This past week I came across an article in the November 20, 1978, HERALD-TELEPHONE that began like this:
When you step into a room, even though no one in that room knows you or has seen you before, they will make 10 decisions about you based solely on your appearance. They may make many more, but you can be assured that they will make these:
1. Your economic level.
2. Your educational level.
3. Your trustworthiness.
4. Your social position.
5. Your level of sophistication.
6. Your economic heritage.
7. Your social heritage.
8. Your educational heritage.
9. Your success.
10. Your moral character.
TO BE SUCCESSFUL in almost any endeavor, you must be sure that these decisions about you are favorable, because in that first impression you make--you are what you wear. . .
Like it or not, it is that first impression which will dictate future associations . . . [William Thourlby, Universal Press Syndicate, p. 21]
It occurs to me that we have a number of visitors in our congregation this morning. I wonder if you all could stand, so we can have a good look at you!
In all seriousness, I think the author of this article was full of beans. But whether there is any truth in what he said or not, here--in church--we clearly recognize that this is not the way it is supposed to be. People should not be judged by appearances, for God does not judge by appearances. God sees what is inside, and judges by what it is in the heart.
In our New Testament lesson this morning, Jesus carries this basic religious insight a giant step further. It is not only appearances that do not matter. Neither do the circumstances we associate with those appearances. Education and economic level and social position and success and even moral character are not the ultimate criteria for admission to the great dinner party that is Jesus' metaphor for the commonwealth of God.
Jesus' parable of the great dinner party is one of the less subtle that he told. In fact, it seems to be told with great exaggeration. It is occasioned by the comment of a fellow guest at a sabbath meal in the home of one of the leading religious authorities. Today we might think of a bishop or the pastor or rabbi of a prominent congregation who has invited some of his fellow citizens and leaders of the community for dinner. In the preceding verses of Luke's gospel, some tension arises regarding Jesus' teaching about humility and the place of those who are not among the social elite. Where are the poor, where are the lame, where are the blind and the disabled, at this splendid community event? Jesus' comments would have made everyone uneasy.
In an apparent effort to relieve the tension, one of the dinner guests pipes up, "Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!" In other words, What a wonderful place heaven is going to be! In heaven we won't have to concern ourselves with all these worldly social distinctions. So maybe we shouldn't be too worried about who is or isn't present at this particular meal occasion. God will take care of us and all those whom we have ignored! Jesus' parable of the great dinner party forges its way into this setting like a bull in a china shop, upsetting all of the tables of social convention.
Imagine someone who gives a great dinner and invites many guests. The custom of the culture would have obliged those who did not expect to attend to indicate so in advance. Thus, the host already had a preliminary indication of who all was coming. When the time is at hand, the host sends his slave to notify all the guests that they are now to come. But, to a person, every one of them now has an excuse. The slight is real, and in light of the mores of Oriental hospitality, it is major. There is no way that something like this could really happen! There might be the occasional guest whose circumstances have suddenly changed, so that he can no longer attend. But for all of the guests to be so indisposed strains credulity.
Yet the genius of Jesus' parable is to make each of the excuses offered seem valid. One says he has just bought a piece of land, and must go out to see it. In our setting, this might translate into buying a house, and needing to go close on the deal. Another says he has just bought five yoke of oxen, and must try them out. This might translate for us into contracting to buy a new car, or a major piece of equipment, and needing to have it checked out before completing the payment. A third says he has just been married, and can surely be excused on that account. We can all relate to that. These all seem to be important reasons for not attending the party.
Moreover, there seems to be some legal precedent for all these reasons. Our Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy sets forth three cases for excusing someone from the conduct of war, even war that has God's blessing. When the LORD their God leads them into battle, the people are to excuse any man who has built a house but not yet lived in it, any man who has planted a vineyard and not yet eaten of its fruit, or any man who has become engaged to a woman but not yet taken her as wife. Any such man is to be dismissed and sent back home.
Well, the excuses of the three men in Jesus' parable are parallel in circumstance, though not exactly the same. Which may be a subtle way by which Jesus suggests that they are not entirely valid. In any event, their cumulative effect is clear. The people who have been invited to the dinner party really must not want to come. They are making up the best excuses they can. Any one of these excuses might seem perfectly legitimate but, taken together, they persuade us that something else is going on. There is simply no way that all of the invited guests could simultaneously come up with valid excuses for declining the invitation and standing up their host. Some insincerity and false pretense must be at the bottom of all of this.
The anger of the host comes as no surprise. His invited guests have roundly insulted and embarrassed him. But he is not about to be snubbed. So he gives his slave instructions to go out into the streets of the city and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. When the slave returns to report that he has done this and there is still room, his master sends him out again, this time into the surrounding countryside, to compel whomever he can to come in. The master is determined that his house be filled, and will fill it with all who can be found to come. Since none of those who were originally invited will come, all of those who will come were not originally invited.
I said that Jesus' parable is told with great exaggeration. The exaggeration lies in the extremes of response to the dinner invitation, and in the sharp distinction between those who were originally invited and those who were not. It is hardly possible to imagine that a real dinner party could ever turn out like this. Yet Jesus surely wanted this parable to be taken seriously.
