This is the third Sunday this month on which a feast day falls—this time the beheading of St John the Baptizer—so we have another pair of Gospels to proclaim and preach (Mk. 6:14-29 and Mt. 22:1-14).
As it happens, a banquet figures prominently in each of these Gospel readings. But these are radically different kinds of banquets, as different as darkness and light, Heaven and Hell. We’ll look at the evil banquet first. That is the one held at Herod’s palace and which occasioned the murder of St John the Forerunner.
John was already in prison when Herod held his banquet. It seems that this prison might have been a dungeon beneath or close to Herod’s palace, since St Mark gives us the detail that Herod used to visit him and listen to him, and that the execution was so quickly accomplished when he ordered it. So both in the flesh and in spirit, St John was not far from the king. The Gospel says that Herod was perplexed by the words of the Baptizer, yet he didn’t want to kill him because he recognized him as a righteous and holy man. The only reason John was in prison at all was because of the spite of the wicked queen (though she isn’t called a queen in the text, only the wife of Herod, since he married her unlawfully.)
But the king was a weak and self-centered man who, even when he had a noble conviction (which was rare), did not have the courage to stand by it when he was tested. His wife Herodias was waiting for an opportunity to kill John, and it came when her daughter danced for Herod at his birthday banquet, to which he had invited all the prominent people of Galilee. Herod was so pleased with her that he promised to grant her anything she asked, even to half his kingdom. Her mother’s hatred was so great that she forfeited such a gift for the sake of the execution of one man who dared tell her she did something wrong.
A note in my Bible indicates that this is the mirror opposite of a situation that is recounted in the Book of Esther. There the request comes from a righteous queen, Esther, for a noble intention. The king answered her in very much the same way Herod spoke to his stepdaughter: “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom it shall be fulfilled” (7:2). The great difference in the two is not only that Esther is good and Herodias is evil, but that Esther’s request is that the Jews be spared from death, and Herodias’ request is that the righteous Jew, John the Baptizer, be put to death.
Herod proves how spineless he was and how the esteem of other people was more important to him than justice and integrity, even to the point of killing an innocent man. So he pleased his evil wife and her conniving daughter, and displeased the Most High God. Thus he followed in the footsteps of his murderous father, who had destroyed the innocent children in Bethlehem for his own selfish reasons.
Having been excluded from the banquet of evildoers, St John was welcomed into the other banquet we heard about today, the one that the King of Heaven holds for his beloved and only-begotten Son. St John arrived there dressed in an acceptable wedding garment, his rough tunic stained with his own blood, shed in the cause of righteousness.
As is the case with many of Jesus’ parables, the wedding banquet is offered as a comparison with the Kingdom of Heaven. In that time and culture, when a great banquet was being prepared by some high-ranking dignitary, two separate invitations would go out: one some time in advance of the feast, so that all could set aside the time and make plans to attend, and a second one immediately before the feast, letting them know that all was ready and they were expected to arrive soon.
As an allegory of salvation history, the first invitation could be understood as the sending of the prophets to the chosen people to prepare them for the coming of the Messiah, the King’s Son, so they could share in all his blessings. But this invitation was for the most part rejected or ignored, as the parable indicates. Some made light of it, some went off to do other things, and others were positively hostile to it, assaulting and even killing those sent with the invitation.
The apostles were the ones entrusted with the second invitation, the one that says, “Come now to the wedding feast, for all is ready.” This time the invitation was extended universally, even to all they could find in the streets of the world. All is ready, because once the Messiah had come, had died and risen from the dead and sent his Spirit to form his Church, the fullness of divine life became available to all who would come in faith and love. The foretaste of the full and everlasting banquet is offered in the Holy Eucharist, the sacrificial table fellowship of the redeemed, who celebrate their Lord as they wait for the definitive manifestation of his glory and his Kingdom. Faithful attendance at this sacramental banquet, and all that this implies, assures a welcome into the eternal wedding feast that will be inaugurated when all the elect are gathered into the Heavenly Jerusalem.
