Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Oct. 11.)

The play, musical and movie “Mame” (or “Auntie Mame”) features the life of Mame Dennis, a larger-than-life figure who faces many difficulties and tragedies, but moves on, never defeated. She takes custody of her nephew after her widowed brother’s death. Despite a quite eccentric lifestyle, she is an engaging figure and much loved by the audiences.

One of her famous lines in the movie, which she speaks to her young nephew when he arrives at her home during a large party, is her assertion that “life is a banquet, but most people are starving to death.” The line receives a lot of laughter and seems to sum up her attitude toward life.

Most people can relate to the image of a banquet. We enjoy getting together with family, friends and new acquaintances. We enjoy sharing a meal together and the camaraderie of good company and stimulating conversation. Most of us might find ourselves at parties rather than full-scale banquets, yet the experience is still the same. Perhaps the grandest banquets we experience are wedding receptions. Regardless of the celebration’s size, we can all relate joyfully to the idea of a good banquet.

Perhaps that is why the Lord chooses to use the banquet as one of the images for his kingdom in the Scriptures. We regularly encounter the image, whether the term “banquet,” or “feast,” or “celebration” is used. Such is the case in this week’s readings.

Isaiah describes a “feast” taking place on a “mountain” (here we have a double image of the “kingdom”; you may recall in last week’s readings “mountain” was the primary image). The image teems with an abundance of good things which the Lord will provide for his people, not only “rich food and choice wines,” but “juicy, rich food” and “pure, choice wines.” To put it in today’s terms, “it doesn’t get better than this.”

Here at this feast the people will meet the God whom they served in life. Nothing will stand between them and him, for the “veil that veils all peoples” will be destroyed. Death will be no more. All sadness will be removed as will all reproaches. At the feast the people will rejoice beyond measure saying: “Behold our God, to whom we looked to save us! This is the Lord for whom we looked; let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!”

Psalm 23, the responsorial psalm, points us in the same direction. The abundance of which Isaiah speaks is presented in terms of “verdant pastures,” “restful waters,” and a table spread before the faithful. The way to the banquet is known – it is the Lord who tends his flock and leads them there. The comforting and encouraging images recall God’s love for his people and his desire to give them the fulness of life. Those following call out with joyful confidence: “I shall live in the house of the Lords all the days of my life.”

Jesus, likewise, uses the banquet imagery, specifically the wedding feast. The image follows those already mentioned but with a twist. The twist is that not all those invited choose to attend.

I sometimes wonder when Jesus first spoke this parable what the reaction was when the story unfolded. The image of heaven and the abundance of life that God gives his people is present in many parts of the Old Testament, similar to the two passages we heard today. Jesus is speaking to the chief priests and elders, who would have been very familiar with the image and concepts involved. As Jesus begins, the premise would be “wow, this is great” and “anyone who gets an invitation to this banquet would surely jump at the chance to attend.”

However, that’s where the twist comes in: those invited did not want to go. Of course, the king doesn’t give up. Just like last week’s parable, the king (last week it was the landowner) sends other servants with an invitation. Yet they too are turned away for those invited were too busy with other things. Some even reacted in anger and violence killing the servants.

The king then sends his troops into the city to invite everyone he could find. Finally, these people come, “the bad and good alike,” and share in the great celebration and feast.

But the story does not end there; there is still one more twist. When the king arrives and finds someone “without the wedding garment” — in other words, ill-prepared for the banquet — he sends him out into the darkness. Jesus concludes with the enigmatic expression: “Many are invited, but few are chosen.”

As in all the parables, Jesus is inviting us to ponder and reflect on the meaning, because unlike a narrative or story, the significance is not always obvious.

The king represents God (either the Father or the Son, but probably the Father as he is often referred to as “king” in the Old Testament, and since the wedding feast is for his Son). God is good to his people and wants them to share in his joy. He is patient and invites people three times. It is clear that he wants his people to come to his home and feast.

Yet this is an invitation not a coercion. Those invited have to come freely; they have to want to come to the table. He will not force himself on them. His door is open, but they have to willingly enter. And when they do enter they have to be appropriately prepared.

Jesus leaves this part open-ended. What does it mean to be prepared? This is another point he invites us to ponder. Perhaps that preparation involves us encountering the one who invites as well as his Son, who acts as a shepherd – the “Good Shepherd.” Jesus is not only inviting us to his Father’s banquet, but he shows us how to get there. He wants us to reflect on life and God’s vision for life. He wants us to live in the life he offers by the way we think, by the way we choose, and by the way we act and interact. A banquet is prepared. An invitation is offered. What is our response?

In today’s second reading from Philippians, St. Paul provides us with some great advice in considering the question. He speaks of several varying situations in life: “humble circumstances” or “abundance,” “being well fed” or “being hungry.” Paul has experienced all of these, yet they do not determine his outlook of life or his path in life. Rather he says: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.”

Jesus is the food that nourishes Paul. In other words, the banquet of life for Paul is Jesus himself. In him, Paul has everything he needs and in abundance. Nothing the world throws at him can defeat him or humiliate him or rob him of his joy, for what Christ has given no one can take away.

The life God offers us is a banquet, a feast of great joy filled with an abundance of good things. He regularly invites us to share in this banquet. Through Jesus he offers the invitation, shows us the way and opens the door. In this view of life, no one needs to starve, for the banquet is there for all.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.