Life–and the Afterlife–Is a Banquet!
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
October 16, 2017

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily for the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A) on October 15, 2017 at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Isaiah 25:6-10; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20; and Matthew 22:1-14.

One of my absolute favorite movies is the 1958 classic comedy, Auntie Mame, starring Rosalind Russell. It is the story of the eccentric Mame Dennis, the 9th-wealthiest woman in the city of New York. The story begins as Mame becomes the guardian for her young nephew, Patrick. He arrives at Mame’s gargantuan apartment in the midst of a roaring party, at the conclusion of which Mame declares her philosophy: “Live! Live! Live! Life is a banquet!”

Today, Isaiah tells us of the ultimate banquet: the banquet of heaven. This passage is often read at Christian funerals with its promise of clarity, consolation, and joy. In our passage from Matthew today, Jesus tells a parable about a wedding banquet – with an unexpected, dark, and sobering ending. Paul exhorts us that it’s not about living with abundance or with scarcity. In every case, God will provide all that we need.

As we gather for this banquet of the Eucharist, let us give thanks for receiving the merciful invitation from God.

Isaiah’s vision of heaven is a powerful image. The veil that separates us from God and from our deceased loved ones will be lifted; every tear will be wiped away. It will be one unending banquet. It will be a celebration that not even Mame Dennis could replicate!

So what are we to make of this disturbing parable of the wedding feast of the king’s son? Why would anyone reject an invitation to such a banquet? Well, I’ve turned down a number of wedding invitations over the years. Weddings are expensive. I may need to use my vacation time to go. In many cases, I may not know the other guests. Why spend the time, effort, and money to socialize with people I don’t know?

Mame Dennis loves people, all kinds of people. The tension in the movie comes when Mame’s nephew, Patrick, gets engaged to Gloria Upson, a socialite from the Connecticut suburbs. Her parents definitely do not consider life to be a banquet open to all people. They have few interests, but they live in an exclusive neighborhood. What can Mame do? She hosts a party for the Upsons that celebrates the colorful, lively atmosphere in which she raised Patrick. At first, Patrick is embarrassed that Mame serves the Upsons pickled rattlesnake hors d’ourves while seated on avant-garde furniture. He initially objects that Mame has invited a lotus-juice-drinking teacher from a nudist school, and Agnes Gooch, an unwed expectant mother, but he gradually reclaims the life that he enjoyed as a boy with Mame. When Gloria calls Mame’s friends “riffraff,” Patrick calls off the wedding. As Mame explains: “Patrick won’t let you settle him down in a restricted community, make him an Aryan from Darien, and marry him off to a girl with braces on her brains.” 

If the banquet of the LORD, according to Isaiah, is for all peoples from all nations, what are we to make of the man who is cast out of the wedding banquet for not wearing a wedding garment? Well, we need to understand a bit more about first-century Judean customs. A king would have provided festive garments to all of the guests; all this man had to do was put the garment on. The lesson here, I think, is that the Holy Spirit invites us all to the banquet, but we’ve got to take the invitation seriously. Those who don’t make much of an effort to respond to God’s invitation should be seen more as the vapid, snobby Gloria Upson than as the down-on-her-luck Agnes Gooch.

When I make the effort to go to a wedding, I usually have a fantastic time. The bride and groom have wonderful friends and family who go out of their way to include me in the festivities. I forget that I’m an outsider.  

Even though both the play and the movie Auntie Mame starred actress Rosalind Russell, most people would say that the movie is superior to the play. At least one biographer claims it was Russell’s Catholic faith that made the difference. Yes, Ros Russell – who was friends with Coco Chanel, Frank Sinatra, and 5 U.S. presidents – was involved in Good Shepherd Parish and the Catholic Motion Picture Guild in Beverly Hills. She even wrote the screenplay for a 1956 film about sexual harassment. Having played the eccentric Mame on stage – the Mame who was most entertaining because of her outrageous wigs and costumes – Russell knew the character well enough to give her a dramatic arc not present in the play. Mame Dennis’ credo was “Life Is a Banquet,” but according to Russell’s biographer, “Rosalind subscribed to another creed… the Apostle’s Creed.”  

Mame might have described her creed as tolerance, but the word that best describes Rosalind Russell’s vision is inclusiveness. And that’s the dominant image of the banquets in today’s readings. The banquet of heaven will include the unwed mother and the good-hearted non-Christian. The banquet of heaven will probably even include some Oklahoma fans!

The Church has declared several thousand people to be saints, but we have never named a specific individual as being excluded from the heavenly banquet. If I were to hazard a guess about who might not be there, it’s probably those people who refuse to accept that God opens the banquet to all peoples from all nations.

There’s plenty of room around this banquet table. St. Paul says that God will fully supply whatever we need. Who will we invite to join us here next weekend? As Rosalind Russell titled her own autobiography, Life Is a Banquet!