Just outside the gates of Paradise lies a restaurant called "The Preliminaries." Its purpose: to whittle down the guest list of those invited to heaven's future wedding banquet. Sound interesting? Just wait until you meet the staff.
First off is Chef Jacob. He mans the stove while Grandpa Abraham tends the bar. Queen Esther is the main hostess, Martha Righteous Steward waits tables, and Joseph Right-Hand-Man keeps the kitchen well stocked with a little help from Zacchaeus Deep Pockets.
Uh-oh. A multitude of friends and fiends has already filled the round tables placed neatly about the dining room. Trouble's brewing.
See beasty Esau over there in the red? Famished for fast food at any price, he checks his purse and finds to his horror that it's been emptied. Eyes full of tears, he carefully reaches across the table and tugs at Daddy Money Bags' shirt sleeve.
"What happened to my blessing?!"
"What you sow you weep," replies his laughing dad Isaac. He steals a dim peek at the Judas sitting at his left hand.
"Not again!" protests the visually accused. "What must I do to convince you guys I'm not Iscariot?"
"Cool your jets, identity theft happens," says a voice from under the table. It's believing Thomas's half embryo, come to spy out the joint but not yet poised to fully enter in.
The Syro-Phoenician woman, grateful for every crumb that falls from above, calls to him from the next table over. "Stop acting like a dog and join the fun. Taste and see that God is good."
Across from her, Isaiah adds a verbal morsel to munch on. "Come sample free wine and milk ala my 55th chapter." Seeing the twin's reluctance to partake, he shakes his head. "Who believes my message?!"
"Where I'm from, only fools take charity," drawls Nabal, the hillbilly seated next table over to the left. He sticks greedy fingers in the fruit salad set before him and shoves a mix of pineapple, plums, grapes and orange pieces in his mouth.
A shocked Abigail whacks him with her spoon and hands the bowl to David, the repentant prodigal who happens to be eating Humble Pie. Dressed in royal robes more glorious than any field lily, he's feeling a bit out of place.
"I should be scrubbing floors, not dining."
"Speak for yourself," grumbles scowl-faced Pharaoh, sending his complaint across the crowded room. "Waiter, there's a fly in my soup, and who spiced these frog legs? Moses!"
Peter, door guardian with the keen ears, unsheathes his carving knife. "Serves you right for ordering unclean meat."
"No need for haste, this will draw the poison out," says Elisha the quick-footed waiter, intervening on behalf of the stubborn sinner. He tosses him the salt shaker.
"I'll take some when you're finished," calls Job, seated two tables away. His bland egg whites need something, and it's not more whipping.
But he's not one to whine - unlike Ahab, who's sitting in a corner, blubbering over his lack of so-called "just desserts." Raising a withered hand toward heaven's windows, he cries, "All I ever wanted was a piece of Jonah's whale, but what do I get? A lump of leftover bread and moldy fish sticks from some kid's half-munched lunch! Where's the manna? Where's the leeks? Where's the nutrient-rich herb garden promised me?"
Martha looks up from the table she is bussing and throws a wet dish rag in his face.
"I've had it with your complaints! This is supposed to be a celebration, not a pity party. Where's your wedding garment?"
Ahab is speechless, as are many guests whose poor table manners have turned the feast into a famine. The heaviness that eats at them won't allow them to enjoy the meal. The only ones who dare partake are the grateful repentant, those willing to lay aside their sins and grudges in favor of a robe of praise.
Soon the test is over and the doors are shut. The gates of pearl open. Now it's time for the real banquet to begin. Paul the Apostle takes his stand to address the assembled crowd, the few who have made it past The Preliminaries and are ready to sink their teeth into the real thing. He keeps his message short and sweet.
"It's high time we all said grace, and meant it."
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