Theme: Food and eternity
After toiling long hours, in a brutal climate, on rough terrain, with only the simplest implements, Israelites considered themselves fortunate to be able to provide a simple meal for their families; only to begin the whole laborious process all over again the next day. Thus the idea of a lavish free banquet at which every hunger could be treated was equivalent to paradise.
These readings therefore warrant a degree of serious reflection on our eating habits and life-styles. Unlike our spiritual forebears, food in its extravagance is generally readily available at the nearest take away. These meals in a carton box and polystyrene paper are eaten en route or alone and without benefit of the table-talk and companionship. To our surprise; the advent of television and whatsup are doing much to change our eating habits. We are getting used to eating from shaky trays in front of the Television. Yet, however much we eat we remain hungry for that human exchange that occurs naturally within the context of a common meal. Today this is what we are invited to revisit.
First reading: Isaiah 25:6-10
When we observe banquets in the ancient world, we see that people of biblical times used food and drink as nourishment and as a way of saying something to each other. There were two types of banquets: Ceremonial banquet meant to celebrate solidarity between the host of the banquet and the invited guests. Ritual banquets instead, celebrated an important social change such as making a stranger into a guest cf. Genesis 19:3-14. The banquet featured in this reading appears to be both ceremonial and ritual as it celebrated the solidarity of humankind with God and because it marked the transformation of sadness to joy. Isaiah’s vision of a wondrous picnic on the mountain also known as the prophet’s Apocalypse cf. Isaiah chapters 24-27 was borrowed from the mythic literatures of Israel’s ancient near eastern neighbors.
When Isaiah borrowed this myth he wished to make his people to understand that the end of their exile in Babylon had to be celebrated as a victory won by God for them to mark their new era of victory, peace and restoration. This joy ensured peace to the point that humanity’s most formidable enemy, such as death would be vanquished. Emphasis on the wine was meant to counterpart the shortage of joy caused by war and slavery and also a replacement to the terrible distress symbolized in the veil that covered all nations. Christians recognize the feast of the Eucharist as a realization of this vision and as a prelude to the eternal victory banquet yet to come when all the blessed would be called to the wedding feast. God himself would wipe away every tear; death and mourning will be no more because the old order would be over cf. Revelation 19:9; 21:4.
Second reading: Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20
According to an old legend, there once was a king who suffered from a painful ailment. The royal doctor advised him that he would be cured if he found a contented man and wore his shirt night and day. Messengers were sent throughout the kingdom in search of such a person. Several months passed and finally the messengers returned to the palace, but, with no shirt. Couldn’t you find one contented person all over my kingdom! asked the king, his disappointment audible in his voice. Yes, your majesty, the messenger replied, ‘we found one, just one contented man in the kingdom’. Well then, demanded the king, ‘where is his shirt?’ Quietly, the answer came back, ‘He had no shirt’. What Paul had come to experience is similar to this as it is evident in this excerpted from his letter to Philippians. So content was he in his relationship with Jesus; that he believed that everything else paled into insignificance. If he was hungry or filled to satisfaction; if he were humiliated or raised up in honor; if he had what he needed or if he was totally bereft . . . it was of no consequence to him because his value system centered on one priority. That priority was the person of Jesus Christ in whom Paul found the strength for everything he was asked to do and for everything he had to suffer for the sake of the ministry he exercised in his name.
In describing his sense of contentment, Paul used a word Autarkes/self-sufficiency that is in Philippians 4:11 which would have been familiar to his audience. Autarkes was a term used by Greek philosophers to signify an attitude of satisfaction which was achieved by eliminating all desires. According to mystics of that time, a person could become content by a deliberate act of their own will. Paul, on the other hand, was filled with desire for Christ; this overshadowed and subordinated every other need. Paul also understood that his contentment was not achieved by his own strength, but through the gift of God in Christ Jesus.
His deep sense of contentment notwithstanding, Paul was not insensitive to the needs of others and he was grateful to the Christians of Philippi for sharing a similar sensitivity. The Church of Philippi had sent him gifts while he was in Thessalonica cf. Philippians 4:15-16; contrary to his customary policy, Paul accepted their help and assured them that their generosity would not go unanswered; God would attend to all their needs cf. Philippians 4:19-20. Paul’s challenging message for our twenty first century Church has lost none of its significance over the centuries. If we want to remain credible Christians we will only be contented if we are able to cope with life to the degree that we are authentically committed and centered on Christ.
Gospel: Matthew 22:1-14
Among the various sources of Christian tradition, this parable of the wedding banquet has been preserved in three distinct versions. The simplest among them is in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas which was discovered almost twenty centuries after its supposed composition in 50-60 AD. Greek fragments of the text were unearthed at Oxyrkynchus in Egypt around 1900 AD and the complete gospel written in Coptic was discovered at Nag Hammadi Egypt in 1945. In this version, the parable is comprises of a series of refusals to a dinner. Each of the guests who begged off did so for reasons of business or commerce. Consequently the host sent servants into the streets to bring back whomever they could find. The tag line of the parable proclaims: “Buyers and merchants will not enter the places of my Father” Thomas 64:12. Following the light of reason, it is easy to believe this version to be entirely consonant with the teaching of Jesus who continually upset social convention and preached that the kingdom would be characterized by a reversal of situations and expectations. When Matthew presents this parable in comparison to other sources, there are several obvious differences. The main portion in Matthew 22:1-10 is offered as an allegorical presentation of salvation history. The host has become a king who was preparing a wedding banquet for his son. The two groups of servants represent Hebrew prophets and Christian apostles, whereas the invited guests who repeatedly refused the king’s invitation and brutalized the servants were intended to portray Israel. People from the byroads represented the gentiles to whom the gospel was also to be extended.
In verse seven, the parable takes a strange twist; the city of the guests is destroyed. Launching a war after the meal has been prepared but before it is eaten strains even the wide range of probability allowed to parables and the mention of the burning of the murderers’ city comes out of nowhere. For sure Matthew community must have been referencing to the destruction of Jerusalem which occurred in 70 AD at the hands of Titus and the Roman army. Matthew synchronized this event back into what was purported to be a parable of Jesus. By so doing he was simply updating the history of salvation as it had unfolded by the time his gospel reached its final form in the mid-80s AD. The contribution of the Matthew’s Community can also be detected in the incident regarding the guest who was ejected from the feast. Aware that God’s invitation to salvation was extended to all of humankind, good and bad alike, the early Christians were also aware that not everyone who received an invitation would remain as a guest. The improperly dressed guest represented those who had not cooperated with the invitations which God had offered. As a result of his/her unresponsiveness, the improperly dressed guest forfeited a place at the banquet. In the sorry experience of guest, Matthew continues to caution all of us if we fail to welcome the Divine invitation with. Salvation is not cheap; it must be welcomed with a willingness to be daily transformed by God’s grace and in accordance to God’s will. To do otherwise is to choose an eternity of insatiable hunger and unquenchable thirst.
Through the concerted efforts of Isaiah, Paul and Matthew, we are all invited, today, to consider the significance of food, feasting and gathering as a family as a source of togetherness. In order to profit from these readings, we are invited to eat together, assist one another and honor invitations. Where two or three are gathered, Christ is in their midst to clean our relationships and enabling us cope with any circumstance. We need to imitate his example.