Strange Invitation — Strange Banquet

SJF • Proper 15b • Tobias S Haller BSG
Wisdom calls from the highest places in the town, “You simple, turn in here!” To those without sense she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.”
If you come from a large family or have a large number of friends, one of the things you are likely to receive on a fairly regular basis is an invitation to a major event of some kind — a christening, a sweet sixteen, a wedding, or an anniversary celebration. Now imagine for a moment going to your mailbox one day and finding one of those ivory-toned envelopes — the kind you can tell even without opening contain an invitation. And imagine that you open the envelope and find the beautifully engraved ivory-toned card stock invitation. And you think, How nice; and then you read the invitation; and this is what it says: “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith request the pleasure of the company of all you stupid people at the marriage of their daughter Matilda....” Well, I don’t think you would read much further!

Who would ever think of sending out such a strange invitation, such an insulting invitation? And yet that is exactly the kind invitation that Holy Wisdom, as personified in the book of Proverbs, sends out — not just calling from the highest places in the town herself, but sending all of her servant girls throughout the town with the message. “You that are simple, turn in here!” To the senseless she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.” Or as someone might say on the streets of New York, “Yo, stupid, come to supper!”

This is a strange invitation indeed. And yet within its strangeness there is a profound truth. Who, after all, most needs to come into Wisdom’s house and dine on the meal she has prepared than those who lack wisdom? Who most needs the nourishment Wisdom provides than those who are foolish or senseless or immature? It is the hungry who most need to eat, the thirsty who most need to drink; and the ignorant and unwise who most need to learn.

Wisdom’s invitation may seem outright insulting. And yet, a few years ago a major publishing company made the brilliant choice of issuing just such an honest invitation: appealing to people’s willingness to admit that they needed to learn. And so, starting with computer training — about which many people will admit their need to learn more — this publisher produced a series of books for dummies, proudly proclaiming that fact in their titles: Windows for Dummies, Microsoft Word for Dummies, and so on — and now you can find books on almost any subject you can imagine — for dummies! It seems that Wisdom was wise after all in knowing how to appeal to people’s need and desire to learn; and a modern publisher has reaped the profits. For Holy Wisdom herself was the first to publish such a book and issue such an invitation: The Way of the Lord — for Dummies.

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So much for the strange invitation; but what about the banquet? Say you’ve swallowed your pride and admitted your ignorance, and accepted the invitation to the banquet — the one that said, “Yo, stupid, come to supper!” And you get to the banquet hall, and the tables are all set; but there is no buffet, no bar, no band, no heavy hors d’oeuvres — or light ones, for that matter — no maitre d’, no waiters, and only silence coming from the kitchen. And you sit down with all the other stupid people, and start whispering to each other, What’s going on? And then a man comes out and goes up to the microphone and says, “My friends, tonight you are going to dine on my flesh and drink my blood.”

You can only imagine the shock that such an announcement would provoke. Of course, we’ve gotten used to hearing such language from Jesus — so we tend not to be shocked by it at all. But put yourself for moment in the place of his disciples — they had quite literally never heard of such a thing. Obviously they would be shocked at the idea of eating another person’s flesh; but the idea of drinking blood was even more repulsive.

For the disciples were all observant Jews; and according to the Jewish law, eating blood is absolutely forbidden — blood of any kind. Even a hen’s egg with a tiny spot of blood on the yolk is strictly off limits. All meat is to be drained completely of any last trace of blood before it is eaten — and for good measure treated with rock salt to draw out the last remaining blood in the process known as koshering. That’s what kosher meat is: not just slaughtered according to the Jewish law, but certified to be drained of any and every last trace of blood.

This commandment forbidding the eating of blood was held to be vitally important because it predated the law of Moses. You may never have noticed, but Adam and Eve were vegetarians: God gave them only the plants and their seeds and the fruit they bore for food. It was only after the flood that God gave Noah and his descendants — that is, everybody — the permission to eat meat, on the condition that they not eat the meat with its blood — its life — still in it. So important was this law from the Jewish point of view that the apostles, all of whom were Jews, made it one of the first conditions for any gentile who wanted to become a Christian. When the council of the apostles gathered in Jerusalem to decide what to do with the first non-Jewish Christians, they decided that these gentile converts, unlike regular converts to Judaism, did not have to follow the law of Moses in all of its 600 or so particulars — but they did have to abstain from blood — as this was particularly offensive to their Jewish sisters and brothers; and had, after all, been given as a commandment to Noah, from whom all the nations of the earth were descended. And you may be surprised to learn that this rule remained on the church’s rule-books for centuries, until Saint Augustine of Hippo — the one in our stained-glass window around the corner there — came to the conclusion that enough time had passed so that there were so few Jewish Christians to be bothered about this tradition that it had become a nonissue. And ever since we western Christians have been allowed to enjoy a nice juicy steak!

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But this is now, and that was then. Put yourself back into the mind-set of the disciples when Jesus first uttered these words, words he would repeat and put into action at the Last Supper. Whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood will have eternal life, and will abide in him as he abides in them. A strange banquet indeed — and yet, beloved, this is Wisdom’s banquet. We are here in Wisdom’s house because we know we need to be here. We have heard her calling from the heights, we have heard her servants calling in the streets, “This is what you foolish ones need. This is what you hungry ones need. This is what you thirsty ones need. This is what you dying ones need. For this is the food of wisdom, the drink that puts an end to thirst, the food that preserves unto eternal life. Whoever eats this bread will live for ever.”

And so we come, week by week, in response to a strange invitation to a strange banquet — to be fed not with bread alone, but with every word that comes from the mouth of the Most High; to be fed with the flesh and the blood of the Eternal Word himself, the one who came down from heaven to give himself for the life of the world, as testified by the Holy Spirit. Fed with this food, nourished with this drink, filled with this Spirit, singing and making melody to the Lord in our hearts, let us give thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.+