In both the first reading, from Isaiah, and in the Gospel, the topic is feasting. God is holding a big bash, the very biggest – no exaggeration here – and we’ve all received an invitation!
Isaiah writes for people in the king’s court. Food would have been abundant there under almost all circumstances except, perhaps, in time of war and siege. Matthew’s Gospel, written five to seven centuries later, was addressed to ordinary people, most of whom would have lived very close to hunger. Most people seldom had meat, except on special feast days, and survived on a diet of bread with the fruits and vegetables of the season. The food would either require hours of preparation, or purchase from a tavern or restaurant with high prices. Bad weather like drought or flooding, field pests and warfare made famine an ever-present possibility.
If you recall when, out of his compassion for the hungry crowds, Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes, and everyone ate their fill and there were baskets of food left over, people continued to follow Jesus for days, hoping for a repeat of the feasting. Jesus tried to redirect their attention to the eternal questions and the bread of heaven – see John, chapter 6 – but his followers’ bellies got the best of them. They had lived so long with hunger it was hard for them to shift from that focus.
Even today, access to food depends on where you live. Although the statistics I’m giving vary from one version to the next, the following seems to be in the middle of the scholarly offerings. In the United States, average Americans spends roughly 6.4% of their income for food. In 1900 AD, only 120 years ago, providing food for a family consumed as much as 43% of wages, whereas housing was only 23%. Things certainly have flipped.
In Nigeria today, on the other hand, each household spends only half of what we would on food in a year. There, however, that lesser amount consumes 56.4% percent of most household’s earnings. Food is a much greater concern for the average person in Nigeria than it is for us in the United States.
I share these stats just to give us an idea of how different the whole question of feeding one’s family can be from time to time, and place to place.
In both Isaiah and Matthew, there is a banquet prepared of rich food and pure choice wines, of slaughtered calves and fattened cattle. For their audiences, these images are very suitable metaphors for heaven where, finally, there would be enough for everyone. The wonderful thing is that we’re all invited.
We live in such abundance that we may have to reach a little to understand how these feasts would have affected the original audiences. In Jesus’ parable, in particular, it would have been disturbing that people bypassed the opportunity repeatedly offered them. The incomprehensible behavior of the invited, but unwilling, guests deeply offends the king.
The parable is actually speaking of the history of God’s chosen people, always invited into an eternal relationship with God, but often distracted by the world’s affairs. Can we honestly say that it is any different with us? The invitation still stands; the feast is still ready; the king has dispatched his servants to bring us together. The experience is going to be rich; the king offers the best of what is possible; the reward is eternal. Is it possible that we, too, are too busy to respond?