Guests at the Banquet of Life
Ada María Isasi-Díaz
Please pray with me: God, you who are a mother and father to all, you who have created us, purify my heart and my lips as you once purified those of prophet Isaiah with a burning coal so I may worthily announce this message to this community on the occasion of the 185 graduation at Colgate University . And, dear God, we know you are the God of the rain. Show us that you are also the God of the sun. Amen.
How wonderful to be here with you today. How wonderful to imbibe your youthful strength, your hopeful expectations of life, and your joyful celebration of what you and all those who have supported you complete today. I thank President Rebecca Chopp for this invitation. It is an honor, believe me, it is an honor to be here today.
I stand here today conscious of the bind in which anyone who preaches finds herself. On the one hand I am here called by President Chopp to preach the Word of God. Like Jeremiah in the first reading we just heard, I stammer and stutter and do all I can to walk away from the responsibility of unveiling the Word of God. But, also like Jeremiah, I finish surrendering, praying as I asked you to do to do with me just now, that I will speak with a clean heart, with purified lips. Yes, in the end I surrender and can only follow the command not to be afraid and to speak. So, it is with a sense of being called to be here today, with a sense that I am somehow in the hands of God, that I stand before you. This is indeed a comforting thought.
The other side of the tension that holds me standing here has to do with the sense that one should not preach what one does not live. No matter how hard I try to live according to what I am going to share with you, I fail time and again. I can only assure you that up to now in my life, each time I fail, and believe me it is often, I struggle to stand up. This struggle to stand up again and again, la lucha, as we refer to it in Spanish, seems to be what marks the rhythm of my living. And from this struggling I have gathered two valuable learnings that I give you today as graduation presents.
One gift is the understanding that if we do not know how to get up when we fall, we might as well not get out of bed in the morning because we will fall. I am sure that in your years here at Colgate you have fallen and have had to pick yourself up and find the strength to keep on trying. If you have, that is one of the best things Colgate has given you, for it is impossible to believe that we will not fall at some point in our lives, that we will not fail ourselves and those who need us and trust us. The struggle is not to go through life bent on not falling. No, the struggle, la lucha, is to learn to stand up again. So I preach today not because I have not fallen but because I am willing to do all in my power to stand up again.
The second gift I have for you is this: there is no possibility of really picking oneself up, of really going on, if one is not willing to be converted. You see, what we have to realize is that each falling down is a calling to be converted, to become more fully ourselves, and that we cannot do it if we simply get up and go back to the same way of being that led us to fall in the first place. As you go through life, your success will depend on your openness to the call to be converted, to be converted in whichever way you need to be converted to become most fully the person God intends you to be.
This morning's reading from Jeremiah presents three understandings, three beliefs, that help us in this act of struggling to go on, of struggling to be converted. First, God knows us. God knows us in a most intimate way. God knows us in such a way that we cannot hide from God. The Psalm we recited explains this very carefully. We can ignore what it means that God knows us intimately or we can open ourselves to this blessed reality and with the psalmist pray, “Search me, O God, know my heart. Try me, and lead me.” What will help us to get up when we fall? Ignoring the fact that God knows us or asking God to lead us on?
The second point from the reading of Jeremiah that I want you to notice is that to be afraid is an intrinsic element of life. Every time we attempt to get up and move on we do so in fear and trembling for we know that more is being demanded us and that we will fall again. At times in life it seems so much easier to just stay down. But we are wonderful creatures of the living God and we have been encouraged and helped to stand up time and again. Do not be afraid of being afraid. Be afraid of not wanting to face your fears, of preferring to stay down in order to evade the struggle, la lucha, in order to evade the unknown which we fear but which we have to face every day. That is what conversion is: turning to what we do not know, to what we do not control, to what is beyond us, calling us to go forth from where we are, calling us to be more than we are.
The third point in this reading from Jeremiah is that we are called to proclaim, we are called to the prophetic task. Now to be a prophet is not a matter of being able to see beyond the present, to predict the future. No, being prophetic is the difficult task of listening to those most in need and most vulnerable and proclaiming and advocating for their needs and desires. Having received a college education at this institution gives you the responsibility of being a brother and a sister first and foremost to those most in need, to the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the exploited, the abused. You might not have known this or realized it as you went through your years here at Colgate, you might not want such a responsibility, but it is one that you cannot simply shrug off. You have been immensely privileged, as have I, and we must account for how we use these privileges that have been given to us. Those on whose behalf you have to use your privileges, those to whom you are accountable to for how you use your privileges, are the people of the highways and byways of whom the Gospel of today speaks.
Let's look at this parable. The banquet is set; the party is all ready – just like this one of your graduation. Invitations have gone out, food has been readied, the house has been cleaned, the table is set. This is the Banquet of Life to which we are all invited. But going to a banquet takes time and energy and investment of oneself. We are invited to the Banquet of Life but we find excuses not to live life fully. Our commitment to make money, to flourish economically, to become successful business women and business men – it interferes with the Banquet of Life and we prefer not to go to the banquet in order to pursue accumulating capital. Life passes us by as we invest ourselves in making our purses grow. Life passes us by because we have a field to go supervise, a pair of oxen to check out. How sad! But how true!
Or we are so consumed by our own individual happiness that we miss the opportunity to be truly happy by participating fully in the Banquet of Life. We pursue our individual happiness at all cost, even at the cost of fullness of life.
