Twenty-Eighth Day of Lent

Luke 19:11-28
11 While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once. 12 He said: “A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. 13 So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas. ‘Put this money to work,’ he said, ‘until I come back.’

14 “But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, ‘We don’t want this man to be our king.’

15 “He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it.

16 “The first one came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned ten more.’

17 “‘Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.’

18 “The second came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned five more.’

19 “His master answered, ‘You take charge of five cities.’

20 “Then another servant came and said, ‘Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. 21 I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.’

22 “His master replied, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?’

24 “Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.’

25 “‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’

26 “He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 27 But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.’”

28 After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

This is another parable about power, which follows yesterday’s in a startling way. I want to ask one question about this one, is there any evidence in the story to suggest that the third servant, who wrapped the money in a handkerchief, was wrong in his assessment of the character of the King? (Luk 19:20-21).

If we examine the evidence from the clues given in the story what picture emerges of this king.

  • He had sufficient power and authority to go to a different country to be made king (Luk 19:12). Incidentally, how did this happen? Was this through conquest and the forceful expansion of empire?

  • He was hated by his subjects who engaged in public protest against his kingship and he had sufficient power and was sufficiently secure that he could ignore them. (Luk 19:14-15)

  • He grew more wealthy off of the efforts of others (though if course he risked his own capital) (Luk 19:15-19).

  • The first law he passed as the new king was to enrich the wealthy and further impoverish the poor (Luk 19:26). This came even after some of his subjects advised him that the one who was getting the third servant’s money already had plenty (Luk 19:25).

  • He murdered his subjects and did it in such a way that he could watch (Luk 19:27).

Seems to me that the third servant’s assessment, in his fear, was absolutely accurate. This king was a hard man, taking whatever he wanted (like the kingship itself) and reaping personal benefit in places and in ways that he had never worked for. He was therefore a violent, greedy despot. And the political and social culture he promoted was one in which, if you bought in to it like the first two servants, you stood to gain more. But if you weren’t prepared to buy into it, or you resisted it, at best you were impoverished, at worst you were executed (Luke 19:26)

No wonder some of his subjects objected to this man becoming king. Who would want to live in such a kingdom? Who then is our example in the story? I would argue that it is certainly not the first nor the second servant who most closely model their behaviour on the attitude and behaviour of the king. So maybe it’s the third servant.

But what did he do that is worthy of emulation? His was behaviour motivated primarily by fear. And in his fear he did nothing and said nothing until confronted by the king.

I’m reminded of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Such was his power to make or break careers in the movie industry that no-one said anything against him even though people knew what he was doing, and so the women who suffered were forced to suffer in silence.

If the third servant’s assessment of the king is accurate then his silence is not to be admired or copied, rather his cowardliness is to be pitied or criticised. Or maybe he is as much a victim of bullying as others were in the country.

The third servant stayed quiet when he should have spoken out. He had first hand experience of the values of this powerful man, living with him as a valued servant (after all he was chosen as one of ten to be trusted with money). And I find myself wondering how many times I have stayed silent when I should have spoken. I find myself thinking of those who have suffered because I lacked the moral courage to speak out against wrong and injustice. I think about the Church in all its forms and how we have favoured being on the inside rather than standing with those on the outside and exposing oppressive behaviours. Or worse, where we have sided with the forces of injustice and oppression to preserve power and position.

The third servant is not one to be mimicked.

Scarily enough our example in the story may very well be the protestors. Yes. The ones who lost their lives. They knew the king and his value system but refused to live under such a regime (Luk 19:14). So they protested his coronation. Protested when he proposed taking wealth from one and giving it to another who already had plenty. They resisted his regime even to the point of being killed in a gratuitous way by that king for his entertainment. Whereas the third servant didn’t say anything but buried what he had, these people protested publicly at great personal cost.

These are the days of the overhaul of the benefits system in the UK when research consistently says that the impact of welfare reform hits hardest on the most vulnerable and that it doesn’t incentivise work.

These are the days of confused and confusing government regimes in the UK and in the US when those on the bottom rungs of the social ladder appear to be of least concern to government. Days of Brexit chaos. Days of wars and rumours of wars. Of the rise of the extreme right wing and renewed racism, anti-Islamism, anti-semitism and white supremacy.

Here in Northern Ireland the bar of orthodoxy is being set by those with power and those who fail to measure up are being excluded. Even theological issues which we believed had been settled long time ago, like the role of women in our churches, are being questioned, and dissent is growing, because the issue of the inclusion of women is a wedge issue for other inclusion debates like that for the LGBT members of our congregations.

