The Banquet Story
Have you ever attended a large banquet? One where there were so many utensils that you didn’t know which one to use first? Perhaps it was a banquet requiring black ties and tuxedos for the men and gowns for the women. If you haven’t, consider yourself fortunate.
But everyone loves a feast. In the US the most popular holiday of the year is Thanksgiving, a veritable banquet in many homes. We read that it was an event initiated by the Pilgrims to thank God and the Indians that they were still alive. Tradition has it the feast included, among other items, wild turkey, pumpkin and corn. Drawings and sketches usually have the Pilgrim’s seated outside their houses, resplendent in their broad rim hats, waistcoats, breeches and stockings, with Indians in feathers and war paint at the table as well. The women were of course cooking and doing most of the work.
Coupled with this folk history is the fact that today in the US Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year, a family affair with a large feast involved. Growing up on a farm in Northeast Pennsylvania, Thanksgiving was an event where relatives got together and feasted. But should we classify it as a banquet? A banquet includes feasting and it may also honor some individual, so there is a program as well. Let me give you another example of a banquet that took place in Oklahoma.
In 1985 my wife and I were asked to represent Wycliffe at a ceremony in Oklahoma City that honored several inductees into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. The occasion took place in a large convention center and was attended by over 2000 people. There were eight people inducted into the Hall of Fame, including our friend Vida Chenoweth, former concert marimbist and co-translator of the Usarufa New Testament in the Eastern Highlands of PNG.
We were told what to wear, what time to arrive at the function, where to sit and how to meet our friend after the ceremonies. Banquets are like that—there is no room or food for imposters. Suppose that we wanted to wear T-shirts, jeans and running shoes—would we have been left in? No, because there is a protocol for banquets.
Two New Testament Banquet Stories
Consider now two banquet scenes from the Gospels—one from Matthew 22 and the other from Luke 14. In both cases Jesus was using a banquet story to make the point that not everyone who is invited into the Kingdom of God and its banquet will get to taste the food. Matthew relates the story in Chapter 22 (1-14) of his Gospel and it is one of many attempts by Jesus to help his disciples understand what the Kingdom of heaven is like. In both instances Jesus tells the story in relation to a discussion with the Scribes and Pharisees. In Matthew the story follows one about the tenants who were to keep watch over a vineyard while the landowner went on a trip. But the tenants are unscrupulous and beat up the servants who had been sent by the owner to collect his profit. And Jesus makes it plain that God is the owner of the vineyard and the religious leaders are treating him cruelly. The Luke account follows an instance where Jesus had seen guests at a Pharisee’s house try to get the best seats. He had told them to humble themselves, sit in the worst place and, further more, he told the host to invite people who could not pay back his hospitality—like the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.
From the banquet story that followed, it seems clear that the Pharisees did not get the point. This was not unusual. Often the hearers—Pharisees, religious leaders, even the disciples—did not understand what the Kingdom of God was about. Jesus once compared it with old and new wineskins (Mk. 2.21-22), representing a break with the past, and with a mustard seed (Mk. 4.30-32), suggesting what would happen in the future. He also compares the Kingdom of God in leaven with leaven in bread (Mk. 13.33), to indicate the present growth of the Kingdom, and used other examples as well, such as a valuable treasure (Mt. 13.44, 48) and fish net (Mt. 13.47-50) that catches a lot of fish and the good and the bad have to be sorted.
In the account in Matthew, a king had a banquet prepared to honor his son. Such feasts were a way of showing how proud the father was of his son and introducing him to those who would perhaps some day be his subjects. Preparing a feast is an elaborate affair: food, wine, tables, and servants were involved and it took some time for it to be ready. There were many important people invited to the banquet.
Once everything was in place, the servants were sent out to tell the invited guests that it was time to come and join the king and his son. “The cattle are butchered and everything is ready, so hurry and come.”
