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Once upon a time

Jesus was a great story-teller. He often used stories to make his point. “Once upon a time, there was a king…” The story in the liturgy for today helps us to understand God’s plan for us.

The story-image for God’s plan is a wonderful one, the image of a great banquet. The banquet is so big, so generous, that there is room for everyone.

The image of the banquet which Jesus uses is not new, as it goes back at least to the prophet Isaiah. The first reading is a great one to help us to understand and explain what is meant by our new life in heaven.

Everyone who has lived in Hong Kong will understand the power of the banquet as an image. But we bring different meanings to our understanding. Do we think of a banquet as a great family gathering, sharing of food around a table filled with life and laughter? Or do we think of a banquet as an ordeal in business, where government officials die from a surfeit of mao tai?

And when we link the banquet with death, perhaps we have thoughts of a ritual meal by the graveside, which we can see in ancient Rome and modern Hong Kong? These and other ideas can give us quite complex and mixed thoughts about banquets.

The image of the banquet in today’s gospel reading speaks to us of the abundance of God’s gifts. We are not expected to mechanically note every feature of the banquet, and the events are more likely to refer to local politics in Jesus’ time than the actual workings of God’s reign.

But we are expected to see that it is kingly meal, generous in all its proportions. The first reading tells us about God’s power to sweep away all sadness and tears and even death from this festival of life.

So how do you think about the new life which God holds out for us? Many people have a really sterile idea of heaven. They are naturally cautious about simply imposing our human ideas onto heaven. That is good, because simply imposing our own ideas would be creating our own heaven, not accepting God’s heaven.

But the scriptures do invite us to think of heaven abundantly and joyously. Just recall to your mind the story of the Prodigal Son! Actually, it is the story of the Forgiving Father, and the forgiving father organises a feast to celebrate the return of his son. The feast is not a sterile image; there is meat and music and dancing for everyone of the household.

“Once upon a time there was a king…” For Jesus, telling the story in this way would have resonated with his listeners. We do not have to understand every detail. We simply grasp the big picture of a generous God.

This God is not sterile and flat, but a giver in abundance, and inviting us to joy. The choice, of course, is ours. We are invited, and we can choose to respond to that invitation to the feast.