Some of us don’t want that type of rule to be king over us. But nor do we want to slink away quietly and make no fuss, in these days when ministries and reputations are being killed stone dead.

This parable sounds frighteningly contemporary. Protesting the powers is a scary thing. This parable serves as a warning, that if you buy into this radical Jesus paradigm for the organising of the world, or the church, then be prepared for the fact that not everyone will be up for it. In fact the dominant powers may be set against it and you may have to bear a great cost. And of course, we know in the history of the church that many have suffered and died for kingdom values and still the Kingdom of God hasn’t come in its fullness.

After the recent killings at the Linwood and Al-Noor mosques in New Zealand many inspiring and moving stories emerged of communities, including Christian communities who acted in solidarity with their Muslim neighbours⁠.1 In Manchester, a photo of a local Christian man went viral as he stood outside a local mosque vowing to keep watch while they prayed.⁠2

Is there an injustice you need to speak out about, or a victim to whom you need to offer support. Why not make a call or write a card oR letter, or assure them personally of your solidarity?

God of gentleness and compassion
In Jesus you know of the violence
Of human injustice

Forgive us for failing to speak out
When we see a wrong being done
To a fellow human being.
Because of a concern for personal safety
Or reputational advantage
Or lack of concern

Give us the courage to speak out
When words are needed,
And courage to act
When righteous deeds are required.

May we be clearly seen and heard
As children of our good God




Twenty-Seventh Day of Lent

Luke 18:1-8
18 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”

6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

This is one of the few parables where an application of the story is supplied, possibly by Luke himself. In this case he describes it as a parable encouraging persistence in prayer. But this is not all there is to it I think.

Maybe you don’t remember the comic character Carol Beer, but you will remember her catchphrase which entered public consciousness during the early 2000s. Carol was played by David Walliams in the Little Britain comedy show. She worked variously in a bank, as a holiday rep and as a hospital receptionist, always face to face with customers. In response to even the most simple of requests she would type into her computer, slowly, deliberately and then read what was on the screen and say “Computer says no!”

It was funny because it was so frustratingly accurate. We’ve all experienced those occasions of being trapped in a “customer services” loop where no matter what we ask, an operative checks information stored on or generated by a computer and then makes decisions that defy common sense. Whether it’s the ads that pop up on our social media feeds or applications for credit we are all subject to anonymous algorithms and it’s hard to get to the human face of the big institutions. Government, health, education, financial, even church institutions can lose themselves behind an inhuman corporate wall against which a person can beat their fists and get nowhere.

So it’s significant here that the two characters are a widow, often poor, defenceless and powerless, and a judge, the symbol of the institutions of law and justice.The widow keeps on coming again and again looking for justice, but the judge is impervious. The widow has nothing by which she can move the institution to consider her plight and deliver a fair verdict. Again and again, justice is denied. Computer says no!

Yet even in our world, occasionally through sheer persistence like this widow, we can get through the bureaucracy and get to the human heart of an institution and find recourse to a good decision, someone who is willing to defy the algorithm or the say-so of the computer.

I wonder are there some important gospel values deep in this parable which are of relevance for us in our modern world. It might be in our banks which are closing down local branches in favour of online services. Or our broadband suppliers who offload customer services to a country where the labour is cheaper, or the EU which comes across as increasingly distant and bureaucratic. It might be the Brexit mess into which no-one seems to be able to insert any sense or wisdom. Or it might be our churches in which sometimes church polity and law takes priority over common sense or warm-heartedness.

The gospel value at stake here in this parable is the enduring importance of genuine human kindness and compassion. We should constantly be on the alert for those occasions when the institution denies justice to individuals; those times when the Law ignores the plight of a real, live, flesh and blood human being.

So that whenever Law results in unkindness to a human being, Christians must demand that the Law changes. Even if that Law suits us. Even if that Law is the Church’s Law. Whenever someone can hide behind an institution (or a helpline or a rule book or an algorithm) and fail to do the right thing because of it, we must protest it and resist it.

Whenever an institution demands the allegiance of someone to the extent that that someone must condone, defend or permit wrongdoing, that institution is a demonic power. Whenever the operative purpose and ethic of an institution is its own survival, such that it demands the ultimate loyalty of a person for that survival or will do whatever is necessary to ensure its survival, then beware, it is a fallen power. All institutions are subject to this, even local sports clubs and sewing bees. Even churches and denominations. When survival is all it will always be on the basis of human sacrifice. 