However, the invited guests did not respond; instead they continued with their businesses, farms, and their stores. Focus for a minute on the excuses and convert them into some of you own: instead of a place of worship, the church has made the banquet into a business: an on-line store, with a shopping cart, a book store, a school, a business; instead of oxen we have cars—we visited a church once where the walls in the halls and some of the offices were lined with pictures of antique cars. Not works of art from the masters, but antique cars. We can now drive to the banquet; not farms now, but our entertainment; not work, but leisure and retirement. Sports fans will wait all night for the ticket windows to open the next day, although they would find it hard to sit for an hour in church.
In fact, some of the invited guests were so mad they were interrupted from their activities that they grabbed the servants, beat them up and killed them. When the king heard about the trouble, he sent his soldiers to retaliate. They responded with an ‘eye for an eye’ and murdered the ones who had killed the servants. Then they burned down their houses and businesses.
But the king still wanted to honor his son—he wanted the banquet to go on. The invited guests had shown him scorn, so he called other servants and, rather impatiently, told them to go and find other people to come to the banquet. “Those I invited didn’t come, so you go and find people in the streets or anywhere and invite them.”
The servants remembered what had happened to their peers so they were happy to get anyone they could find, just so they could fill the banquet hall and keep the king happy. Then they told the king that the hall was full.
The Invitation and the Wedding Clothes
The king went to inspect the crowd and found a man who was not wearing the wedding clothes that he had provided for all of the guests. This was an insult to the king so he asked the man how he had gotten in. When the man failed to reply the king had him tied up and thrown out into the night. The rest of the guests heard him groaning and crying.
Now that is as much of the story as we are told, but there is an application and it comes from Jesus himself. “I have invited lots of people into the Kingdom of heaven, but in the long run not many respond and come in.”
Luke tells the story a little differently in his Gospel (14:15-24). His version
of the story is after a lesson on humility and hospitality. In that setting, Jesus was a guest and he noticed that some of the other guests were choosing the best places to sit. Jesus remarks that they should have given that honor to other guests. They should invite the outcasts to their meals and not simply the relatives and the rich. God will then repay them for their acts of charity.
One of the men sitting there doesn’t get it. Instead, he remarks on what a great day it will be when they all sit down at the feast of the Kingdom of God. Jesus answers with another banquet story. It is something like Matthew’s version only this time, instead of a king and his son, it is a man holding a banquet. His invited guests give the servants excuses about how busy they are: inspecting their property, trying out a new piece of equipment, staying at home with the new wife, the kind of things we might say if we didn’t want to go somewhere.
When the servants tell their master the range of excuses he doesn’t just get mad—no, he gets furious. He doesn’t wait, he sends the servants immediately for a new category of guests: the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. But the hall still has lots of room, so the master tells the servants to go off the main streets to the smaller lanes and beat the bushes for more. “Find enough to fill the hall,” is his command.
And now the master himself sums up the situation: “Those who were originally invited will get nothing from me to eat.” They refused the invitation and they are left out in the cold.
Clearly, there are several lessons for us in the story. First of all, it is God who invites people to share the joy of living and feasting with his Son. The Son as his heir is his likeness, his reason for the invitation is to honor him. But people can refuse to come. They may do so politely—“Sorry, you should see my business pressures right now.” Others may get nasty—“Who do you think you are, insisting that we come to a banquet?” People may even find that they dislike the King and his message so much that they kill the messengers. But most probably make excuses based on work, commerce and love. It doesn’t matter because they all refuse.
In the end the banquet hall was filled. Was it done the way the King first intended? Certainly not, but the story ends well in the sense that the hall is filled and there are no distinctions—all are clothed alike except for one and he is thrown out.
To me, there is another parallel: what about the small crippled and lame cultures and societies? Who are they and where are they: the refugees, the aliens, the prisoners, the elderly, those who are not invited to banquets and feasts.
A Kewa Feast
Not all banquets are like those that Matthew and Luke write about. Let’s project the story into the culture of the Kewa people, a group in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea that we lived with for a number of years.
