A scene in “Oliver,” the musical based on Charles Dickens’s classic tale Oliver Twist, depicts a crowd of ragged, starving urchins celebrating the pleasures of eating: “Food! Glorious food!” Deprived as they were, they certainly appreciated the delight of food, perhaps better than many Americans today. We seem to have an epidemic of obesity, and yet incidents of anorexia and bulimia continue to increase. While many children go to bed hungry, we spend millions of dollars on diet aids and exercise equipment. Eating, one of the most basic functions of every living being, has become a disorder for many people.
If we fail to appreciate the basic function of food, we will certainly not be able to grasp the depth of its potential as a theological metaphor. This is unfortunate, because the readings for today, as well as the responsorial psalm, refer to food.
You spread a table before me (Ps 23:5)
• Strengthen the bond of love and friendship with someone by sharing a meal.
• Pray for the grace to be reconciled with someone from whom you might be alienated.
• Make the psalm response your prayer today.
Breaking bread with another has always been considered a sign of friendship and intimacy. This is particularly true when we eat from a common plate. We take in the same food, and somehow we are bonded with one another. Eating together also signifies trust, because concentrating on the food, we lower our guard. Finally, in many societies, the hospitality extended by the host and accepted by the guest establishes reconciliation between possible enemies, if only for the duration of the meal. Much of this profound meaning has been lost in today’s fast food culture.
As we approach the end of the liturgical year, the Sunday readings begin to touch on end-time themes. Though they are often closely associated, end-time is not the same as end-of-time, a concept so very popular with many evangelical groups today. In the Bible, the end-time is the time of fulfillment of God’s promises. Ancient Israel thought of this time as the messianic age. Jesus spoke of this age as the reign of God. It might find its completion at the end of time, but the coming of Jesus into history inaugurated that age in the here and now. We Christians believe that we now live in the reign of God, in the messianic age, in the end-time.
What can compare with sharing a fabulous meal of scrumptious food and delightful drink, surrounded by those we love? Is it any wonder that this is the way we celebrate birthdays, weddings and anniversaries? Is it any wonder that this would be a favorite metaphor for characterizing the end-time? This is precisely what the readings do today.
Isaiah paints a picture of “a feast of rich food and choice wines.” It is a picture of the end-time, the time in which we live. It is the time when God brings all people together to enjoy the same meal. Sharing that meal turns enemies into friends and kindred. The prophet paints a very touching scene of reconciliation with God and with all others, and this is celebrated with a banquet.
The psalm reminds us who the host of this banquet really is. Employing what may be the best-known biblical metaphor, the psalmist describes how, like a totally committed shepherd, God spares nothing to provide nourishment for the flock. Only the barest outlines of the meal are described. But the peacefulness of the setting is undeniable: “in verdant pastures...beside restful waters...you spread the table before me.” This is certainly a picture of fulfillment.
The Gospel parable of the wedding feast is rich in end-time imagery. Jesus himself characterizes the reign of God as a wedding feast, a banquet of “calves and fatted cattle.” But here the powerful end-time themes of decision and judgment are introduced. Many have been invited to the banquet, but they do not accept the invitation. Have they forgotten that celebratory meals mean more than simply eating and drinking? Have they turned their backs on friendship and intimacy, trust and reconciliation? It appears so. Yet the wedding has taken place, and the banquet honoring that union has been prepared. There is going to be a celebration! The king is intent on it!
The parable may have been directed originally toward those who opposed Jesus. If they would not accept him as messiah, they certainly would refuse an invitation to a messianic banquet in his honor. Though the parable condemns them for their obstinacy, it also challenges us. Have we accepted God’s invitation to the messianic banquet? Have we even recognized or understood the invitation? Banqueting implies friendship and intimacy, trust and reconciliation. Are these attitudes integral components of our lives?
Though it is relatively easy to accept an invitation to a banquet, it is vastly more difficult to develop an end-time point of view that we are celebrating intimacy and reconciliation. Paul, who was probably in prison when he wrote the Letter to the Philippians, tells us: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” And so can we.