Empty spaces and the generous host

Jesus tells a story about a host who prepares a big banquet. As an Italian, I picture a veranda on the glowing Tuscan countryside.  The grapes have ripened on the vine, the olives have been pressed, and the bread is warm. The best cheeses and wine are coming out of the cellar to the outside table, where friends are gathering to celebrate.

When the host sends his servant out to personally invite the guests, the first people on the list give lame excuses about why they can’t come to the party….excuses that don’t even make sense. One person says they need to go look at a field that they just bought. Who buys a field without looking at it first? The excuses reveal their attachments to other interests or their lack of love for the host. Or maybe they don’t recognize the servant.

The servant in the story is Jesus, the host is Father/Mother/Creator God. Many of the people who were listening to the story at the time did not, in fact, recognize Jesus as the one they were waiting for. They wanted a god who would make their lives work in the world—someone who would rescue them from their political enemies, keep them physically safe, and make them winners. Only someone with visible power and wealth and status could ease their fears. Why would they listen to a servant who was just as poor and homegrown and seemingly powerless as they were? After all, this servant looked just like them. So the banquet remained shrouded in mystery to most people.

It’s still easy to overlook Jesus, or mistake him for the gods of our making. Our economy thrives on the sale of safety, power & possessions. For example, most Philadelphians didn’t seem bothered by the occupation of soldiers on our street corners last weekend. In fact, they seemed grateful for more “safety.” I love soldiers, but it seemed like an odd way bring the message of the suffering servant to our city. Jesus did not arrive with any weaponry or display of force.  He gave up power and was vulnerable to the world to demonstrate vulnerability and real power—the power of God that saves us. I didn’t want to burst any bubbles that they soldiers weren’t really here for our safety anyway or they’d be here all the time. They were for the advancement of a powerful political system that protects a few chosen ones. Without casting shade on Pope Francis—who seems wonderful—there are differences between the way of Jesus and systems of power and wealth that rely on coercion and threat of violence.  If we rely on safety and power (like the $600 billion, over half of our federal discretionary spending, spent on military this year) then people may have trouble recognizing the servant and getting to the banquet too.

The beauty of this story is in the host’s generosity and commitment to having a full house anyway.  When the servant comes back with the report that the guests are preoccupied, the host tells him to go out to the broken down places, to find the cast-offs of society and bring them in. Like Jesus, the messenger replies that it’s already been done. The broken already recognized him and understood what the banquet was all about: the place where we are known and loved and forgiven and made whole, reconciled to God and to one another, partners with the host in setting the table for the next guest. The host commands the servant to go out further then, to the highways and hedges, and bring in all the strangers who have eyes to see and ears to hear of their dignity and belovedness through the compelling love of the servant. The table of God is a place of belonging.

The space at the table is my favorite detail in Andrei Rublev’s famous painting, The Hospitality of Abraham.  He’s depicting a scene where God (as the trinity) is not just the host but also the stranger who visits Abraham with miraculous news. The divinity and oneness of the figures are suggested by their blue cloaks and same faces.  The Father’s light and almost transparent outer cloak suggests he is the hidden Creator. His head is lifted high toward the other two, and he blesses the son for the sacrifice he will make. The Son, in the middle in red for priesthood, accepts the cup of sacrifice and bows his head in submission to the Father. The Spirit is on the right in green for life and regeneration. His hand is resting on the table next to the cup, suggesting that he will be with the Son as he carries out his mission, and his gaze is toward the open space at the table, suggesting his desire to bring others to this banquet of communion and oneness.

There’s a beautiful circular movement in this icon that reflects our Circle of Hope, especially our cells, which are like mini-banquets of communion.  The Son and the Spirit incline their heads toward the Father and he directs his gaze back at them.  The Father blesses the Son, the Son accepts the cup of sacrifice, the Spirit comforts the Son in his mission, and the Father shows he is pleased with the Son.  Love is initiated by the Father, embodied by the Son (and now in our body), and accomplished through the Spirit.  

The Spirit is at work in us now with an eye toward the empty space at the table, always helping us to create the environment for reconciliation and wholeness for all those who long to be filled but haven’t got the invitation yet. There is room for more at the banquet. And it’s in this communion that our own emptiness is brought to fullness, too.