The Lord notes in telling the parable that someone presented himself at the banquet without the proper wedding garment and was cast out of the joy of the feast because of it. This can be an image of the Last Judgment. Not everyone is eligible for eternal happiness. That is why Jesus ends the parable by saying that many are called but few are chosen. The invitation is universal, but not all will meet its conditions. This is not a matter of arbitrary election or rejection on the Lord’s part. He simply judges whether or not each soul has done God’s will and lived by his commandments, hence fashioning a wedding garment out of his righteous deeds. The Wedding Feast of the Lamb is described in the Book of Revelation (19:6-9), and the Bride is the image of the whole Church. “His Bride has made herself ready,” cried a voice from Heaven, “it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure”—then the Apostle John comments: “for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.” This makes it quite explicit that the wedding garment God expects us to wear as we present ourselves before Him is made up of righteous deeds.
Back to the parable. The king looked at his guests; again, this is an image of his examining our souls when we die and attempt to enter his Kingdom. When he found a guest not clothed in the wedding garment of righteous deeds, he asked him the reason for this. The man said nothing. What could he say? At the hour of judgment we have no defense, only the testimony of our lives, which we finally see in the crystal clarity of God’s own truth. We have plenty to say during this life, plenty of excuses to make like all those who refused to follow the invitation of God to a life of righteousness and communion with Him in faith and love and holiness. But there are no more excuses on Judgment Day, nothing more to say. The King either sees that we are wearing a garment of righteousness and welcomes us with joy, or He sees us clothed in our sin and must remove us from the presence of the elect.
We might well say about this state of affairs: many are called, but few have chosen to respond to the call, few have chosen to quit making excuses and to come when the Master summons, whether it seems convenient or inconvenient.
We ought to keep in mind the image of the two banquets that the Church presents to us today. We cannot indulge ourselves at Herod’s banquet and then expect to be received at the Lord’s. We cannot hold grudges like Herodias, act in unclean or provocative ways like her daughter, be cowardly, adulterous, law-breaking, self-indulgent, and self-serving like Herod, and still think we will escape the scrutiny of the King when He looks at the guests presenting themselves for entry into the heavenly wedding banquet.
Scripture makes it clear: we cannot serve two masters (Mt. 6:24), we cannot share the table of the Lord and the table of demons (1Cor. 10:21), there is no fellowship between light and darkness, between righteousness and iniquity (2Cor. 6:14-15).
So we have to be clear about whom we choose to serve. If we are only doing what pleases or satisfies ourselves, if we refuse to see God’s hand in the trials and sufferings of life and in the requirements of our vocations, if we complain and criticize and hold grudges, we are doing our own will and not God’s, however pious we might like to think we are. If we serve ourselves in this life, we are eligible only for entry into the halls of Herod, his “banquet” in Hell, where you hunger and thirst, where everyone hates you and evil demons torment you forever and ever.
But if we respond wholeheartedly to God’s invitation—with all that implies for living a life of righteous deeds even unto the embracing of suffering and death for righteousness’ sake, like St John the Forerunner—we will be welcomed into the banquet of joy in God’s Kingdom, where all is fulfillment, happiness, peace and blessing. Let us decide to be among the chosen, for that is our choice to make. The call is already given, the banquet is already prepared. Let us not give in to selfishness or hard-heartedness, making excuses why we cannot deny ourselves and take up our crosses and do all that the Lord asks of us. The stakes are high, and everything rides on our free acceptance of God’s will in our lives, on our choosing to follow Him faithfully all the days of our lives.
“Come to the marriage feast,” says the Lord. These words should be music to our ears; they should inspire us with love and hope and zeal to receive that which He is offering us. It should also inspire us, like the messengers the king sent out, to gather in stray souls, to sacrifice our own fleeting pleasures in this life so as to win grace for others, so the Lord’s banquet hall may be full, as He desires. Nothing matters but to be found worthy to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. So let us renounce every unrighteous movement of our hearts and purify ourselves, making ready to welcome the King when He comes for us, that He may welcome us into his everlasting banquet of joy.