These Parables: The Great Supper

A plaque in a church naming the donor of a larger plaque naming the donor of a shrine reminded me recently of how some people do like to be honored for honoring God. One runs the risk of sounding Bolshevik in condemning all titles and honoraria among the faithful. It was said that Soviet egalitarianism replaced first- and second-class railway carriages with first- and second-class trains. Our Lord does make a sharp point about the difference between generosity and calculation.

There apparently was an awkward silence when He said that the people should not seek places of honor and that charity should be for charity’s sake and not for show. A pedant changes the subject by turning an aspiration into a bromide: “Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God” (Luke 14:15). He has his modern counterpart in the presumptuous enthusiast who makes a mantra of “Thank ya Jesus!” never doubting that he will be at the table. Christ the Living Bread never uttered a platitude and His delicate reply leads the man and the other prosperous diners into a whole new world, and one not conducive to their digestion. The Kingdom is not as far off as they thought, and as the parable of the barren fig tree portended, places at the Heavenly Banquet are not guaranteed.

The consequent parable of the great supper (Luke 14:16-34) develops the lavish Messianic banquet (Isaiah 25:6-9) in a way different from the parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22:1-10) with which it often is mistakenly conflated. The latter was prelude to the Passion and was addressed to a crowd. This is early in Christ’s ministry and is within earshot only of dinner guests. The stubborn guests at the wedding feast are condemned to fire, but here they are just let go, for the Messianic drama has not yet reached the high pitch that three years of preaching will bring.

A wealthy cosmopolitan invites other citizens to a feast (“put it on your calendar”), and when the preparations have been made for those who accepted, there is a second summons like a dinner gong. Dinner is served, but the guests withdraw with excuses. They may have been like those always perched on the lowest rung of social grace, turning down an original invitation in favor of a better one. Or, more consistently with the leitmotiv of the parable, they are just indifferent. This is a parable about people who make every excuse to reject God. Any brush will do to tar Him and His Church. One has a field to inspect, another a new team of oxen, and another has a woman waiting: like the nun who decides she can better serve God with an executive salary, or the tenure-seeking scholar who will trim his theological sails in the name of academic freedom, or the adulterer who justifies himself because of a sudden objection to the homoousian formula.

Millions of lives have been destroyed by tyrants who excused themselves from the promises once made for them at gleaming baptismal fonts. Countless more souls of God’s fair- weather friends have been lost, when their faith was rattled by the faithlessness of others. The sybarite, the militant atheist, and the simply lazy soul make a common fraternity when they reject the communion of the Church. Lucifer in all his gaudy horror and the dowdy spiritual couch potato who prefers coffee to the blood of Christ on a cold morning, sing the same raspy hymn: “They all with one consent began to make excuse” (Luke 14:18).

“There is room for all” in the Heavenly Banquet, but that does not mean all will find room. Those with excuses will find that there is a lot of room in hellish isolation from God. The guests originally invited are lost, and in their place the Divine Love compels the “poor and maimed and blind and lame” in the lesser lanes of the city: These are the humble who knew they were not what they should be but who confess their failings. They had kept praying in the back pews as the experts cavorted with balloons and nonsense in the sanctuary. Then he calls in the virtuous who had not thought of themselves as religious at all: These are the Gentiles in the “highways and hedges” of the whole world, and they come to Christ as many “cradle Catholics” exit the great gothic doors.

Poulenc’s opera The Dialogue of the Carmelites is Georges Bernanos’s story of the Carmelites of Compiegne who sang the Salve Regina as they went to the guillotine in the Reign of Terror. The executioners and compliant “citizens” had all been baptized, but in the Terror, they excused themselves. I have noticed that the applause at the final curtain usually follows an awkward and solemn silence.

Author

  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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