Twenty-Third Day of Lent

Luke 14:16-24
16 Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. 17 At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ 18 “But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’

19 “Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me. 20 “Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’ 21 “The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’

22 “‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’ 23 “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. 24 I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’”

This is an elaborate parable with lots of fine detail which is told one Sabbath day while Jesus was eating at the home of a prominent Pharisee (Luke 14:1).  In our reflection from 23 March we looked at the first feasting parable he told on this occasion, this is the second, but it has a curious twist.

In the first parable, the guests hustle and bustle to get the very best places at the feast. In this one, the guests don’t even bother to turn up!

This is self-consciously a great banquet, being thrown by a wealthy individual who has invited many people. In a tradition which still persists in conservative areas of the Middle East a double invitation is sent. The first one is designed to find out how many people will come. Based on this information the host will decide what meat and on how much will be provided, which will involve the slaughter of a chicken (2-4 guests), a duck (5-8), a kid (10-15), a sheep (15-35) or a calf (35-75).

The appropriate animal is killed and then must be eaten entirely that same evening. So if you have responded positively to the first invitation you are duty-bound to turn up. Then, when the meat is cooked and all the arrangements are in place, a second invitation is extended to all those who said they would come to tell them that everything is ready for them.

Only this time, they don’t.

The excuses given are paper thin. Ken Bailey, a theologian who spent his career based in Lebanon describes just how thin the excuses are. Anyone having bought a field in that culture would know the entire history of the piece of land. To suggest they must go and inspect it having bought it is ludicrous (Luke 14:18). Likewise, no-one would buy a yoke of oxen without first having tested them. To do so after buying them is the height of foolishness (Luke 14:19).

The one who just got married doesn’t even offer an excuse, in effect he says, “I’ve just got married, so……I’m busy!” (Luke 14:20). To suggest he couldn’t even spend an hour or two away from his new bride is just rude. Bailey suggests it is clear that the wedding didn’t happen that day because there would not be two big social events in the village in competition. But he doesn’t even ask to be excused, he just says “I can’t come!”

And so, deeply angry and offended the host invites all those who didn’t in the first place respond positively or didn’t get an invitation. Remember the last time we talked about a banquet parable we mentioned that invitations were issued in confidence that they invite would be reciprocated. The poor didn’t accept the invitation because they knew they couldn’t reciprocate. So now the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame are invited in…with no expectation of reciprocation (Luke 14:21). Not only that, but since there is still room, the servant goes out to those who have been excluded from society entirely, those who live outside the village in the roads and country lanes round about.

This is a parable about the Kingdom. There is a sense that in Jesus the Kingdom has come near, but there are some who find excuses not to follow him. Manson writes, “God gives the Kingdom; but the accepting of God’s gift means the rejection of many other things. The Kingdom of God offers the greatest gifts; but it demands exclusive loyalty and whole-hearted devotion. The great feast is a feast and not a distribution of free rations. Those who wish to enjoy it must come in. They cannot have portions sent out to them while they busy themselves with other things.”

One final note, like many of the parables Jesus doesn’t finish the story. We leave it while the servant is heading outside the village to ‘compel’ others even more unworthy to come in (Luke 14:23). The invitation is so unbelievable that those outside must be strongly encouraged to accept. In our imagination therefore the invitation is still doing the rounds, the house is not full and there is still time to accept.

There are many ways of thinking about this parable but I think of it in the context of communion. The invitation to the table is extended to all, but some make excuses for non-attendance. And so the invitation goes to those who are considered unacceptable and they find a welcome that is scarcely believable to the table of the one hosting the banquet. None of those who considered themselves worthy get a morsel.

Hospitable God,
Who opens the door
And sets the table for
The ones who are considered unclean.

Forgive us when we are ungrateful
Or treat your invitation with disdain
Or consider ourselves worthy
While others aren’t.

Give us an understanding
Of the scandal of the Gospel.
The invitation that is extended to the unworthy
And the unclean
And the unacceptable

Of which I am the foremost