As in many other parts of PNG, the Kewa people have large feasts. There is no banquet hall, the cooking is done in an open outdoor pit and the eating is done while sitting on mats on the ground. Fires heating hot stones cause smoke to rise that can be seen from a great distance. When a feast is being prepared everyone within miles knows about it. They know that there will be dancing and feasting, with various clan groups competing and showing off their decorated bodies, plumes, shells and other finery. Anyone and everyone can show up at the feast.
There comes a point in the feast, however, that is special. This is when the earthen pits containing the food, in particular the pork, are uncovered and the food is laid out for distribution and consumption. The choice cuts of pork are center stage in the feast, laid on platforms, ready for the headmen to allocate and distribute. To do so, they will climb onto a platform, raise the pork high above their heads and call out the name of the intended recipient. This will go on until all of the pork is distributed. Although anyone can attend the feast, relatively few will have their names called. Many are present, but few are chosen. Some get pork, but not everyone.
The Kewa feast and the Gospel banquets are not the same, but there are some similarities. Both entail plenty of food, special guests, and both have important men playing prominent roles. But there are differences as well. The Kewa take note of a feast in preparation and make their way towards it. The Gospel people ignore the feast and move away from it. They are invited, but don’t come. Many Kewas aren’t invited, but they come anyway.
Traditionally, there was a dress code for the Kewa feast as well—body decorations, plumes and shell were required in order to dance. Nowadays, in “modern” times, towels replace net aprons and bras are worn by most of the women. There is a mixture of what was once accepted as dress for a dance and what is now accepted. The old has been mixed with the new. That would not have been acceptable in the Gospel stories.
A Banquet Scene from Heaven
Think back on the invitation that Joice and I had to the great banquet in Oklahoma City. We could have refused to go, which would have been an insult to our friend. And if enough people refused to go, the hosts would have been insulted as well. Or we could have decided to ignore the dress code and go in jeans and t-shirts. Then we might have been thrown out and, like those in the Luke story, and gritted our teeth in pain.
Instead we accepted the invitation gladly, seeing it as a special treat to see our friend honored. It is like that if we accept the invitation to attend the great banquet in the Kingdom of Heaven: there we find a special host who has invited us, though we too are poor and lame. So in humility and gladness, we go in and eat the meal with Him.
Now let us skip ahead: the scene of worship in heaven that John sees in his vision does not depend upon food at all. The important people are the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders around their thrones, encircling the great throne. There were also angels and millions upon millions of people praising God. This is the ultimate banquet, but the celebration is for the Lamb.
Notice the dress code: white clothes but dipped in the blood of Christ (Rev 1:14). The blood of course is red (symbolic) and yet causes the clothes of the believers to become white, (also symbolic). Have you ever seen the “wordless book”? There are several colored pages: black, red, white and green, each representing a story. The black is sin, the red is the blood of Christ, the white is the cleansing of our lives and the green is the life we now have. Recently my wife gave the little books to our 6 and 4 year old grandchildren. One of my last memories is the two of them standing together in the lounge of the Houston airport singing “The B-I-B-L-E…” and telling the story of God’s love and redemption. Not a banquet scene, but the essence of the joy of one.
There are puzzling aspects to this story: the Kingdom of God is with us and Christians are part of it. However, not everyone invited to the Kingdom accepts the invitation. God invites, but why do some reject? And when they do, what happens. We aren’t told everything in the two banquet stories but we are told enough to know that excuses for rejecting the invitation do not please God.
Call Me Later
A banquet, you say?
Sorry, I mean no harm
But I must go to my farm.
I am a bit restless
Because I have some business
That requires attention.
But with some luck
And after polishing my truck,
Next time will be better,
I’ll even dress with a sweater.
In the meantime don’t fret
I’m just not hungry—yet.
There is a banquet prepared for you.
Why don’t you come?
That would be nice,
But let me give you some advice.
My business comes first,
And my pickup’s a close second.
Besides, my wife in a great mood,
So who needs your food?
[January 2005; Revised July 2006]