The gospels tell us a lot about Jesus. He spoke in parables. He healed the sick. He welcomed sinners. He liked going to dinner parties. AND, he preached about the kingdom of God, or in Matthew’s gospel, the kingdom of heaven. It is clear that when Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven is not merely talking about the sweet by and by. Jesus means for us to be kingdom people right now, today. As he said in another place, the kingdom is in our midst. Given his love of dinner parties, it is no accident that he frequently used a Biblical image that life with God is like a banquet. Everybody loves a banquet: great food and drink, good times, fun people, and you don’t have to cook or clean up. The kingdom is a time of joy coming as a gift, with God as the father of the bride. “The Lord will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines; juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines… The Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces.” Who wouldn’t want that! Apparently, many, at least as Jesus tells the story. In the parable of the king who gave a wedding banquet Jesus points out that people don’t accept the invitation, don’t receive the gift. What about us? If God is blessing us, how come we don’t feel very blessed? Well, we answer, we are confronting a global plague, the sin of racism, economic injustice, environmental catastrophe and a broken political system and that is not even to mention our personal health issues, financial worries or family concerns. But our contemporary concerns are no worse than the ones in the times of Jesus yet he still held out this vision of the kingdom. Are we like the characters in the parable who are too busy or too pre-occupied or too self-centered to enter into the feast of God’s love? God invites us into happiness. Does the stuff swirling around us keep us from enjoying the banquet God holds out for us? What can we do to receive the joy and happiness God wants to give us?
Looking at the parable two thoughts arise as sign posts on the road to happiness: first, we must feel in the fire of our bones that all are welcome. Look at the text. The original banquet was by invitation only. Only the good people, the worthy people, the deserving people would get to come to the party. But they had other things to do. Since all the best people weren’t going to be there they opted out. So the king changed the guest list and his minions “gathered all they found, bad and good alike and the hall was filled with guests.” The initial step into the kingdom of heaven comes in discovering that everyone belongs, “good and bad alike.” For us to share in the banquet of God’s love we must look in our hearts and confess how our pre-conceptions about people of another race prevent us from getting to know them as individuals. We must examine how political opinions can cloud a spirit of hospitality toward the immigrants who are coming to our shores. We must repent of the temptation to assign people to limited gender roles instead of letting them use their gifts as God intended. We can’t enjoy the banquet of God’s love except together with all of those other people who are remarkably like me in needing God’s grace and mercy.
The second lesson from the parable: entering the kingdom of heaven requires that we change, that we get out of our accustomed rut. The man who was not dressed in a wedding garment apparently figured that since all are welcome he could continue to act as he always had. He didn’t behave in ways befitting a guest. The invitation that we receive into the banquet of God’s love prompts us to conversion, to respond in a way that shows a grateful heart. Just look around and see the fall colors or the harvest from the farm or the opportunity finally to see someone you’ve missed during the pandemic. These kinds of things remind us that God is blessing us in so many ways. To continue to mope and be cranky inhibits one’s ability to truly enjoy the multitudinous ways God is with us. When you change, everything changes.
There once was a man from Shanghai, Li Wei, who was so good that the angel Gabriel told him that as a reward for his goodness he would be granted one wish. I would like to see heaven and hell, said Li Wei. Gabriel took him first to see hell. Much to his surprise hell was a lovely banquet hall with white linen, candles and flowers and long tables filled to overflowing with delicious smelling mounds of food. The diners were seated on both sides of the table facing each other. This is hell, said Li Wei? That doesn’t look so bad. Look again, said Gabriel. Then the man could see. Each of the diners had ten-foot long chop sticks strapped into each hand. Try and they would, they couldn’t bring the food up to their mouths. All of that food and they couldn’t eat a bit of it. That is hell, said the Li Wei. Now to heaven, said Gabriel. The man was surprised once again for the scene was identical to hell – white linen, candles, flowers, food-laden tables, long rows of diners, and even the same ten foot chop sticks strapped to the diners hands. This is heaven, asked Li Wei? Look again, said the angel. Then he saw: in heaven, each of the diners instead of trying to feed himself was picking up the food from the table and feeding his neighbor across from him. Everyone was enjoying the banquet because they were being fed by another. That is heaven, said the man.