Come to the party!
Proverbs 25:6 – 7; Ps 112; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14
A very good morning to you all on this the 11th Sunday of Trinity, or as Veronica has renamed it “Back to school Sunday”.
I am very pleased to be back with you today because last Sunday Jean and I were worshipping at Holy Trinity Church in Broadstairs, in the church where I was both christened and confirmed. Veronica would have appreciated the service as lots of incense was used.
We were there to celebrate the 80th Birthday of my sister-in-law, and it was a big family gathering and a party. To find a theme for the address for today is fairly straight forward as the short reading from Proverbs points directly to the Gospel from St Luke, which itself links in with the family party.
Did you know that Luke’s gospel has more mealtime scenes than all the others? If Luke’s vision of the Christian life, from one point of view, is a journey, then from another point of view it’s a party. Several stories end with a festive meal – like, for instance, the parable of the prodigal son which is in the next chapter of Luke. All these themes come together in the Last Supper and, finally, the reported meal at the end of the journey along the road to Emmaus.
In this chapter Luke has brought together two parables about feasting. The first we heard this morning, is not always recognized as a parable, because it looks simply like a piece of social advice, a piece of practical wisdom. So if you want to avoid embarrassment in front of your fellow guests, then follow this tip. But Jesus didn’t come to offer good advice; and often his own conduct seemed calculated to cause embarrassment. In any case, Luke tells us it’s a parable; in other words, we ought to expect it to have at least a double meaning.
One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched… When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honour at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honour, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honoured in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
What is Jesus really talking about? The rest of the chapter makes it clear that he’s talking about the way in which people of his day were jostling for position in the eyes of God. They were, so it appeared to him, eager to push themselves forward, to show how well they were keeping the law, not to benefit others, but to maintain their own purity. They were precisely the sort of people he now found himself with, people who would watch for any sign of irregularity, even frowning upon actions, such as Jesus’ healing a man on the Sabbath; which they would have accepted on any other day but not the Sabbath. And Jesus, throughout this section of Luke, is turning things upside down. He is associating with the wrong kind of people. He is touching the untouchable and going out of his way to speak to the nobodies.
The parable, then, isn’t so much good advice for social occasions – although there is a very practical human wisdom in the warning against pride and arrogance. No! The real meaning is to be found in the warning against pushing oneself forward in the sight of God. In Jesus’ day it was all too easy for the well-off and the legally trained to imagine that they were superior in God’s sight to the poor, and to those without the opportunity to study, let alone practise, the law. And even today, this is a trap that Clerics, Readers, and all other Christians can fall into.
At the same time, in the world for which Luke was writing, there would also be another wider meaning. Within Luke’s lifetime thousands of non-Jews had become Christians – they had entered, as you might say, into the dinner party prepared by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Many Jewish Christians, as we know from Acts, had found this difficult, if not impossible, to understand or approve. They were so eager to maintain their own places at the top table, that they could not grasp God’s great design to stand the world on its head.
Pride, notoriously, is the great cloud which blots out the sun of God’s generosity. If I reckon that I deserve to be favoured by God, not only do I declare that I don’t need his grace, mercy and love, but I also imply, that those who I think don’t deserve it, shouldn’t have it. Jesus spent his whole life breaking through that cloud and bringing the fresh, healing sunshine of God’s love to those in its shadow. The Pharisees could watch Jesus all they liked, but the power, both of his healings, and of his explanations, was too strong for them. The small-mindedness which pushes itself forward and leaves others behind, is confronted with the large-hearted love of God. All Christians are called to the same healthy dependence on God’s love, and should have the same generosity in sharing it with those in need.
The last two verses are linked more with the next passage, but still have a message for us. Bishop Tom Wright, who has written many good commentaries on the Gospels said, that once, many years ago, he preached a sermon on this passage. He emphasized the extraordinary way in which Jesus tells his hearers to do something that must have been as puzzling then as it is now. Don’t invite friends, relatives and neighbours to dinner – invite the poor and the disabled. The sermon had a strange effect. In the course of the next week he and his wife received dinner invitations from no fewer than three people who had been in church that day. The Bishop didn’t know which category of guest he was in and he was too polite – or afraid – to ask. This time it looks as if the passage is real advice. The parable of the supper, which immediately follows, is a parable all right, but Jesus really seems to have intended his hearers to take literally his radical suggestion about who to invite to dinner parties.
Social conditions have changed. Once it was easier when people lived in small villages in which everyone knows everyone else’s business, when meals are eaten with the doors open and people wander to and fro at will, but now in many parts of the world this has changed and it may seem harder to put it into practice. Many Christians would have to try quite hard to find poor and disabled people to invite to a party – although you will know some who do just that.
But nobody can use the difference in circumstances as an excuse for ignoring the sharp edge of Jesus’ demand. In particular, they cannot ignore it in the light of the parable that follows. You will remember the story about people who very rudely snub the invitation to a splendid party. They make excuses of the usual kind. The householder, having gone to all the trouble of organizing and paying for a lavish feast, is determined to have guests at his table, even if he has to find them in unconventional locations. The original guests have ruled themselves out, and others have come in to take their place. Once again the invited and expected guests are the Jews, waiting and waiting for the kingdom, only to find, when it arrived, that they had more pressing things to occupy them.
Of course, in Luke’s day many Jews had become Christians. But the majority of the nation, both in Palestine and in the scattered Jewish communities in the rest of the world, were not. Instead, (as it must have seemed to those first Jewish Christians), God’s messengers had gone out into the roads and hedgerows of the world, getting all kinds of unexpected people to join in the party. Not just Gentiles, but people with every kind of moral and immoral background, people quite different from them culturally, socially, ethnically and ethically.
But there is a another twist to this parable, because it bends back, as it were, on itself, returning to the challenge which Jesus gave in those last verses. The party to which the original guests were invited was Jesus’ kingdom-movement, his remarkable welcome to all and sundry. If people wanted to be included in Jesus’ movement, this is the sort of thing they were joining.
Once again, therefore, the challenge comes to us today. Christians, reading this anywhere in the world, must work out in their own churches and families what it would mean to celebrate God’s kingdom so that the people at the bottom of the pile, at the end of the line, would find it to be good news. It isn’t enough to say that we ourselves are the people dragged in from the country lanes, to our surprise, to enjoy God’s party. That may be true; but as those of you who have done an Alpha course, or experienced a Cursillo weekend will know, party guests are then expected to become party hosts in their turn.
Jesus is asking you to invite non-Christians to come in and share His party, to share, His love, His joy and His forgiveness which is available to all.