If you want to get into an interesting conversation, ask a group of people whether or not everyone goes to heaven. Chances are, in an age when people believe that “all dogs go to heaven,” most people would simply say “yes.” Not many people pay much mind to life after death.
Part of the problem is that we have created such inane images of heaven, with angels flying while we sit on clouds kibitzing with our friends that we fail to take the promise with any gravity.
The ancient Israelites used the image of great banquets to depict the eternal kingdom and the promise of eternity. They were a sustenance people who rarely had food in abundance. We are regularly accustomed to having as much food as we desire, whenever we want it, from hundreds of different sources, and in a wide range of forms.
At the same time, of course, we know that hunger is rampant. Millions of children in the United States lack sufficient food on a daily basis. We have seen much hunger as natural disasters have devastated not only our country but others in our region as well. As at the time of Jesus, food was a commodity in luxury for the rich and in dearth for the poor.
It is no wonder, then, that the consistent image of a magnificent banquet runs through both the writings of the prophets and the parables of Jesus to describe the kingdom of heaven where God will provide food that will be unimaginable in its quantity, variety and splendor. We can think of the many banquets we have attended and still the bounty of the kingdom of heaven will stand beyond measure.
This week Isaiah presents a pastoral scene where God cares for his poor in abundance. Their concerns are wiped away; divisions between rich and poor, man and woman, slave and free, are gone while all share equally in God’s abundant generosity.
The parable that Jesus tells us this week, has a twist on the banquet theme that is most relevant. As the king called guests to his wedding banquet he found that many chose not to come. They had other things to do, and some even killed the messengers! After getting his vengeance on those who rejected his invitation, he invited to the banquet all those from countryside. These are the people who have never been invited to a festive banquet of any kind. They dress in their finest and graciously accept the king’s invitation.
Well, not all of them did. There is one man who comes, though not dressed in his best, rather just as he stepped out of his fields. He was immediately thrown out of the banquet.
The invited guests who refused to come had little concern for food as they had enough, and certainly no respect for the king or his son. The one person who chose to come inappropriately dressed attended the banquet for all of the wrong reasons. He was more interested in the food than he was in making the right appearance or showing his own worthiness in that esteemed company.
With food aplenty and banquets frequent, the image of the great banquet of the kingdom of heaven does not resonate with visceral appeal. For those who are in great need, even the promise of a little food is enough.
The Lord gives us a taste of this banquet every time we share in the Eucharist. By virtue of our Baptism each of us has the appropriate garment to wear to the banquet – the very seal of our Baptism. However, often we are too busy to accept the invitation to come. Many of us have already killed the messengers and have cut ourselves off from the banquet entirely.
We do not quite understand the kingdom of God, not because it is far and distant from us, but because we are not hungry enough to fully appreciate the great measure of the promise that God is laying out for us. This is why the poor and the hungry, the social outcasts and needy are entering the kingdom before us. They appreciate what it means to be in need of God’s love and care.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.