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Choose Heaven Now – Br. Nicholas Bartoli

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Br. Nicholas Bartoli

Luke 14.15-24

One day, a little boy was walking home from Sunday school, lost in thought. As he walked, he kept thinking about something the teacher had said, something that didn’t seem to make any sense. When the little boy got back to his house, he decided to visit his grandfather, whom the boy considered very wise. He found his grandfather working in the yard, pulling weeds from the garden, and, without any preamble, the little boy asked, “Grandpa, what’s hell like?”

The boy’s grandfather looked up from his work, wiping his brow with a gloved hand. “Why do you want to know,” he asked.

“Well, the teacher was talking about heaven and hell in school today, where good people and bad people go, and…. I was just wondering what hell is really like.”

His grandfather paused, and turning to face the boy, closed his eyes for a moment. “OK,” he said, opening his eyes, “it’s like this.”

“In hell, there’s this really big dinner table, and all the people in hell are sitting around it. The table is decorated with candles and flowers… it’s just amazingly beautiful. And on the table are bowls of the most delicious food you could ever imagine: and all your favorite food in the whole world is right there in front of you. Deserts, too, brownies, cakes, cookies, candy…. And, you can even eat desert first if you want. It’s the most beautiful, delicious, and amazing feast ever.”

The little boy looked doubtful. “Grandpa, are you sure that’s hell? I mean, how can the bad people in hell get to eat all that amazing food!”

“Oh,” the grandfather replied,” I never said anything about eating the food. You see, the people in hell sitting around that beautiful table, have one hand tied behind their back, and their other hand has a 3-foot long spoon duct-taped to it. With a spoon that long, they can’t possibly get any of that delicious food into their mouths. All those poor souls can do is look at the food, doomed to not get so much as a taste for all eternity.”

“Yeah, I guess that is pretty bad,” the little boy said. “OK, so what’s heaven like, where the good people go.”

The grandfather’s eyes brighten a little. “Oh, it’s just totally wonderful and awesome. In heaven there’s this really big dinner table, and all the people in heaven are sitting around it. The table is decorated with candles and flowers… it’s just amazingly beautiful. And on the table are bowls of the most delicious food you could ever imagine: and all your favorite food in the whole world is right there in front of you. Deserts, too, brownies, cakes, cookies, candy…. And, you can even eat desert first if you want. It’s the most beautiful, delicious, and amazing feast ever.”

“The only thing is,” the grandfather continues, “the people in heaven sitting around that beautiful table, have one hand tied behind their back, and their other hand has a 3-foot long spoon duct-taped to it.”

The little boy hesitates for a moment, eyeing his grandfather suspiciously. “But, grandpa, that sounds just like hell. I mean that… doesn’t seem right. Shouldn’t the people in the good place get to eat the food?”

“Oh,” the grandfather replied, “but the people in heaven are eating the food. You see, there is one difference between heaven and hell. The people in heaven are feeding each other.”

That story is an example of what’s been called “the allegory of the long spoons,” and it’s been a staple of folklore for a very, very long time. Versions of it can be found in many cultures and traditions including Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian. Like any truly good story, the allegory of the long spoons lends itself to a few different interpretations, but there are two that seem especially relevant, particularly in light of today’s gospel.

The parable of the Great Supper appears in both Matthew and Luke, and even shows up in the Gospel of Thomas. When God invites us to the Great Supper, also known as God’s Kingdom, there’s a long list of excuses for not showing up. Matthew mentions tending a farm and taking care of a business; Luke includes needing to go see recently bought fields or oxen, and attending to being married; the gospel of Thomas adds having business dealings with merchants, having just bought a house, having a friend who’s getting married, and having to collect rent on a recently purchased property. The list of excuses can go on forever, but it’s not really the excuses themselves that are the issue. Just like in the allegory of the long spoons, the heart of the matter is this: accepting the invitation to God’s Kingdom is a choice, and we need to make the right one.

This choice is a little unusual, because it always needs to made now, each and every now that passes us by, one eternal moment at a time. Truly, the Kingdom of God is now or never, because God’s invitation is always offered within this very moment. In this sense, abiding in the Kingdom of God doesn’t have any reality in the past or the future. Here and now is when the choice is made to accept God’s invitation to the Great Banquet, dwelling in the eternal life of this eternal moment.

This choice is also unusual, because it’s unlike other difficult choices we make which are about our willpower, using our willfulness to do something that needs doing. The decision to accept God’s invitation to the Great Supper, on the other hand, isn’t about willfulness at all, but about willingness. It’s about a willingness to surrender to God’s will, of letting God’s will be done instead of ours, or as Paul says in Romans, don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed, and so become aware of God’s will.

Sahdona the Syrian, a seventh-century monk, called this willingness “love,” and wrote: “Those who possess love, that perfection of the commandments, become the dwelling place of the Trinity and can see within their heart the vision of God. Blessed is that heart that has deserved to see this sight; blessed is the heart that has become the home of love and in which the Godhead has come to dwell. Such a person, even in this present age, is living in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

This choice of willingness is like humbling ourselves as a little child. It’s like choosing to rest so deeply that our very souls find rest. It’s like finding within that very rest a respite from the ways we view the world, from the ways we conform to the world, so that we awaken to see ourselves sitting at the table of God’s Great Banquet. Because the truth is, we’re already at the Great Banquet, abiding in God’s Kingdom, and God’s invitation is simply for us to realize this.

Meister Eckhart referred to this way of continually choosing willingness, as the “wayless” way, because it’s less about arriving somewhere else, and more about arriving where we truly are. The path becomes the destination when we say “yes” to God’s invitation.

Unfortunately, we’re so very busy in the world, counting our oxen, planning our friend’s wedding, sealing business deals, that the deceptively simple choice of accepting this invitation can feel quite difficult. We’ve been conditioned, since our time as humble children, to protect ourselves by avoiding a naked, vulnerable, resting in our hearts, having in that silence and stillness, only God’s presence as our strength and comfort.

The choice of complete and utter willingness before God can so fill us with fear that we use every distraction the world can offer just to avoid making it. Which is sadly ironic, since making that choice, accepting God’s invitation, means recognizing the infinitely beautiful feast arrayed before us, ending our longing for anything else, including all those distractions.

I mentioned that there were two relevant interpretations of the allegory of the long spoons. The first has been to make this one crucial, moment-to-moment choice God offers us, through which we become aware of the heavenly banquet we’re already seated at. The other interpretation, well, it’s pretty obvious, we need to help one another, and in the light of the gospel, we especially need to help those who suffer most.

Choosing to serve others in need bears two kinds of fruit. First, by serving others we can help remind those we serve of the truth of God’s Kingdom, helping them make the choice to accept God’s invitation. Second, by serving others we help ourselves forget ourselves, making it more likely that we become like humble children again, and so more likely to surrender to God’s will in our willingness.

The Kingdom of God, God’s Beautiful Banquet, is within you and surrounds you, hidden until you choose to accept God’s invitation. It’s an invitation offered in each eternal now, and when you accept, abiding in God’s loving presence, you will see the ten-thousand wondrous miracles set on the banquet table we call “life.” The time to make this choice is now. This is the moment to turn aside from the hell of endless distractions and surrender completely to God’s will.

Eternal life is the wayless way of making this one choice, to serve God and each other. It’s the most important choice you will ever make, because in that place of willingness and humility you remember who you truly are: a child of Christ’s Light, already sitting at the Heavenly Banquet, feasting on God’s Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

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