“One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, ‘Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, “Come; for everything is ready now.” But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my apologies.” Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.” Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.” So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” Then the master said to the slave, “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.”’
In this gospel lesson appointed for today, Jesus tells a parable, which is remarkable. Now the word “parable” literally means “that which is tossed alongside,” which implies a comparison, or an analogy, or an elaboration, or an illustration. A parable is not like an NPR news account from first-century Jerusalem about what happened one fall day with Jesus and a crowd of bystanders who didn’t show up to a wedding feast. A parable is not to be taken literally; it’s to be taken truthfully. Jesus is full of parables, especially true in the Gospel according to Luke. Jesus’ parables are varied. Some of his parables are proverbs, some of them are bywords, or allegories, or riddles, or figures of speech. Some of his parables are stories drawn from everyday life. All of Jesus’ parables are used to make a point. The point always has both a timely and timeless quality, which is why they’ve been remembered down through the centuries. I say this about Jesus’ parables as an aside, but it’s an important thing to remember as we read the Scriptures. Don’t look for literalism, not normally. (If you do, you’ll probably miss the point.) Rather, look for the truth as you read the Scriptures.
I began by saying the parable Jesus tells in today’s gospel lesson is remarkable, remarkable because that’s always the point of a parable. Parables are worthy of being noticed nd then applied to life. What do we see and hear in this particular parable about the wedding feast? For one, the parable is reflective of a first-century wedding custom. Invitations were extended to family and friends in advance of a wedding. An RSVP was hardly needed because social norms presumed that people will show up. So the wedding happens and then, following the custom of the day, the host would welcome all in attendance to now join in a festive celebration. And in the case of this parable which Jesus tells, here comes the excuses, what we’ve just heard. One person cannot stay longer because there’s a real estate transaction under way and they have to get home; one person cannot stay because there’s livestock to be tended to; one person cannot stay because they themselves have just been married, and presumably there’s a honeymoon awaiting. These are actually not lame excuses. These excuses given were actually honorable and respected reasons to decline staying on following a wedding… not just for quick taste of wedding cake but probably for days of festive celebrating. These folks originally invited cannot stay on for days. And then, as goes Jesus’ parable, the wedding host extends his invitation to other people to fill up the empty places. So far there’s nothing shocking about this parable. It reflects the social etiquette of first-century Palestine, which actually parallels what oftentimes happens here in our own culture. If you are anticipating a festive celebration and you end up having some open places because some of your original invitees cannot come or cannot stay, you, too, probably think about who else could be invited who would enjoy the celebration. This is what happens here at the monastery, and it is probably also true for you in your own homes.
But this is where Jesus’ parable takes a turn, which is, undoubtedly, why this otherwise-unremarkable parable has been remembered down through the centuries. Rather than filling in the open places with other people from the same social circles, which is normal, Jesus casts a very wide net. And this is what is remarkable. The host in Jesus’ parable now turns to the streets of the city, compelling the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind to come the banquet celebration.i This isn’t simply “extending” an invitation, because that would not have worked. These new people are “compelled” to come, because they could hardly believe their ears. That’s because the people whom the host is now inviting were likely branded as “impure” people, people with whom the good and righteous folk at a wedding feast would not otherwise associate. I say “impure” because of the prevailing theology in those days that bad things happen to bad people. Poor people were poor because they got what they deserved. And because they were poor they could not make sacrifice for atonement because they could not afford the buy a spotless lamb or even a turtledove (if for no other reason than that they were probably near starvation themselves). Poor people “lived in sin” because they couldn’t afford the sacrificial cost of atonement. Poor people didn’t have money to see a doctor and so they stayed sick, didn’t have money to buy festive clothes and so they were likely disheveled, probably dirty, clearly not the folks who would be welcomed into a pure and proper social circle. But that’s Jesus’ shocking point. Everyone is welcome.
There’s kind of an old joke told about preachers, that most preachers have only one or two sermons, and they keep preaching that sermon, in various forms, again and again. I think that’s mostly true for preachers – my brothers say it is true about me! – and this also includes Jesus. This particular parable is yet another version of a story Jesus keeps telling and retelling. The list of invitees to God’s banquet table is always the same. The invitation list includes everyone, especially the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind.ii It’s the same list remembered earlier in Luke’s Gospel in the Mary’s song, the Magnificat: “…He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”iii It’s the same list remembered in Luke’s Gospel for Jesus’ inaugural sermon when he begins his public ministry. Jesus begins his public ministry by quoting the prophet Isaiah, saying he will fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…” iv Who is welcomed to the God’s banquet table? Everyone, including the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind.
