Today, Jesus calls us to repent, that the kingdom of God is at hand. Often times those word can strike terror into us because they seem to be an ominous warning that we better straighten up our act or terror will come upon us. We will be found wanting at the day of reckoning. However, I would like to take a look at what Jesus is saying, for I believe you may find a different message.
First, Jesus is speaking prophetic truth; the Kingdom of God is at hand. The Jewish State has only about 40 years of existence left before it is wiped off the face of the map, never to exist again until the 20th century. The temple, the very center of Jewish culture, will also be destroyed and to this day the only thing that exists is the Wailing Wall.
However, when we look at what people think of when they understand the Kingdom of God coming upon us and what Jesus talks about we see two totally different pictures.
First, when people think of death and judgment, often times, I do not hear people looking forward to going to Heaven; what I hear is people making sure that their loved ones are in a place that is not Hell. So, the focus here is not that they may experience the salvation of God, but that they do not experience His condemnation. I think this runs intensely contrary to the message that Jesus preached. The point is not to look forward to a place that is not Hell, but to look forward to eternal life with Christ: eternal happiness.
When we see Jesus telling us about eternal life he uses one consistent metaphor—the banquet. However, there are several types of banquets, when we understand which one he means, we can further understand the term to repent.
As a great student of the Titanic tragedy, I would actually like to use the two banquets featured in the movie, because they do indeed highlight the two different types of banquets. The first type is the first seen in the movie, the formal banquet in the first class dining room. The movie duplicated the scenery perfectly. I am sure all of us have been to a formal banquet of one type of the other. This one of course would be at the high end. Occasionally priests are invited to such affairs, usually with the inviter paying the way because they can be quite expensive. One feels intensely self-conscious at these affairs-“Am I dressed up enough, will they notice I bought my pants at Target. Am I using the right silverware, etc. etc. etc.” The focus on these things is of course am I behaving correctly for the crowd in which I find myself, or do I stick out. You live in terror of someone telling you that we do not eat our salad with our dessert fork.
The second banquet, you also see in the movie, it is one the held below decks among the lower class passengers. Here you have in the movie people who are from all social classes, mostly the working classes, they are of all races, colors and languages and they are living the very saying you work hard and you play hard. There is spontaneous dance, song, celebration and community.
This latter banquet is the one often indicated by Jesus. Especially when he tells parables of people going out into the highways and the byways looking for the poor, lame, etc to fill the banquet hall left empty by the over occupied upper class. These are the king of parties that these people have.
When it comes to repentance what is the difference. The difference is huge. In the first banquet, we are dealing with an intense self-focus. Am I dressed well enough, am I fully knowledgeable of how to eat at this banquet, will I make a fool of myself or will I fit in. Will I make a good impression, will I make good connections? The whole focus is about making myself good enough to be in that environment. If I am not good enough I will be socially rejected. This mindset translated to salvation lead us to fear Hell. If God does not find me perfect enough, I will be cast into Hell.
The other banquet is the exact opposite, it is being made well enough to be in that environment. You learn to dress down, you learn to let go of pretention, you don’t let go of dignity, but you learn how to be more of your true self and less of your pretentious self. This kind of change is not one of making yourself good enough to fit in, it is in allowing yourself to experience others as they are and yourself in light of whom you are.
This bring us to the method of repentance. When Jesus says, Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand, he is calling us to let go of everything that dehumanizes us and makes us less than whom we really are. He really calls us to let go of anything that we might be holding on to that may make us phoney. So we let go of what we know as traditional sins, but there are so many other sins that we need to let go of that we do not count as sins. Remember, the commandments are not to not sin, they are to love God and neighbor. Therefore, if we are self focused on making ourselves good enough for God as if we were heading to a formal banquet, we may fail at living the commandments. You don’t need to love to make yourself fit in that environment.
It is when you are dealing with those who are different, those who are not physically or mentally whole, those who are not socially adept that you have to let go of the barriers that prevent you from knowing them and you open yourselves up to God’s presence in them and in you.
I love to give the example of the severely handicapped woman who was scolded by a neighbor for selling her house to a family of color. The scolding neighbor was a Eucharistic minister. She was preparing to live a faith based on the first banquet and did not see she was challenged to attend the second banquet with that black family. She was in sin for her attitude. She may never confess it for she does not see it as sin.
There is the family whose daughter becomes pregnant and insists that she has an abortion. The embarrassment don’t you know. They were preparing for the first banquet of social convention. But they were invited to the second banquet and did not see it. They committed sin.
There is the person who does not attend mass because Catholicism is not socially acceptable in many places. “Do you really want to give someone who believes in God a promotion?” “After all only stupid people believe in God.” They hear.
People who hide their faith out of fear of social reprisal are preparing for the first banquet, but they are actually invited to the second banquet. They are in sin.
Remember, Jesus socialized with sinners, he often lived in environment similar to the second banquet and often criticized those who were caught up in the social structures of the first. The Pharisees especially. If we are to repent, what we are actually doing is allowing God to make us more fit in the kingdom of God, which Jesus reminds us is like a banquet: The second kind, not the first.