When I sat down to read today’s Gospel I had a few ideas about how I understood the passage and I turned to my usual commentaries. No pennies dropped and I was getting close to giving up and writing something on the First Reading from Isaiah 25 instead. Something made me persevere and I looked up a lectionary website which uses the work of Rene Girard as an interpretative key.
For what follows I am indebted to the insights of James Alison. Last week I offered the idea of finding an interpretative key to help us unlock the Gospel. This week its as if we have found a key but the parable is one of those tricky locks where you have to persevere if you want to open the door. You might not do it on your first attempt.
As we open the door of Isaiah 25 we are invited to a huge banquet. The imagery paints a beautiful scene of bounty and inclusion. God has saved his people and this lavish banquet puts the seal on the whole history of God’s promises:
On this mountain,
the Lord of hosts will prepare for all peoples
a banquet of rich food, a banquet of fine wines,
of food rich and juicy, of fine strained wines.
At this banquet it’s not just our hunger that will be satisfied but there is a promise of God wiping tears from our eyes too. It’s a holistic vision.
As we move to the Gospel scene we might picture the preparations for the wedding banquet. These preparations are lengthy and involve sending out a first invite, seeing who responds, estimating the food needed and then sending a second invite. Commentators suggest that it is at this second stage that the rather puzzling responses are made:
‘one went off to his farm, another to his business’
I have always been left wondering why anyone would turn down an invite to a party given by a king. This is where the work of James Alison provided an insight. He comments that in Hebrew a summons to war and a summons to a feast (to share bread) are very similar linguistically. The Hebrew word for ‘bread’ (lechem), shares a root with the words for ‘fight’ (lehilachem) and ‘war’ (milchama).
The reasons for the guests declining the invite are more fitting to a summons to war than a feast. Deuteronomy 20 gives several legitimate reasons for declining a summons to war:
‘Is there any man here who has built a new house and not yet dedicated it? Let him go home lest he die in battle and another perform the dedication. Is there any man here who has planted a vineyard and not yet enjoyed its fruit? Let him go home lest he die in battle and another enjoy its fruit. Is there any man here who has betrothed a wife and not yet taken her? Let him go home lest he die in battle and another take her.‘
James Alison suggests that one of the things that is at issue in this parable is the mishearing or misunderstanding of the invite. Responding to a summons to war is a choice to remain in the world of vengeance, whereas accepting an invitation to a feast opens up a world of grace.
I am left thinking about the many invitations in my own life. Am I seeing them as a summons to war or an invitation to a feast? Am I bracing myself for a battle or anticipating a rich feast. Likewise too in our global church as we journey together in the synodal process, there will be those who see it as a battleground and those who see it as a feast.
What are the invitations in your own life?
How do you respond?