I love that, four days into Lent, four days into this season of fasting, we’re reading about a feast.
For me, nothing captures this passage from Luke quite like the scene by the Renaissance painter Paolo Veronese. He turns Luke’s “great banquet” into a wild party. The enormous canvas of The Feast in the House of Levi bursts at its seams with dozens of figures: the disciples and Levi, as well as entertainers, soldiers, children, slaves—even a cat and a dog. Jesus is a still, calm center in the midst of riotous humanity.
The scene is seductive—outstretched arms and turned bodies invite us in, like a friend who opens a place in a circle for you to join. The scene invites us in, to join the throng of “tax collectors and sinners” whom Jesus comes to call. The key question of this scene isn’t that of the authorities—“why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Lk 5:30)—but the one that Jesus leaves unvoiced—“why don’t you join us?”
Imagine for a moment how those at the banquet might have felt. Tax collectors and sinners were the outcasts and the undesirables, cut off from community. Jesus does not seek to segregate and excise them, as others do, to tell them they are unworthy of his ministry and friendship. He calls them. He claims them.
Jesus taught with many parables, stories that catch attention. Ten young women waiting for a wedding party, waiting into the night. Five thought ahead and brought extra oil for their lamps. Five did not. When the groom, presumably escorting the bride, was late, they all fell asleep.[i] When the couple arrived, those who thought ahead used their extra oil. Those without had to go get more oil. Late, they were shut out of the party and told “I do not know you.” Pay attention. Don’t get left out. Don’t be forgotten. Keep awake, for you do not know the day nor the hour.
All ten of the young women, wise and foolish alike, fell asleep in the night. Half brought extra oil. It seems like the point is: Be prepared, for you don’t know the timing. Being thoughtful, wise, and planning ahead is being engaged, aware, and alert. Perhaps this is being awake: alert and engaged to God, self, and neighbor for a late parade to the party.
This story comes amid others with a similar theme. The previous story says be at work for the master returns at an unexpected time. [ii] Don’t beat fellow slaves and get drunk. The master will throw that one out. The next story says risk investing whatever amount the master entrusts to you.[iii] Don’t hide the talent you’ve received. The master will throw that one out. Keep awake. Be faithful at work. Be prepared for the best. Invest what you’re given. Be alert and active. Jesus is coming, and you don’t know when.
These stories grab our attention with hard words like the shut door. Some preachers use them to stoke fear. What will happen to you at the end of time? Will you be left behind? Shut out? Thrown out? Stock up on oil, whatever that is, to make sure you get inside, to save yourself.
Over and over through the arc of scripture God says: “Do not be afraid.” God goes to extraordinary lengths to seek and save the lost. Even when it seems too late, God still hears our cries and comes. This parable gives warning but not to fear. It urges to live for the party, not just to plan to attend later, but to live now alert and generous. God’s kingdom, the new way of living, is not a ticket to exit later, but a life of celebrating through sharing now.
In the last part of this chapter, we hear about Jesus coming in glory. [iv] “When I was hungry, you gave me food and when I was thirsty you gave me something to drink.” What? When? “When you did it to the least of these, you did it to me. And when you didn’t do it them, you didn’t do it to me.” How we live now matters. Be wildly generous like a late groom who parades the bride through every street.[v] Be faithful and give your work your best. Risk using all God has given you for good. Care for the poor, the sick, the hungry. Listen for God’s invitations.
How might you be asleep, distracted, absorbed, or afraid? Keep awake for Jesus is coming. You may not know what you need. Ask for help. Make attention your intention and your petition.
I suggest two prayers. First, we will later sing:
Redeemer, come! I open wide
My heart to Thee, here, Lord abide
Let me Thy inner presence feel
Thy grace and love in me reveal.[vi]
Second, pray the prayer we use in Holy Baptism for yourself:
Heavenly Father, thank you that by water the Holy Spirit you have bestowed on me your servant the forgiveness of sin, and have raised me to the new life of grace. Sustain me, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give me an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and gift of joy and wonder in all your works.[vii]
Do not be afraid. Live remembering your baptism and dressed for the wedding banquet. Feed. Clothe. Love. Pray. Pray with grateful trust to keep awake.
[i] Kenneth E. Bailey (2008) Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, p271.
[ii] Matthew 24:45-51
[iii] Matthew 25:14-30
[iv] Matthew 25:31-46
[v] Bailey, p272.
[vi] Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates” by Georg Wessel (1590-1635); tr. Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878)
[vii] The Book of Common Prayer, p308. Thanks to the Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde for the suggestion to pray it personally.
