The parable of the Great Supper (Luke 15:16-24) is about biblical Israel. Israel experienced her golden age under Kings David and Solomon, when God’s promises were fulfilled. However, her subsequent unfaithfulness to the covenant led to judgment and exile in Babylon. Though Israel returned to the land and rebuilt the temple at the end of the Old Testament period, the former glory was never restored. God promised to send a Messiah who would judge the nations and restore the fortunes of Israel. The coming Messianic age was understood to be a feast. As Isaiah wrote,
In this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow…He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces (25:6-8).
In the Old Testament, God announced the coming feast. In the New Testament Christ came to tell Israel that all things were now ready. It was time to repent, put one’s faith in God’s Messiah and follow him. The parable shows that the people did not repent, but continued with business as usual. So God invited those in the streets and lanes and those in the highways and hedges to take their place. This represents the marginal and non-observant Jews, the Samaritans and the Gentiles.
The first application of the parable for us is that we Gentiles, who were not originally among God’s chosen, should rejoice that we are now included among the invited guests. However, there is also a secondary application that allows us to hear the warning about making excuses. We are now among the elect of God. We are now waiting for the Messiah to come again, just as Israel was waiting for him to come the first time. We must be ready to meet him in a way that first century Israel was not.
The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, which also speaks of people getting ready for a coming feast, makes the point that the failure to be faithful might cause us to be excluded, just as the invited guests of the parable were excluded. Jesus said,
At midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out. But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves. And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut. Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not. Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh (Matthew 25:6-13).
There is a distinction between the foolish virgins and the invited guests of the parable. The invited guests failed to respond when Christ came. The foolish virgins failed to act in advance of his coming. Israel was waiting for the promise, but we have already received it. Because of Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the kingdom of God is already here. Christ has already come and all things are now ready. As St Paul says, “Behold, now is the acceptable time. Behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).
We who have “the first fruits of the Spirit” (Romans 8:23) are already living in the kingdom. We already taste the future meal. We already have eternal life. This is why, when the New Testament exhorts us to be ready for Christ’s coming, it exhorts us to be faithful in what we are currently doing. To be ready when the kingdom comes in its fullness is to be faithful citizens of the kingdom now.
It is not a Christian impulse to prepare for the end by heading for the mountains and living in caves. The real danger, when we understand life in the full light of the kingdom, is not that we might be harmed or killed. The real danger is that we might be unfaithful. The martyr dies faithfully. He loses his life and saves it. The apostate lives unfaithfully. He saves his life but loses it.
Jesus is coming, but Jesus is already here and Jesus comes to us right now. Jesus comes to us when we gather around the altar. We can understand the liturgy as Christ descending to be present at the altar and feed us with his body and blood. Or we can understand the liturgy as our ascent into heaven. We “lift up our hearts” to heaven. We are invited with John to “Come up hither into the kingdom” (Revelation 4:1). Time is caught up into eternity. Either way, the future feast is experienced in the present moment.
This is why responding to the invitation means acting now. To be ready for the future coming of Christ is to hear his voice today. It to respond with true and earnest repentance now, to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters in Christ now, to live in a new way now. We leave the altar as citizens of the kingdom. We are called, with restored vision, to see Christ in the least of his brethren. In the world, people are a means to some human end. In the kingdom people are the image of God. When Jesus says, “Inasmuch as you did it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you did it unto me” (Matthew 25:40) he is reminding us that are constantly invited to the feast through the opportunities we are given to minister to Christ in other people.
We make excuses when we are too busy with stuff to embrace and enter the kingdom now through the life of prayer; when we are too hurried and preoccupied in life to see and respond to Christ each day. We make excuses when we would think about the need to make a good confession and change, but choose instead to hold on to a piece of the world for a while longer; when we consider forgiving another and aiming at reconciliation, but choose instead to cling to our pride; when we know we should do some new and obedient thing but choose instead to slothfully continue with the unfaithful status quo.
The invitation is still sounding in the highways and hedges. There is still time, and there is still room. “Come, for all things are now ready!”