Have you ever been invited to something, accepted the invitation and then wish like heck that you never agreed to come? I know I have and I have made excuses to get out of going somewhere for sure, but I think I would have a hard time not showing up moments before I was supposed to be somewhere special – where someone had invited me specifically and had literally prepared a place just for me! Unless someone died suddenly or there was an accident on the way, I don’t think there is any excuse to disrespect the host and all the hard work they put into preparing a place for you. This is what happens in this parable though – but, despite the sheer bad manners of doing something similar in this day in age, in biblical Palestine this behavior would dishonour the host. With honour comes power, wealth, and status – invitees such as these would be part of the hosts desired social network and the banquet was an opportunity to show off, to garner favours, and to make business deals. By treating your guests to a grand feast it meant that they were now in your debt until you accepted an invitation to their next event or they repaid you another way! For all the invited guests to have last minute excuses is more than just bad manners – it sends a clear message to the community that this host was not deserving of honour, of their friendship, or of their business relationship… Being dishonoured in this way placed the host at the bottom of the social ladder.
The whole of Luke 14 takes place during a feast occasion. The leader of the Pharisees has invited Jesus among the honoured guests at a feast on the Sabbath. Jesus takes this opportunity to teach his host and fellow guests about what a banquet of God would be like. The Banquet of God was a Jewish idea – the idea being that when the Messiah came there would be a great banquet and all would sit down at the table to celebrate the victory of Israel that the Messiah would bring when he came. This was to be an occasion of great joy! Jesus teaches about the ethic of God. He discusses that one should not assume a seat of privilege when they arrive, but wait for the host to call them to a seat of honour, honour is not assumed based on the same rules as here on earth. He tells them that the list of invitees should only include those that you cannot put in your debt (as is the case on earth), but that you should invite only those that could never pay you back! The beginning of the parable of the feast happens after the people hear that those righteous in the eyes of God are those that invite the marginalized to dine with them. The listeners say, “Blessed are they that eat bread in the kingdom of heaven!” Jesus clarifies just who that might be in this parable…
The listener would expect that the feast table would be filled with the invited, after all who would have an excuse not to attend the banquet of God? But this is not the case here – in Palestine the elite who held these types of banquets would send out the invitation in advance of the feast – a slave would deliver by parchment or verbally invite and take the answers to the invitations back to his master. His master would then prepare for the party based on all who said they would attend. Then when all was ready, the slave would go back out and gather the people to come for “their meal awaits”… but, unbelievably, ALL of these guests had many excuses to not show up.
These excuses point to mistakes that we can all learn from if we are truly seekers of the Kingdom of God. They all point to the fact that they thought there was something more important than honouring their host with their presence at his table.
The first excuse – “I have bought a field and need to see it” points to a life out of balance, when work is more important than anything else – so important that there is no time left for prayer, worship, and devotion.
The second excuse – “I have bought oxen and need to go examine them” considers our commitment to tending to material things – the lawn needs to be cut, the car needs to be washed, or the house must be cleaned – taking care of our stuff takes up a lot of time.
The final excuse – “I have married a wife and therefore I cannot come” speaks to our responsibilities to our homes and families. William Barclay said this, “Our homes should not shut us off from the claims of God and of others, but should strengthen us better to discharge them.”
None of these things, in and of themselves, are intrinsically bad things – it is good to be a hard worker. It is good to take care of things. It is good to love your home and family. These are all good things and can lead to what feels like a really good life – but it may feel that something is missing if life becomes unbalanced with “too much of a good thing!” When life becomes about our reputation as a hard worker, about recognition of our lovely things by others, or even because we want to garner the love of our families, then we are living to impress others somehow and this may prevent us from experiencing the Kingdom of God. Even good things can keep us from Christ as they kept these folks away from the meal that was prepared for them.
They choose all these things over honouring their responsibility to their host and as a result he also loses his honour and is no better than the poor, sick and lame – who were the lowest of the low in their culture.
What he does next is the real surprise! He doesn’t pack it all up and cancel to save face and anonymously slip away – NO – The meal awaits! – instead he shares it with those who he never would have invited before – he is humbled in his dishonour –it stirs him to generosity- he takes a bad situation and he makes it good.
This part of the parable reminds me of those stories you read about modern day weddings when the wedding is called off and instead of losing the money they paid for the reception, they hold the feast anyway and invite the homeless and hungry to come and eat. On the surface, these feel-good stories are just that, but they are also news stories because they are not the social norm. People do not invite the homeless and hungry to their wedding feasts unless the marriage is called off —Unless the bride and groom have been dishonoured and disgraced in front of their family and friends. I think that these modern day stories and this parable serve to remind us that there are still so many people in our communities that are the uninvited and that still deserve to be fed.
This parable reminds us how to serve God– we are called to be good just to be good without the expectation of return. We are called to invite the uninvited. We are called to feed the hungry, just because they are hungry, not so they will come to church or because it makes us look good!
As members of the Kingdom of Heaven, living in the world, each of us is responsible for each other. It’s really that simple. I think about former US President, Jimmy Carter. Some of you may have read the recent story about him in Edmonton, Alberta when he was working building a home for habitat for humanity, a group that builds homes for people in need, and he became dehydrated. President Carter, who is now 92 years old received treatment at the hospital and then went back to work with his hammer and nails. Former presidents are people in places of honour and power, he could have all the luxuries that this world has to offer and be very comfortable in his old age. If he wanted to just look good for helping the marginalized then he could just write a cheque, but he doesn’t just do that – he puts on his jeans and his baseball cap and swings a hammer to make the lives of other people better. This is a man who has accepted the invitation to the table of God and who not only shows up, but he shows up ready to serve everyone at the table!
Serving those who can never pay you back sometimes comes with a reward that you never expected. In our city there are folkd that regularly host free meals for people outside the Margins – Knox United Church in Lower Sackville is just one example. They recently started up a multi-denominational partnership with local churches to host a monthly meal for just that population. Not only have they served meals, but they have bridged ecumenical partnerships in their community.
Recently, I was speaking to someone who talked about her commitment to volunteer at another place in our city that serves daily meals to those affected by poverty. She told me that she feels that what she receives from helping there is something that she can never pay back – A sense of community, of acceptance, of self-worth – I suspect that this is what the Kingdom of God looks like.
This parable also reminds us to pay attention for the invitation to the Kingdom of God. And if you accept that invitation, then for the love of God, show up! It reminds us to be really careful not to miss out because we are too busy for God – even too busy with otherwise good things! The Kingdom of Heaven is like a feast where all that show up are part of the community, all are accepted, and all are worthy to be fed! So get ready, the meal awaits!
When you are invited, and all of us will be invited at some point, or maybe many many times in our lives, then you get to decide if you are ready to accept the invitation. I think that this parable isn’t saying that you have to accept – I believe that God is pretty persistent and will keep on asking until you find it in your heart to say yes! – But be prepared if you do accept, because then you have a responsibility to show up– you are then called to get ready to receive and get ready to serve.
Are you ready? Because the meal awaits…