In a few moments, when our attention shifts to the altar, we will sing, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts. Heaven and earth are full of your glory!”[i] God’s holy, holy, holiness is invisible, transcendent, infinitely beyond our capacity to apprehend. But then there is God’s glory. God’s glory teems through creation, from the tiniest of creatures to the greatness of the mountains, in color and scent, in size and texture, in harmony, in the whistling wind, and in the light of day and stars at night. Traces of God’s glory appear to us in beauty so magnificent. Mechtild of Magdeburg, the 13thcentury German mystic, said “[God’s] glory pours into my soul like sunlight against gold.” The Jesuit priest and poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, said of God’s glory:
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil…”[ii]
Jesus calls us “the salt of the earth,” a loaded metaphor which his listeners would have understood. In Jesus’ day, it was not unusual for guests sitting at table to be ranked in relationship to the saltcellar. The host and the distinguished guests sat at the head of the table, “above the salt.” People who sat below the salt, farthest from the host, were of less or little consequence. And so the expression “sharing the salt” came to be a way for Christians to refer to table fellowship. In Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper, the scowling Judas is shown with an overturned saltcellar in front of him.
Not only did salt serve to flavor and preserve food, it made a good antiseptic, from which comes the Roman word sal for these salubrious crystals. The Roman goddess of health was named Salus. Of all the roads that led to Rome, one of the busiest was the Via Salaria, the salt route, over which Roman soldiers marched and merchants drove oxcarts full of the precious salt crystals up the Tiber from the salt pans at Ostia. A soldier’s pay – consisting in part of salt – came to be known as his salarium, from which we derive the English word “salary.” A soldier’s salary was cut if he “was not worth his salt,” a phrase that came into being because the Greeks and Romans often bought slaves with salt.[i]
Salt was involved in Israel’s covenants with God, with grain offerings, and in the incense used in purification sacrifices to give flavor to the “food of God.”[ii] Newborn babies were rubbed with salt, from which has come the Christian practice of adding a few grains of salt to baptismal water.3 Over the years salt has been a commodity for exchange, so valuable in some places that in the sub-Sahara in the centuries following Jesus’ life, merchants routinely traded salt sometimes ounce-for-ounce for gold. Salt: something of almost inestimable worth, but not because it is eaten by itself. Salt is not food. Salt is added to food to bring out the fullness of their flavor. Salt gives wholeness. Salt has its own taste, yet it loses itself in transforming the food that it seasons. It becomes one with that to which it is added, and both salt and the food are transformed.[iii]
When Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth,” he asks what was meant to be a rhetorical question: “If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” For some of us, Jesus’ question may be more literal and rhetorical, you feel spent or spilled and you’ve lost track of some of your inestimable essence as salt. How can your saltiness be restored? There is a biological principle called homeostasis, that we crave what we actually need, that we crave the food that has the nutrients that our bodies need. What does your soul crave?
- What would bring light to your eyes to counter the darkness?
- What would bring melody and harmony to your soul to counter the cacophony of noise that ring in your ears?
- What would bring a lilt to your gait that would counter the crushing toil others ask you to carry or stomach?
- What would be like salt, like the perfect seasoning, to bring zeal to your heart to counter the tyranny of urgent demands that are incessant?
- What are you craving?
- To use the image of a salt shaker, what would be the equivalent of the rice in the salt shaker to absorb what would otherwise cause the salt to get stuck and cease to flow?
Those things are worth attending to for you to savor and be grateful for your gift of life. Jesus said that “you are salt,” something which is of inestimable worth. You are salt, created to give a distinctive flavor to life, you like none other. By your presence, your witness, your gifts, you help others “taste and see that the Lord is good,” the language of the Psalms.
[iv]To use a pun, I’m saying don’t just flavor, but savor who you are. You are the salt of the earth.
[i]Insight about salt in the Roman world very liberally drawn from “A Brief History of Salt,” in Time, March 15, 1982; p. 68.
[ii]Leviticus 2:13; Numbers 18:19; II Chronicles 13:5.
[iii]Salt also had a practical and symbolic function of purifying, suggested, for example, in the memory of Elisha’s making the “foul water” at Jericho wholesome by use of salt (II Kings 2:19-22); Exodus 30:35; See Leviticus 21: 6, 8, 17, 22; Ezekiel 16:4. See “Salt” in The Dictionary of Biblical Theology, by Xavier Leon-Dufour.