[This sermon is avaiable in video format. Before listening, read the Scripture. https://drive.google.com/file/d/14OnoyRTCRDnLfve8Zfu0Zz3XHbFR4fZp/view?pli=1]
The reading picks up in the middle of a dinner in the home of a leader of the Pharisees to which Jesus had been invited. Other guests included Pharisees and lawyers (interpreters of the Law of Moses).
12He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’ 15One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, ‘Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’ 16Then Jesus said to him, ‘Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, “Come; for everything is ready now.” 18But 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.” 19Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.” 20Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.” 21So 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.” 22And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” 23Then 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. 24For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.”’
When I was a child my mother used to ring a rather loud gong to call us when dinner was ready. We’d drop what we were doing (once the gong sounded like my mother was getting annoyed with our delay) and race to the dinner table. There’s something comforting and pleasant about running to an already-cooked dinner. And yet, in the story Jesus told, the invited guests didn’t come running when they heard the slave’s ‘gong’: ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’
Perhaps some of you have experienced preparing a meal to which your invited guests, at least some of them, didn’t show up? If you have, you can sympathize with the host in Jesus’ story. But I also wonder whether any of you in that situation got so angry you went into the streets and lanes and brought the poor and marginalized, the ignored and disenfranchised, people who can’t invite you back, into our home and shared your dinner with them? The parable forces us to ask: Is this what Jesus wants us to do? If so, that’s rather unsettling for most of us.
Yet this parable isn’t often told in a way that unsettles those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus. Many preachers assume it’s a parable about the ‘great dinner’ God will host in a heavenly realm at the end of time. They warn those outside the church not to reject God’s invitation. When told this way, those of us in the church assume we’re okay, and that this parable doesn’t apply to us. Now, before we become too complacent, we need to take another look, paying closer attention to the story. When we do, we’ll discover that for some of us, it’s a call to repentance, to change our ways to better reflect God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. For others, it’s an assurance of hope and possibilities. It’s up to each of us to discern whether we’re among those who need to change, or those who need the assurance of hope. Are you ready for the challenge?
The parable begins simply: ‘Someone gave a great dinner and invited many.’ Before jumping to the conclusion that the ‘Someone’ refers to God or Jesus, and the dinner takes place in eternity, we should note the vagueness of this opening line. Jesus gives no hints to help us identify the ‘someone’ or the reason for the dinner. Not only that, the beginning of the story parallels the one Jesus was living at that moment, as one of the invited dinner guests in the home of a leader of the Pharisees. Other guests included men from the host’s social milieu, the religious elite. I wonder whether Jesus looked at him as he began his story? I wonder this because of what happened earlier.
At some point during the meal Jesus had said to his host, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours [the kind the Pharisee had invited], in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’ Jesus was affirming an ancient Hebrew Proverb, which his Pharisee host should have known: ‘Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor’ (Proverbs 22:9). He was also rebuking his host, who’d only invited people who could repay him. I can imagine the host squirming in his seat, feeling embarrassed, uncomfortable, and maybe even making a mental note never to invite Jesus to dinner again!
Jesus’ words redefined what it means to be blessed (giving generously to those in need rather than receiving good stuff for yourself), and redefined what God’s kingdom is like (a present reality to be lived now on earth and not merely a distant one). On hearing the words, one of the dinner guests speaks up in defense of his host and in opposition to Jesus, disagreeing with him about who is blessed. Perhaps he skipped school the day the proverb about being blessed because you generously share your bread with the poor was learned, and so politely corrects Jesus: ‘Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’ Today we might say, ‘Blessed is anyone who will go to heaven when they die.’ This shifts responsibility for kingdom living to God and some distant realm. I wonder how many of us would like this dinner guest to be right. I’ll confess I would. It’s rather comforting to think that God’s kingdom is something out there and we don’t now have to live now in a way the reflects God’s kingdom values to the world by doing things like welcoming people from very different social classes, people we’d rather not be seen with.
Instead of arguing with his fellow guest, Jesus told a story, a parable. Parables were commonly used, not to win arguments or answer questions (they raise more questions than answers), but to draw listeners into the story, to get them wondering: What do I think about this? Is it about me? For this reason, parables are often open-ended, encouraging listeners to imagine a possible ending, one that reveals truth about themselves and what Jesus wants from them now. Jesus told this parable in a vague and inconclusive way to challenge readers to prayerfully wonder: What do I think about this? What response is required of me? Who am I in this story?
