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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The way to the human heart is through the stomach (A28O)

Then (the king) said to his servants, 'The feast is ready,

but those who were invited were not worthy to come.

Go out, therefore, into the main roads

and invite to the feast whomever you find.’

The servants went out into the streets

and gathered all they found, bad and good alike,

and the hall was filled with guests.

What we don’t see in these gospels from the last several Sundays is that they all happen in Matthew after Jesus has entered Jerusalem, shortly before his arrest, trial, and execution. They are challenges to the local authorities, and the various evangelists twist and turn the parables to suit the circumstances of their hearers. We would do well to read this parable in Matthew, if we can, without seeing the king as God, or else we have to admit that God is a vindictive SOB just as Bill Maher and Dawkins and Hitchens and Sam Harris paint the deity. One really provocative interpretation sees Jesus at the center of the firestorm of authority in this shame and honor culture, just as the leadership of Christianity would be in Matthew’s time, 60 years later. It sees the violent king for just who he is, a powerful bully used to getting his way. When his rage is satisfied in blood, he invited everyone into the banquet, but turns his rant upon the one who doesn’t dress as he’s told, and throws him into the darkness outside. Which is, of course, where Jesus wound up when he wouldn’t dance for the authorities in his day, and where Jewish Christians were ending up in the late 70s and 80s in the Diaspora. In this reading then, which is parabolic and not in the least allegorical, it is silent resistance, non-cooperation with the violent kingdom of the world, that is “like the kingdom of God.” It’s choosing your king wisely. And it’s lonely, and leads to death. But it is not the last word, because there is, in fact, another kingdom.

But the banquet itself is what stands out in the imagery, a banquet to which the poor are finally called, a banquet which Matthew’s heart must have equated with the banquet of Isaiah 25, and Isaiah 55, and Ezekiel 39. Matthew apparently intends us to read the parable more allegorically, so even with the versions of the same story in the other synoptics and Thomas, we don’t really know what Jesus had to say about this story. For Matthew, it’s a big deal that the invited guests, presumably the Jewish leadership, were thrown out (slaughtered? as in the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE) and that the good and bad alike (remember that phrase in the Sermon on the Mount?) are called in to eat the wedding banquet of his son. One commentator sees a parallel between the excuses in Matthew and the acceptable excuses a soldier may make in Deuteronomy 20:
'Is there anyone who has built a new house and not yet had the housewarming? Let him return home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard and never yet enjoyed its fruits? Let him return home, lest he die in battle and another enjoy its fruits in his stead. Is there anyone who has betrothed a woman and not yet taken her as his wife? Let him return home, lest he die in battle and another take her to wife.'

I don’t know. I do know that the banquet is a great image for people who have never been to one. As a boy, a high school student, I was completely unschooled in the ways of the world, and didn’t know from banquets. I was a working-class kid in Phoenix, which was in those days where people went to get away from banquets and the formalities of the East and Midwest. A banquet hall in Phoenix, in the days before the Phoenician and the Camelback Inn, was a big room with sawdust on the floor and steaks on an outdoor grill, a place where, if you had not been warned and mistakenly wore a tie, it would be cut off your neck by a big waiter with a pair of scissors. My music teacher in high school was good to us in the traveling choir, and often took us to upscale restaurants (upscale to us, that is, places like the Brown Derby in Hollywood and Lawry’s, back in the days when they were unique.) It was a glimpse for me into the way “the other half lives,” the privileged, and it became something I wanted to share with people as well, if I could only figure out how to get the money to pay for it.

Who’s not a big fan of movie food? Babette’s Feast, for instance. Eat, Drink, Man, Woman. The Wedding Banquet. The Big Night. Like Water for Chocolate. Tom Jones, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, even this year's Chef. What about the one (only) memorable scene in Hook, the Robin Williams take on the Peter Pan story, where the hungry Lost Boys are told to imagine the feast, and lo and behold, it started appearing in bright primary colors? Or the lavish banquets in the Great Hall of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter stories?

Hungry people don’t need any other metaphor than food for abundance. And the people who populated Israel in the age when the scriptures were written were people of the land just a few days away from starvation. Drought and famine were realities to them. Heavy temporal and religious taxes were part of their lives. The dream, the possibility, of a future of abundance, when they would never be hungry, was a popular national metaphor. The presence of God would make it happen, the presence of God given all at once in the banquet of the messiah. That is why, I think, the image of the “banquet of rich fare, spread for all peoples” is such a cogent one, the mountain of the Lord as mess hall for humanity. All are welcome, come as you are. No fighting. And that’s why churches and church people ought to take part in hunger awareness projects like soup kitchens, food pantries, and Cropwalk. (Click to donate: just another week!)

I guess all I’ve really come away from these readings with is the certainty that the king is not God, and the fact that the banquet is for everyone, the good and bad alike. In the banquet of the real messiah, and, I’m sure, in the original version of this story, even the guy without the garment got in. It’s more likely that it’s God who is thrown out into the cold by human violence than it is that the God of Jesus would cast someone out for not conforming to custom. Or maybe he would, but he’d leave the door unlocked, or send someone outside with a doggie bag.

Next weekend (October 19) is our Crop Hunger Walk, by the way. St. Anne Choir and I are taking part in the annual walk to relieve hunger in our own area and around the world, under the auspices of Church World Service. If you would like to support this ecumenical effort to feed the hungry, click here, and make a donation to the Crop Hunger Walk on behalf of my choir. Thank you!

Here’s what we’re singing this weekend at the parish:

Gathering:  Gather Us In (Haugen)
Psalm 23 I Shall Live in the House  (Cooney, OCP)
Preparation Rite: A Place at the Table (Murray/True)
Communion:  Within the Reign of God (Haugen)
sending forth:  All Are Welcome (Haugen, Gather 753)

I've finished a substantial revision of a mass I wrote in the 1980s and which I have not as yet renamed. I'm very excited about the sound of it, and had hoped to launch it last week, but the onslaught of concert preparations has delayed that. Maybe next week. Until then, we're still using Mass of Creation and the Celtic Alleluia, and Steve Warner's "Lord's Prayer."

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