Now, it would be a mistake to regard the master in the parable as a literal figure or image of God. It is hard to think of God reacting so peevishly when people make excuses and fail to show. Yet this parable clearly speaks of a tendency of God to act in ways contrary to what God's assumed adherents would expect. This parable clearly speaks of the indiscriminate inclusiveness of God. Apparently, God really is not much concerned about economic and educational and social position. God may not even be very particular when it comes to moral character and success. What God wants is to "fill up the place," to make sure that every bit of the banquet gets consumed.
It intrigues me that, near the end of Jesus' parable, the master tells his slave to "compel" people to come in. Is this a way of saying that God insists upon feeding even those who have no wish to be fed? In any case, I think Jesus is saying that God has prepared this big dinner party and, if there are any of us who enjoy being on the guest list but really don't want to come, let's be honest about that and stop fooling ourselves with our well-crafted but ultimately unconvincing excuses. Moreover, if we think the party can only happen if we show up, we have another thing coming. As far as God is concerned, the party is not going to go to waste. There is no shortage of people to be invited.
I have been speaking of God's great dinner party as if it is readily apparent what that means. In Jesus' parable it is a metaphor for the kingdom, or commonwealth, of God. But what is that? In the Gospels, the kingdom of God is basically when and where God rules. It is life that is lived in accordance with the Divine purpose. The Lord's Prayer links together the honoring of God's name and the doing of God's will with the coming of God's kingdom--"on earth as it is in heaven". That suggests to me the experience of the kingdom of God as a commonwealth, a circumstance of time and place, in which the full richness of God's gift of life is shared in community. The idea of a banquet or a dinner party, to which all are invited and in which all can share, is perhaps as close as we can come to expressing the joy and delight and real social significance of this idea in our human existence. Where people come together without social distinction or discrimination, where they mutually enjoy being together and eating and drinking together and engaging in conversation together, receiving all of this as a gift to be celebrated and not as a trial to be endured and not as a payment or reward, there and then the kingdom of God has come into our midst.
I do not suppose that Christianity has a monopoly on the distribution of the kingdom of God on earth. Christian churches, therefore, are not the only franchises where a taste of God's gracious presence and rule can be found. But it is central to our identity that we seek to be such a place. No church or other religious community in my experience is able to match in its life the indiscriminate inclusiveness that is suggested by Jesus' parable. But almost every church and religious community I have ever known has recognized in principle, if not in fact, that it is called to be a welcoming community, not some kind of exclusive social club. The difficulty comes with putting what we say we know into practice.
Groucho Marx is remembered for saying that he did not want to belong to any club that would accept him as a member. Christian churches have a different problem. Actually two different problems. One is that we are not as accepting of some as of others. Basically, we tend to be less accepting of those whom we perceive to be most unlike ourselves. I do not know of any organization that does not behave this way, but we do know that is not exactly how it is supposed to be! The other problem is that churches often actually do accept a whole lot of people who might not actually be first on each other's list of folks they would like to hang out with. We do not all measure up to each other's standards or ideals. This puts us in a double bind. On the one hand, churches often look hypocritical to outsiders because we are not as inclusive as we say we are. That is a valid judgment against us. But on the other hand, churches also often look hypocritical to outsiders because of who all we have let in. We are too discriminating in some ways for some, and not discriminating enough in other ways for others.
The saving grace for us all comes when we find our identity as a Christian church in the teaching and ministry of Jesus Christ. Let me say a word about this. There is a widespread view that Christianity is defined by its beliefs. What makes us Christian is that we subscribe to a certain set of doctrines or teachings, according to this view, and we are Christian only if we affirm such beliefs. To me, that puts the cart before the horse. All of what we believe as Christians should serve to point us to Jesus, whom we call the Christ. It is from Jesus that we receive our understanding of who we are called to be.
The parable of the great dinner party is in many respects a parable of the life of Jesus himself. It reminds us of the congruity between the message and the man. He who ate in the house of a leading religious leader also ate with tax collectors and sinners. He kept company with all sorts and conditions of human beings. He and his disciples feasted while the disciples of John the Baptist fasted. He practiced a kind of "open table fellowship" that, in the culture of his day, represented a clear and compelling rejection of established social boundaries and distinctions. Recent biblical scholarship re-asserts this, but it is really nothing new. An old Gospel hymn by P. P Bliss declares, "Whosoever will may come." It is, however, a lesson easily ignored and forgotten.
We look to Jesus to understand who we are called to be. Above all, we look to Jesus because he points us to God. If we are Christian, it is because we find in Jesus, whom we call the Christ, one who reveals to us the heart and mind of God. Jesus helps us to understand the will and purpose, the judgment and justice, the graciousness and goodness, of God. Most simply, Jesus puts us in touch not just with ourselves but with God.
That is what Jesus' parable of the great dinner party is about--putting us in touch with ourselves and God. Inviting us into the kingdom--or as some now like to say, the "kin-dom"--the dominion in which all of us recognize each other as kin. Letting us be party to the banquet of life that God keeps on setting before us. Pointing out to us how we often refuse this gift, turn down this invitation. Exposing our excuses for what they are. Helping us to see the limits of our own affections, the misplacement of our priorities, the ungraciousness of our attitudes toward others, the folly of regarding ourselves as the sole recipients of the Divine benevolence and grace.
Repeatedly, insistently, undeterredly, God keeps on putting out the invitation to come to dinner. It is not exactly a casual affair, but you may come as you are. Occasionally someone shows up who has run out of excuses. More often, people come because a good meal is hard to find. AMEN.