In reality, it does not matter what the excuse might be. The message of this parable has to do with the invitation that we have to the Banquet of Life and about how we can fail if we choose to look for life somewhere else – a place, a circumstance we choose because we can control, because it is easier, because we do not have to invest ourselves, to give of ourselves. We do not mean to offend God; we do not mean to offend those who have invested so much so we can live fully. We are like the guests in the parable who say no; their intention was not to offend and the excuses they gave were perfectly valuable and acceptable excuses in first century Palestine .
We can very well say, “Well, it is my life and I do not need to do what others say or want.” But life for everybody is a banquet and a banquet is not a solo performance but a social affair, a community affair. Look, in the long run, you might want not to come to the party, but any and all parties are a fiasco if the guests do not come. Fullness of life does not depend only on what we do individually but depends on what we do for each other, on what we do as a family, as a university, as a religious community, as a society, as a nation.
But, you know, in this parable as we have it in the Gospel of Luke, the emphasis is not on those who did not come. The emphasis is on the new guests.
Right before this parable, the Gospel of Luke has Jesus telling the disciples: “When you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed because they cannot repay you.”
This parable is the story Jesus tells to give an example of how to accomplish what he has just told his disciples they must do.
So what the host of this party does is something that Jesus insisted on repeatedly. Those participating in the celebration are not the men who own a field, or the owner of a new pair of oxen, or the one who is going on his honeymoon. No, the ones that participate are the homeless, the ones that have no place to stay except the streets.
It is important for us to dwell on this for a few minutes because we often domesticate the Gospel message, we adapt it to what we can follow without having it interfering too much in our lives. So when the Gospel repeatedly says that we should love our neighbor we domesticate this command by thinking of our neighbors as our friends, as those we love and are in our circle, as those we can care for easily, who do not demand much of us, those whom we know will repay us.
But in the Gospels the neighbor is the maimed, the blind, the lame. The Gospels tell us that we will indeed be worthy members of the family of God if we feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, and go to those in prison.
So when the original guests fail him, the host turns to invite other neighbors, not the ones he has considered his neighbors but the neighbors the Gospels command us to care for.
Notice that the host is determined to invite as many of these “new” friends as possible. Twice he sends out the servants to find more of the maimed, the lame, the blind. Having failed to get to come to the party the people he wanted, these “new” neighbors are the kind of people that he now wants to have with him in his home. The host has indeed picked himself up, not to return to seeing as his neighbors the same kind of people whom he has welcomed in his circle up to now. He has been converted to see those in need and those who are most vulnerable as his “new” neighbors.
Have you wondered what this party was like once these new guests arrived? My friends, this is something for us to consider carefully: the party depends on the guests, not on the host. This is true always but much more in the situation described in this parable where the host does not control who the guest are.
The parable commands us to be like the host, to turn around and use our riches – money, education, power – to use our riches to provide for the poor, the oppressed, the weak, the vulnerable. And the fact is that we are good people, and we might very well be inclined to help. But what we have to realize is that when we, like the host in the parable, take seriously the command to invite the poor and the oppressed to the Banquet of our Lives, we stop being in-charge. We will not be able to control their behavior, their needs will be different from our needs, their vision of what our society, our world, should be will most probably be different from ours. Once we invite the poor and the oppressed to the banquet, they will change the banquet.
Are we willing to run the risk of losing our privileges? Are we willing to place ourselves in a situation we do not control? Are we able to stay away from thinking that since we have been good enough to invite them, they, the poor and the oppressed, should at least behave appropriately, which means they should be grateful to us, they should follow our rules? Are we able not to think that way?
But that is what we are called to, that is what the privileges we have received demands: we must put our privileges at the service of those who are our neighbors according to the Gospel. To the eternal question of Cain, “Am I my brother, my sister's keeper?” the answer is always, “Yes, you are indeed your brother and your sister's keeper.” And now, on top of that, we are told in this parable that our brothers and our sisters are those most in need.
“Come on,” we want to say, “enough is enough!” But no, it isn't. It is never and never will be enough until all are invited to the Banquet of Life, until all are given the opportunity and provided with what they need to come to the Banquet of Life.
We are good people. No doubt about it. We live in a country that helps others. No doubt about that. But we help them to be what we want them to be, we help them to become mere reflections of ourselves, to be like ourselves. We help the rest of the world so they can be like Americans are: everybody must speak English, everybody must exercise democracy the way we do, everybody must have the values we have. What the original guests would have provided for the hosts was the opportunity to celebrate himself. What the new guests do is challenge him to move on to be a better person, to strive to be his best self.
Class of 2006 and guests, go to the Banquet of Life with the conviction that using your privileges on behalf of the new neighbors you should invite to the Banquet of your Life will be in the long run a blessing for you. Go and compel, as the Gospel tells us to do, compel the poor and the vulnerable, the oppressed and marginalized to come to the Banquet of your Life. Face your fear of those you do not know, of those who might make demands you do not want to listen to, face your fear and invite them to the Banquet of Life. After all, what we have to learn each day of our lives is that it is not our private banquet, but it is the Banquet of Life and no one, no one, can enjoy it fully if we do not struggle to make it possible for all to enjoy the Banquet.
May you be blessed with peace and joy; may you be blessed with deep troubling. May you be blessed with la lucha, the struggle.
Come to the Banquet of Life, but come with your new friends.
May 21, 2006