald Wilson 8 September 2019