Monday, May 20, 2013

The Great Banquet

Jan Luyken, 17th Century engraving, "Invitation to the Great Banquet"

In the The Parable of the Great Banquet, Jesus tells the story of a man who prepares a great feast and invites a long, illustrious list of guests, and then sends his servant to deliver the invitation. But the servant runs into excuse... after excuse... after excuse. I just bought a new field, or I just acquired five new oxen, or I just got married. When the man hears this, he gets angry, and rightfully so. When we go out of our way to make a celebration for people, and they refuse to even make an appearance, it can be hurtful. It is a sure indicator of where one is on the list of people's priorities. It undermines their worth and importance in the hearts of others. So this man sends out the servants again to gather the poor, the blind, the crippled, and the lame. Evidently, these folks were not too busy, and they make it to the fiesta. Yet there is still room, so the man sends the servant out again to grab more of the dispossessed and undesirables. And the man says at the end, "Not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet."(Luke 14:24).

Now, it may be an inclination for a believer to take a step back, nod their heads, and say, see, God has offered His banquet but look at all of these people who make excuses, or refuse because they have more important things to do. And this is certainly an important application: God is like the man, the servant is like Christ, and God has invited mankind into His fullness and bounty; and yet many refuse. For we who have responded, at least initially, to the invitation of Christ, know that God invites us into a Kingdom reality, one that enlivens the senses, deepens the significance of all events, and brings us into a surprising community of love, truth, peace, and divine grace. We are surprised to find at the banquet the greatest party on earth, one where there are no strangers, and one where the host has spared no expense to show us love.  

But what is the application for the one, like me, who has already accepted the invitation? Surely if this story makes me feel smug and secure in my own choices, decisions, and behaviors, then I have dramatically missed the meaning as it is intended for me

Will I really be at the feast? First, I have to look at the cast of characters and see who I identify with. Am I one of the poor and needy, or am I more like the man on the mission, someone who has a daily agenda and a busy life, often too busy to do anything unless it fits into my schedule and brings some benefit to my life? How many times have I said, sorry, I can't make it, I just got a lot going on right now? How important do I think I am, and how open is my super important schedule to let God truly work in my life through other people? An honest assessment would find my schedule pretty full of my agenda and would find my sense of importance ridiculously high on the scale. Sure, I have responded to God's invitation-- I call myself a Christian, I believe that Christ has reconciled me to the loving arms of my Creator, I have RSVP'd with an affirmative reply. I will go, Lord. Yet... in many ways, I'm still here, checking off my to-do list, consumed by my future endeavors, and always under a subtle anxiety created by my own ever-expanding, never-ending agenda.

Have you ever been to a really great party? One that has great people, great music, atmosphere, food, beverage, etc.? Have you ever been anywhere where in that particular time, you are truly enjoying the moment, released from daily anxieties, not thinking about tomorrow, and not worried about the thousands of things that have to be done? Just enjoying and living in and for the moment? Some parties, or places, or events in our life have this transcendent quality, one that takes us from the mundane worries of life, releases us from anxiety, and raises us above our native states-- for these moments, we taste joy.

And is this possible? In large part it is because we feel, in these moments, that we are lacking nothing. In the case of a party or banquet, much of joy is derived directly from what has been provided by the host. Most often we bring very little, other than ourselves, to a good party. But because of what the host has provided, the people arrive, and enjoy themselves. Imagine what provision God offers us. Imagine the celebration that He has planned. We cannot even fathom how truly great it will be. Yet, as time goes on and our schedules fill, we are becoming more and more likely to miss the party.

Pieter Bruegel, 16th century.
There are too many verses to count that describe God's provision for us. Here is a nice long list. But let's look at just one section: Matthew 6:25-34 is of such importance, and yet it is all but impossible in our cultures, where anxiety and stress are near-virtues, to apply to our lives. Jesus is saying, Do not be anxious about our material reality-- our bodies, our clothes, the food we eat. He doesn't say that we should ignore them, or forget about them,  or pretend that material concerns are merely illusory; but Jesus is telling us not to be consumed by these things to the point of anxiety. And then comes a dose of heavenly logic in verse 27: "And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?" Christ goes on to equate anxiety with lack of faith in verse 30. Do we trust God, or do we trust ourselves more? In our cultures we are taught that we are the arbiters of our own fate, that by our own work and our own hands we will thrive, or just survive, or struggle, or perish. Our cultural input is like the Gentiles in verse 33, "For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all." This has an important application. In Korea, what are most people seeking? Education, a secure job in Seoul, a large apartment, a certain kind of car? These are the signs of the successful, and they provide a rabbit for many of us to chase. Again, notice: God isn't saying these things are unimportant. Remember, Christ tells us, "... your heavenly Father knows that you need them all." Well, maybe not the luxury car or the big apartment in Gangnam, but he knows that we need certain elements to live full lives. God isn't recruiting monks and ascetics here. But when we elevate things or situations to the status of things that will make us happy and give us joy (they never can), they become idols (we all have them) and idols always bring anxiety. Why? Because idols never give what they seem to promise-- joy, fullness, and satisfaction. Jesus is asking us to trust Him for these. He is inviting us to his free banquet where we may come as we are and the host requires only that we show up.

How do we trust God fully when our shaky foundations of well-being are dependent-- absolutely hooked on-- our to-do lists? I love the last verse from the above section of Matthew 6, because it applies to EVERYTHING in our lives. "But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you." (v. 33, my emphasis). Apply this to any situation, and trust it, and the consuming fears and anxieties of our shortcomings and worries, what we have and don't have, will palpably diminish. Seek God first. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37). For, as the Psalmist says, "All my springs are in you" (Psalms 87:7) because when we seek God first we are going to the source of ALL things. We become more involved with our relationship with God than how we are going to fix all our problems. And, not to sound formulaic, but chances are we become less self-consumed, less agenda-oriented, and thus, more open and loving and listening and compassionate people. Our consumption lessens and our giving increases. Our anger and frustration (both reactive impulses) gives way to loving action and positive change. We are less greedy, less bitter, and more sharing and loving. In short, we are better citizens, friends, family members, students, etc. Ironic, because all of our to-do lists promise us we will be better people, when in fact, they just drive us further and further into ourselves-- deepening the cycle of self-absorption.

Why do we-- who profess to love God and His plan of renewal-- why do we still fill our days with our to-do lists before we go to God? Because we still cannot let go of the reigns of control. We still want to be lord of our life, and we do not yet have the faith that what God has in store for us is infinitely better than anything we can conjure up on our own. We hold it a virtue to postpone joy until our to-do list is done (it is NEVER done!); and yet God invites us, through his servant Jesus Christ, to the Banquet, now. Not later. He calls us to celebrate with Him, to be present at the greatest party on earth and in heaven, to honor and fully enjoy that the Light of the World has rescued and renewed us.

Lord, forgive the tendency of my idolatrous heart to place more importance in my own agenda than to respond to your incredible invitation to enjoy you and your Kingdom. Lord, give me faith that trusts in your Covenant promise of reconciliation and redemption, and truly know that all will be well when I am in You, first and foremost. As you say, tommorow will worry about itself, but today, now, you invite me into your fullness through your servant Christ Jesus. Lord, give me eyes to see and ears to hear and the heart to know that your Banquet is infinitely better and everlasting compared to the temporal charms and trifles of what I can scrounge together here on earth. Lord, give me the faith, like Paul, to be content in all situations because I know You, the true source of Joy. I love You and thank You in the name of your son, Christ Jesus. Amen.

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