It’s not insignificant that this parable involves the sharing of food, of sitting at table with one another. The need to eat is absolutely baseline. On Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs,” the need to eat is a foundational need, undergirding all of life. Whether you are a prince or a pauper you need to eat. One person is the same as the next when it comes to eating, but, of course, Jesus’ point is that we all are welcomed equally as guests to the same table. This is a storyline which Jesus tells relentlessly, in so many forms. The word used here in the Greek is philonexia, which is “the love of strangers.”v Philonexia is the opposite of zenophobia, which is the fear or hatred of strangers, the discrimination against strangers. Philonexia, the love of strangers, becomes the New Testament norm for hospitality as it is repeatedly described. We read, for example, in the Letter to the Hebrews, “Let love of brother and sister continue; do not forget the love of the stranger (philonexia).”vi Philonexia, not xenophobia.
The Thanksgiving, Advent, and Christmas seasons are soon upon us. Especially at this time of year, many opportunities open for us to cross the boundaries of social, ethnic, and religious classes to meet and minister to strangers. It is a beautiful thing to both witness and experience people, for example, on Thanksgiving Day helping to prepare and serve meals to the hungry and homeless. We could ask, would those occasions be examples of what Jesus is saying (and re-saying) in a parable such in this reading from Luke’s Gospel. I would say, “yes,” those occasions are examples of philonexia, the love of strangers. But I don’t think this is exactly Jesus’ point here in this parable. This is a parable which speaks to a principle; it’s not just about an occasional practice. The point of the parable is about conversion of heart, not just a periodic practice in action. It’s not just about “logging in” with an act of mercy; the parable is not just about creating an occasion for offering hospitality to a stranger, as important as that is. This is about a change of heart that informs and undergirds a change in one’s life all the time. I’ll call it a preferential option for “the other,” for the aliens who show up day-in and day-out in our own lives. Jesus has come for them. And furthermore, Jesus will likely come to us through them. I recall Mother Teresa’s being asked some years ago whether she experienced Jesus coming to her in the presence of the poor and outcast whom she and her sisters served. Mother Teresa said “yes,” she often experienced Jesus’ presence among the least and the lost. “In the poor,” she said, “Jesus comes to me, but he is often hideously disguised.”
Jesus seemed to have a “throwaway” line that went, “You have heard it said, but I say,” and what he always then said was something rather upside down from normal experience, something counterintuitive for everyone. And so we hear the strong verb which Jesus uses in this Gospel lesson from Luke. He calls us to “compel people.” “Compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.”vii In our own day, it will require the strength of welcoming people with compelling strength to counter the zeitgeist in our own culture, increasingly xenophobic. Xenophobia – the fear or hatred of strangers – is not the Gospel message.
Our conversion to Christ is a lifelong invitation. The New Testament word “conversion” comes from a Greek root which denotes both a literal, physical turning and a change of heart.viii A way for us to cultivate the principle of conversion throughout the day would be to assume that everyone belongs. In Jesus’ “coming kingdom” – what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer – everyone belongs around the banquet table. And as we cross the path of friends and strangers in the course of each day – probably mostly strangers – we carry in our hearts this compelling message of God’s inclusive love absolutely teeming from us – in our words, in our countenance, in our posture. We carry in our hearts this compelling message of God’s love. There is no such thing as a stranger. We all belong. Let the events of the day convert you, to turn your head, and catch your eye, and open your heart. We have a compelling message of Christ’s love to share to a world of people dying to know they are loved. We could even be visited by someone whom we could first mistake as a stranger, who actually comes to us with the compelling, undeniable message of the breadth and depth of God’s love for us.
i Luke 14:21, the same as Luke 14:13.
ii Luke 14:13.
iii Luke 1:46-55.
iv Luke 4:16-30.
v Philonexia comes from the Greek roots philos,a friend or neighbor, and xenos, foreign or alien.
vi Hebrews 13:2.
vii Luke 15:23.
viii Conversion is strepho, with its prepositions epi and apo, e.g., John 21:20; Acts 15:3.
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