Wondering about who we might be helps us figure out the other questions, so I begin with the characters in the parable, focusing on two—the Someone and the slave. Who is this someone who gave a ‘great dinner and invited many’? All the story reveals is that he was the owner of the house and had the means to host a great dinner for many guests; that is, a wealthy landowner. Which sounds like God, right? However, two things suggest otherwise, forcing us to wonder whether any one of us might be the someone.
First, it appears he invited the kind of people Jesus warned his dinner host not to invite, the kind who could repay him. We know this from the excuses the invited guests make. When the slave announced, ‘Come; for everything is ready,’ the invited guests ‘all alike [every last man of them] began to make excuses.’ The three excuses are representative of all the invited guests and they make clear what sort of people they were—men (and I mean males) of great wealth. They could afford to buy property (only possible for the very wealthy in Jesus’ day), five yoke of oxen (which meant they had large fields to plow) and take time out after their marriage. These were the privileged rich, the social equals of the Someone who invited them. It seems to me unlikely God would do the very thing Jesus denounced in his host by inviting only an elite wealthy few males to ‘dinner.’
Second, the host in the story experiences a major transformation that would be unnecessary for God to make. On hearing that his invited guests turned him down, the master became angry, and his anger led to a change of heart, not about giving a dinner (he wanted the dinner to go ahead) but about whom his guests would be. He totally changed the guest list and at once sent his slave into the streets and lanes, not to invite others from his social standing, but to bring in (not merely invite) ‘the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ The radical transformation of the master is intended to shock readers of this story. For a rich host to experience a radical change of heart that led to filling his house with the sorts of people he and his peers looked down upon, goes against the norms of society and is, in the minds of many, outrageous! It would be like the President, when his dinner guests failed to turn up at a State dinner, sent the troops the border to bring in the asylum seekers, the illegal immigrants, the poor and homeless. The Slovenian, Ulrike Beckmann, in her excellent study guide on this passage suggests we should title this parable, “the conversion of a rich man.”
The Someone in this story isn’t God which means we must ask ourselves: Am I, are you the Someone?
The second character to examine is the slave. He too experienced a transformation that empowered him to find and use his own voice. When he returned the second time with the poor, crippled, blind and lame, he said to the master, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done’ and that’s where a slave should have stopped. But the salve dared to add, ‘and there is still room,’ hinting that his master should invite more. Amazingly his master listens to the slave, sending him back into the roads and lanes to ‘compel people [anyone, everyone] to come in, so my house may be filled.’ Thanks to the slave’s initiative and courage to use his voice more people will be brought into the banquet hall. Do we need to be more like this slave and speak up against the rich and powerful; speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves?
And that’s where the parable ends. Did the house get filled? If so, it was with the sort of people with whom the Pharisees and lawyers at Jesus’ dinner would never dream of mixing. They wouldn’t be at that dinner. Would we?
The story has ended but Jesus still has a warning for his Pharisee host and guests: ‘For I tell you-all [it’s a plural pronoun]…,’ that phrase is the hint that Jesus was now out of the story and addressing his listening audience. ‘For I tell you [all] none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’ Jesus is now the host and the ‘dinner’ is a different one. It would be easy for us who call ourselves Christians to read this warning and think it doesn’t apply to us. After all, we accepted the invitation; surely, we’re okay? Such thinking is missing the point of the parable. We still need to prayerfully ponder questions like: Who am I in this parable? What is now required of me to live more in line with God’s Kingdom?
For those of us, both as individuals and as church communities, who have the means to invite people to our meals, we should identify with the Someone. The message for us is to be like the master in the parable and repent; experience the same transformation of heart. This will mean asking ourselves: Who are the people in our society Jesus wants us, his Church, to bring into our ‘feasts,’ our homes and churches; into God’s kingdom? When our ‘feasts,’ our tables, our homes, our churches are open to those in need and are places of joy and liberation for all peoples, then and only then will our living be a sign to the world of God’s kingdom. And then we’ll be blessed because we’re giving to the needy.
Others are more like the slave, who belonged to the same class of people Jesus wants at his dinner—the poor, people with disabilities, people different to us because of gender orientation, immigrant status, color, race or political affiliation. The message to them is one of encouragement and hope. Find your voice and speak up to those in power and privilege so that God’s kingdom goes beyond our narrow borders. Be assured of new possibilities because Jesus includes all and therefore so should his Church.
Who are you in this story? Are you called to repentance, to make the same change as the Someone? Or, like the slave, do you need to find your voice and speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves, giving them assurance of hope and possibilities?
Regardless, the dinner gong rings for all of us: Come, for everything is ready. Amen.
Beckmann, Ulrike. Her study guide on Luke 14 is at: https://worlddayofprayer.net/slovenia-2019.htm