Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Banquet to Come

(21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

On his way to Jerusalem someone asks Jesus, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?”

And this is a question that is somewhere inside all of us, because at the heart of the question is the real concern: will I be saved? Will those I love be saved?

As often happens, Jesus doesn’t answer the question directly. Instead of giving a simple response, Jesus offers us an image, a promise, and a warning.

The image is one of the most appealing and beautiful descriptions of the fullness of kingdom of God. Jesus describes heaven in terms of the banquet. He says, “People will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and recline at table in the kingdom of God.” Imagine it as a big and grand wedding reception, in which everyone is happy for the love and faith they are celebrating. This is the communal joy of the “life of the world to come” we proclaim each Sunday in the creed, and it is the fruit of the great announcement of the Resurrection we hear each year in the Easter Proclamation: “heaven is wedded to earth, and the world is reconciled with God.”

Jesus promises us that this great banquet, this happy and eternal destiny which is ours in Christ, is not only for a few. It is not for a select group, or an exclusive club. This is because salvation is not based on human ideas of righteousness or on our notions of worthiness or religion, but on God’s intense desire to give every good thing to anyone who will accept it.

This promise of Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah that we heard in the first reading. Isaiah looks forward in faith and proclaims the thoughts and desire of God: “I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come to see my glory. I will set a sign among them.” And the sign set among the nations is Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord, who raises up our humanity—yours and mine—and makes it part of the inner life of God. And this is the great good news to which Isaiah is witnessing when he imagines “brothers and sisters of all nations” coming to the Lord in a great parade of chariots and horses.

Yet, amid all this joy and promise, Jesus also offers us a warning. In today’s Gospel he also describes those who are excluded from the great banquet of heaven--those who are left outside, peeking in at the joy of the patriarchs, prophets, and saints—and who, despite thinking that they were righteous or religious or worthy, find themselves being told, ‘Depart from me, I do not know where you are from.’

This is a very frightening prospect, but it is a possibility. The beautiful and generous salvation of God is something we can lose. How do we avoid this awful possibility? The author of the Letter to the Hebrews, as we heard in the second reading, recommends to us that we need to accept the discipline of the Lord.

Now when we use the word “discipline,” it conjures up bad images for us—like being put in ‘time out’ or being hit with a ruler or whatever. But that’s not what the Scripture means at all. Discipline just means the acceptance of someone’s teaching. It is discipline that makes someone a disciple.

The discipline that will make us the Lord’s disciples is the daily listening, in prayer and in everything else, to the inner guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will help us to discern God’s will, and will remind us that every joy and experience of love and care in this life is a foretaste of our happy destiny in the banquet of heaven.

Let’s accept the discipline of the Lord and become his disciples. By doing so we will ensure our own salvation and we will help to fulfill God’s great desire and dream—to bring the whole world to the great banquet that will celebrate the marriage of heaven and earth in Christ.

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