The Last Banquet

blueperiodSince we’re thinking about heaven and hell…

Once a week I teach a class at a local alcohol and drug treatment program. It is on the “spirituality of recovery.” Recently I shared Marmaladov’s speech from Crime and Punishment (at the end of this article). There were tears in the room. For many, the version of the gospel they have heard only condemns. Most of the men I meet want to get well, to get sober. Not all of them believe that God is actually on their side. Marmaladov’s speech is wonderfully “over the top.” Do we dare believe that God will be (is) so kind?

As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he arose and followed Him. Now it happened, as He was dining in Levi’s house, that many tax collectors and sinners also sat together with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many, and they followed Him. And when the scribes and Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, “How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?”

When Jesus heard it, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” (Mark 2:14-17)

What struck me as I listened to it was a unique quality of Christ as God incarnate: everywhere He goes the icon of the Kingdom forms around Him. In this particular gospel passage, the image is that of the banquet at the end of the ages, the Messianic banquet. And as Christ warned others, the harlots and sinners have gotten there ahead of them (Matt. 21:31).

Every meal that Christ shares in the gospels, because of who He is, cannot help but be the Messianic Banquet. Every table becomes an altar, every meal, the Eucharist.

Before approaching the Holy Cup at Divine Liturgy, Orthodox Christians say in unison:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess, that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first…

It is not unlike the beautiful communion prayer of the Anglican reformer, Thomas Cranmer: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table…”

It is the true image of the great banquet – a gathering of the unrighteous with the Righteous One, the unworthy with Only Worthy. This is the other side of the “Narrow Door.” Here the difficult path is not marked by asceticism, but by a humility, indeed a humility wrought by a broken life. I have encountered such humility many times, and have frequently found my own “religious” accomplishments soundly rebuked. I do not need anyone to remind me that 1 Corinthians 6:10 says that “drunkards” will not inherit the Kingdom. But, O strange wonder, many of them will be found in the Kingdom while others are thrust out! Dostoevsky’s Marmeladov explains why.

Marmeladov’s Vision…

…”And He will judge and will forgive all, the good and the evil, the wise and the meek…And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us, ‘You too come forth,’ He will say, ‘Come forth, ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!’ And we shall all come forth without shame and shall stand before Him. And He will say unto us, ‘Ye are swine, made in the image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also!’ And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, ‘O Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?’ And He will say,’This is why I receive them, O ye wise, this is why I receive them, O ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.’ And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down before Him…and we shall weep…and we shall understand all things! Then we shall understand all!…and all will understand, Katerina Ivanovna even…she will understand…Lord, Thy kingdom come!” And he sank down on the bench exhausted and helpless, looking at no one, apparently oblivious of his surroundings and plunged in deep thought. His words had created a certain impression; there was a moment of silence; but soon laughter and oaths were heard again.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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22 responses to “The Last Banquet”

  1. John D. Kemp Avatar
    John D. Kemp

    This brought tears to my eyes, if only the tears were allowed by me to flow.

  2. Byron Avatar

    ‘O Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?’ And He will say,’This is why I receive them, O ye wise, this is why I receive them, O ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.’

    It is so difficult to consider ourselves “unworthy” of anything; the Ego runs amuck in our society. I sometimes completely forget to be aware so I may be humble and accepting of God’s love. Simplicity in life is hard.

    Father, blessings to you! And Thanks!

  3. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    At last in heaven we will all be able to dine together at the messianic banquet even if it isn’t possible here.

  4. Andrew Avatar

    Father bless!

    I love this, and want very much to believe it. But what do we do with the vs in Corinthians you mentioned and the others like it?

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    We wonder at the mercy of God.

  6. Brian Avatar

    Whenever I read things of this nature, I cannot help but remember the scene at the end of the film PLACES IN THE HEART. The killer and the killed, the bereaved and the one who caused the bereavement, all the perpetrators and all the victims together in a blissful, peaceful forgetfulness of pain and sin. All is peace and forgiveness in the light of God’s love, as they pass the Cup of the Lord to one another in that southern Protestant fashion, saying, “The peace of Christ…”

    It’s only a movie, I know. But it is a picture of beauty in the manner of Dostoyevsky – one that communicates a sort of truth that softens and rejoices the heart in the love of God in a way that ‘hard doctrine’ simply cannot.

    “I beseech Thee, O merciful Lord, that all people of the earth may know Thee in the All Holy Spirit.”

  7. davidp Avatar

    Beautiful…..this is why our Heavenly Father calls all of us gently by His Love….and it begins in this life time….a taste of what is to come.

  8. Thomas Avatar

    Excellent article! I have accumulated a list of music CDs, books and sources “recommended by Father Stephen”. They are a breath of fresh air and peace in today’s noise.

