Just because you’re sitting next to people at the dinner table doesn’t mean you’re actually close to them.
Take for instance my memory of the first time my wife Joy and I shared Thanksgiving dinner with my father, his wife, and his in-laws from that marriage.
Joy and I had tied the knot three years earlier. We were living in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. She taught in a social services program at nearby Edgecomb Tech. I held a position on the North Carolina Wesleyan faculty.
We dutifully if unenthusiastically drove the five and half hours to tiny Louisville, Georgia. Louisville’s quiet Main Street offered no diversions from what we imagined would be an immersion experience in family dysfunction.
Thanksgiving arrived. Eight of us gathered around a six-person table jammed into one side of an already cramped living room. My father, his wife, her sister, her sister’s husband, their two adult children, Joy, and I sat with arms close to our sides. Elbows were nearly brushing elbows.
It’s entirely possible that somebody said the blessing. It felt more like somebody had fired a starting pistol.
Individuals were grabbing serving dishes near them and standing to reach across the table for more distant dishes. Each person was hurriedly plopping mashed potatoes, green beans, dressing, mushroom soup and asparagus casserole, and turkey on their own plates as quickly as they could.
No one passed anything around the table. It was every person for themselves.
Dazed, I eventually reached for a nearby roll and snatched a bit of turkey from a plate that happened to land close by. Across the table I saw Joy’s empty plate and the appalled look on her face. No one else noticed. They were too busy eating.
I offered a silent, heartfelt prayer of thanks that we hadn’t done this before we had gotten married.
My father and his brother-in-law dominated the conversation that followed the first rush of eating. I recall not a single thing they talked about. The volume of my inner voice was too high. It was saying something like, “Can we leave the table yet? Is it time to drive home? Will Joy ever speak to me again?”
Joy and I have spent every Thanksgiving together since then. Somewhere else.
Sitting next to each other around a table is pretty easy. Gravity does most of the work.
Being together, really being together, can be challenging. Grace does most of that work. But grace requires our cooperation.
God, apparently, is up for and up to the challenge of bringing us—all of us—together in more than merely spatial contiguity. God will settle for nothing less than genuine intimacy.
Jesus makes this point with a parable often called the Parable of the Wedding Feast or the Parable of the Great Banquet.
A king throws a wing ding for his son. Nobody on the first invitation list rsvp’s. So Dad expands the list. His servants stand at the entrance of Walmart, hand out fliers at intersections, and flood social media with memes containing date, time, and place for anybody who wants to show up.
If you don’t show, you’ll completely miss out and really regret it. Apparently the fine print made clear something like, “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” The inappropriately dressed get tossed out.
Keep in mind that this is a parable. It’s not an allegory.
We get at the meaning of an allegory by drawing direct analogies between elements of the allegory and something in the world. For instance, if the Parable of the Great Banquet were the Allegory of the Great Banquet, we might say that the king is God, the son is Jesus, and the feast is the afterlife.
But this is not the Allegory of the Great Banquet. It is the Parable of the Great Banquet. Unlike allegories, parables don’t teach lessons through analogy. Instead, parables turn our expectations on their heads or slightly skew our habitual perceptions.
Listening to parables leads us to rethink our understanding of things human and things divine. Parables open us to new perspectives and expand our horizons.
As it turns out, this parable teaches us significant lessons about human relationships and about encountering the holy right here on planet Earth.
God created all that is out of nothing. God had no interest in making pretty things to admire from a distance or a toy to wind up and watch go. And regardless of what you may have heard, God’s purpose in the creation was not to see if human beings could measure up to God’s moral standards.
Here’s how the Medieval Franciscan theologian John Duns Scotus talked about it.
God’s first thought in creation was Jesus. In Jesus, heaven and earth, the divine and the human, the Creator and the Created are in perfect, inseparable intimacy. Everything—the rest of the creation—came into being for the sake of Jesus. For the sake of such intimacy with God.
For God it will never be enough that we merely take up space next to each other on this planet. God yearns for us to take up space in each other’s hearts. That is how God encounters us and we encounter God. In and through our love for each other.
Showing up to the feast with the wrong clothing—no shirt, no shoes—is something like just sitting at the table but being somewhere else in our hearts and minds and souls.
In Jesus, we see that God wants nothing less than for us to be together. Really be together. And in being together, we will be together with our Maker.