The kingdom of God as a great dinner, as banquet, is an old image. 700 years before Jesus, Isaiah wrote that one day God would make a feast of rich food and well-aged wines for all peoples. At that time, God would also destroy death and wipe away all tears.[i]
Over time, a few groups reinterpreted Isaiah’s vision inserting limits, saying it was not for everyone but rather for good religious folk, those who kept all the religious laws, not for unbelievers, not for foreigners.[ii] Likely some reclining at the dinner with Jesus were expecting him to affirm the reinterpretation: Blessed are the righteous, those who keep the rules, who (like us) will be worthy to be welcomed to God’s party.[iii]
Instead, Jesus tells this story. “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many.” One invites, get confirmations, and from that number prepares appropriate food. When the food is ready, guests are invited a second time to come over, like as we say “now come to the table.”
Contrary to all custom, the guests refuse, giving ridiculous excuses. “I bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it.” Yet anyone would look at a piece of land extensively before buying. “I bought five yoke of oxen, and I have to go try them out.” Yet oxen must work well together yoked. It would be foolish to buy without testing them first. The third says, “it’s my wedding night. I can’t come.” These are not: I’m so sorry. Something I couldn’t have foreseen just came up. These are absurd. They are offensive, public insults to the host.[iv]
For good reason, the master of the house became angry. One rightly expects retaliation, or cutting off relationship, or withdrawing and stewing. When you or someone you love is insulted, threatened, hurt or attacked, what stirs in you? How do you want to respond, or what do you find that you do with your anger? Right the wrong with revenge. Fight back with force. Wound with words. Hit to hurt. Shame.
The master with his anger says: “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” Kenneth Bailey notes the master takes the energy of anger at insult, injury, and injustice and chooses to turn it into grace.[v] Rather than retaliate, the host expands the vision, widens the welcome. Go around the neighborhood. Invite the local outcasts. Bring them to the feast.
Do you have some righteous anger at growing insult, injury, and injustice particularly at the poor, refugee and migrant After voting today, what will you do with it? What would it look like for you to turn anger into grace, to widen the welcome where you live and beyond?
The servant says: “What you have ordered has been done, and there is still room.” Notice it’s after this that the master extends the invitation more broadly. Perhaps, Bailey suggests, the master waited for the servant to catch the vision.[vi] In the process of giving grace, of widening the welcome, the servant gets excited and begins to see the potential for more. There’s still room. More grace. Yes, so go invite them. Share further.
Giving grace changes us. Experiencing one more stranger as friend expands our vision of humanity and of God. How has grace expanded you? To whom might you reach beyond, to further invite?
“Compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.” To our shame, the Church has sometimes used this to persecute and terrorize, supposedly forcing people into faith as with the Spanish Inquisition. Why would the master say “compel” them to come? Have you ever doubted someone’s invitation, wondered if it was genuine? Thought “why me? I’m not like you. If you really knew me … .” I’ve had these things spin in my head, including for good friends, because it’s hard to receive love. Perhaps that’s happened to you. If trouble with friends, how much more so with strangers, and not just strangers but across class and social divisions.[vii]
The master says “compel people” because the invitation to the great dinner and to is shocking, too hard and too good to believe. The master knows the resistance and thus says compel. Yes, this invitation is correct. You are invited to the feast. It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from or who your family is or what you’ve done or what you’ve not done. It doesn’t matter how you’re dressed or how you speak or who you love or that we haven’t met. There’s a place for you. Dinner is ready. My name is Luke. What’s yours? May I walk with you?
God is the master in this story. We are both the guests and the servants, the invited and those inviting. Jesus through this story points back to God’s vision from Isaiah, cutting through the tangled imposed limits. Isaiah recorded God’s expansive welcome also in this way: Don’t let the foreigner or the eunuch (a local outcast) say God will surely separate me from his people.[viii]“… for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.”[ix]
Where do you hear yourself in this story? Are you angry at injustice? What would it look like to turn that energy into grace?
Is there someone you hope isn’t at the party? Have you created an enemy, an outsider, of whom you are afraid and keep at a distance? They may be distant or quite close like your own colleagues or family.
Do you feel outcast? Hear the good news that God especially loves you and knows how hard it is to hear and receive this gift.
There’s a great dinner party now, at the altar, and yet to come. You and everyone are invited.
[ii]Kenneth E. Bailey (2008) Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Downers’ Grove, IL: IVP Academic, p311. This whole sermon draws from Bailey.
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