    @Leonard: indeed, as no one will be looking at their smart phones or being otherwise distracted. I love the image of heaven as a table with very long spoons, a large soup in the middle, where everyone feeds their neighbour. Hell, in contrast, is the same table with frustrated selfish diners, trying in vain to feed themselves.

    If we could find a little bit of the humility in the speech above…a little metanoia!


  9. Simon Avatar

    Where can I find that list, Thomas?

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    please share

  11. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    My parish just started a series of classes on dealing with the passions. The first class, this week, was intro/review of many common Greek and Latin terms and their English equivalent. A couple of words on the list were metanoia and pænitentia. Although they both refer to the process of repentance they are quite different in tone and meaning. The Greek emphasizes being changed by the love of God while the Latin emphasizes the punishment in a much more juridical sense.

    To me that says volumes

  12. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    @Thomas, we don’t eat this banquet together now but in the future when we get to the second story of the house we will be able. I hear it’s nice up there

  13. Dino Avatar

    I think that -as Father Stephen might also say- we can live the eschata here and now, the last banquet can be the biggest influence of every current second we have now, to a degree that rivals what we perceive with our five senses. Obviously, without some degree of stillness, our inner senses will not sufficiently restore the outer ones.

  14. Thomas Avatar

    Father Stephen, all,
    This is a non-exhaustive list and I’m certain that I have saved a few more on a wish list I cannot access now, but here are some:

    1) Rachmaninov vespers CD,
    Sergey Rachmaninov, Alexander Sveshnikov

    2) Dostoevski “Borthers Karamazov”, “Crime and Punishment” and I’m sure others, the man didn’t put a literary foot wrong!

    3) Everywhere present, Fr Stephen Freeman

    4) St Silouan, by Father Sophrony

    5) books by Father Zacharias of the Stavropegic monastery of Essex, England. I don’t have the specific books, but I’ve bought them all from the monastery’s bookshop.

    6) The Lenten spring, Fr Thomas Hopko (indirect references)

    7) Echoes of a native land: 2 centuries of a Russian village, by Serge Schmemann.

    Please add more!
    Your blessing.

  15. Thomas Avatar

    @Leonard: this is true of me, sadly because I live life as if it were in a two-storey universe. Many of the followers of this blog are already in this gracious state, living a life of joy in Christ, sharing everything with thanksgiving and glorifying the name of God. For them, paradise is here already and there is only one way to enjoy the banquet, through self-sacrifice, charity and emptying of themselves to allow Christ to live in them.

    Wish this for me also, brother.

  16. Dino Avatar

    May we always have that Grace which makes us contemporaries of those eternal mysteries; and perpetually taste -each to one’s own degree and according to one’s circumstances- not just of the resurrection “at the last day” (John 11:24) but of Him who said unto Martha, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live”(John 11:25). Now.

  17. OLGA Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    ‘Christ has Risen’, ‘Christos Anesti’ as we say in Greek!
    I write to you from very far away, Cyprus.
    I often read your posts and they are so delightful. Thank you.
    Please let me share a testimony I have heard from the mouth of the Metropolitan of Limassol, Athanasios, during a sermon which relates to your story today.
    Athanasios said that one day some people brought one man to him for confession. It was evident that he was coerced to make the journey because the man showed no repentance, felt no remorse for his many crimes( apparently well-known to the Cypriot society, hence the anonymity of the testimony related by the Metropolitan) and wanted to have nothing to do with God. Athanasios said that he had used all the ‘tricks’ to convince him to no avail. In that little room, where confessions take place, there was the icon of the Lord as the Bridegroom with a candle lit at the front. After all failed, the man left without confessing.
    A few days later, he showed up again at the Metropolis. He came running to the Metropolitan in tears and wanted to urgently confess. What had happened?
    He told Athanasios that the very same night when he had refused to confess he had a dream. He dreamt that he was in a very dirty, awful, vile smelling place, like a sewer, and saw Christ, as He was depicted in the icon, with hands tied etc. He was walking in the sewer as if He was searching for something. The man asked Him what He was looking for and the Lord said: ‘ I am looking for the scoundrels’.
    Athanasios said that the man woke up in tears and was completely changed by his dream. He came to confession and now struggles to live as a good Christian.

    So , there is hope for us yet, Father!
    Blessed be the Lord!

  18. tess Avatar

    Oh, Olga, thank you for the story! Thank you so much!

    Alithos Anesti!

  19. A-onyma Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Today was the first time ever that I heard you talk. Man, you talk fast. Really fast. Southern American fast. 🙂

  20. A-onyma Avatar

    Wait, it seems I’m an ignorant: according to the Internet, it’s the Yankees who talk fast…? #NotFromAmerica

    I’ll show myself out.

    Comments: remove.

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    My accent is not Southern. It is slightly Appalachian (Scots-Irish). I do indeed talk fast. @talkingwarpspeed

  22. A-onyma Avatar

    Psst, Father, I think you mean “#talkingwarpspeed,” with a hashtag.

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