I love the writings of lawyer and theologian William Stringfellow who was active in the 1960s in the civil rights movement in the USA. He wrote extensively of principalities and powers and said, 

“transposed into contemporary language…the principalities become recognizable and all too familiar: they include all institutions, all ideologies, all images, all movements, all causes, all corporations, all bureaucracies, all traditions, all methods and routines, all conglomerates, all races, all nations, all idols. Thus, the Pentagon or the Ford Motor Company or Harvard University or the Hudson Institute or Consolidated Edison or the Diners Club or the Olympics or the Methodist Church or the Teamsters Union are principalities. So are capitalism, Maoism, humanism, Mormonism, astrology, the Puritan work ethic, science and scientism, white supremacy, patriotism, plus many, many more—sports, sex, any profession or discipline, technology, money, the family—beyond any prospect of full enumeration. The principalities and powers are legion.”

He says that the power behind every institution that demands our allegiance is Death. When an institution demands absolute allegiance, when it becomes an idol in our lives, we are serving Death, the power behind every principality. The challenge facing all of us in this world is to escape the power of Death. We think we can do it through our institutions, through establishing things in our name or whatever. We remain loyal even in the face of cruelty in the hope that the institution will remember us. But there is only one way of defeating Death.

As Christians we call it Resurrection. It is the power of God to listen to our pleas for justice and to respond with an immediate and effective remedy. And to the extent that we are responsive to the pleas of the powerless even, and perhaps especially, at the cost of our institutions we are living out of Resurrection power even while we live.

Stringfellow says,

“Resurrection…refers to the transcendence of the power of death and the fear or thrall of the power of death, here and now, in this life, in this world. Resurrection, thus, has to do with life and, indeed, the fulfilment of life before death... [Christ's] power over death is effective not just at the terminal point of a person's life but throughout one's life, during this life in this world, right now. This power is effective in the times and places in the daily lives of human beings when they are so gravely and relentlessly assailed by the claims of principalities for an idolatry that, in spite of all disguises, really surrenders to death as the reigning presence in the life of the world. His resurrection means the possibility of living in this life, in the very midst of death's works, safe and free from death.

Almighty, all-loving God
Author of life
Defeater of death
And upholder of the poor and defenceless

Grant to our Church
The power and authority
Of a human face.

Forgive us for our reliance
On rules and regulations
On impersonal interactions
And cold bureaucracy.
Forgive us especially
For the times we have 
Not done justice
For fear of damaging the reputation
Of the church

Give us the humility
To pray for the well-being of Your Church,
And to work peace, justice and equality
In the world
Even at the cost of the Institution.


Twenty-Sixth Day of Lent

Luke 16:19-31
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ 31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Luke’s Gospel is a difficult one for those of us living in the First World for so much of his account is a sustained challenge to those who, as this story puts it, “in their lifetime have received your good things,” (Luke 16:25). Luke aims so much of his Gospel at the economically wealthy and charges us with a responsibility for economic justice in our world.

As the late, lamented Clarence Jordan, farmer, theologian and one of the founders of Habitat for Humanity said it in his characteristic Southern American drawl, “[The bible] doesn’t say you shouldn’t serve God and Mammon; it says you cain’t.”

And so here we have yet another story which begins “There was a rich man who…” And this story gives a dramatic account of the negative impact of economic inequality on poor people, but also on the rich.

Just prior to the World economic Forum in Davos last January Oxfam published a report on world economic inequality.⁠1 In it they presented evidence which demonstrated that the world’s twenty-six richest people control more wealth that 3.8 billion of the world’s poorest people. Billionaires around the world saw their wealth grow by $2.5 billion A DAY in 2018, and that one per cent of the accumulated wealth of  the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos was equivalent to the entire health budget of Ethiopia, a country of 105 million people.

Theologian Ched Myers describes the story of Lazarus as a political cartoon. He says it opens with a portrait of decadent wealth (Luke 16:19) in which the anonymous rich man is clothed in extreme luxury (incidentally a form of luxury repeated in Revelation 18:12 as part of the doomed cargo mourned by profiteering merchants of burning Babylon). By contrast the poor man is named; he is Lazarus. He sits at the gate of the rich man, as a visible opposition to the conspicuous consumption of the rich man, longing to receive charity from the indulgent wastage of this man.

Both characters die. It’s a matter-of-fact statement, indicating perhaps that wealth is no insulation against the ultimate end. In this we should be reminded of the parable of the wealthy farmer for whom death came suddenly (see the reflection on Luke 12 from the 21st March). The spatial opposition is reversed here, the poor man goes to the bosom of Abraham and the rich man to Hades (Luke 16:22-23). Myers reminds us that this is not simply a crude reversal of fortunes in the next life. Instead, “it is a severe warning that we will all ultimately become victims of the social barriers we erect if we don’t deconstruct them in this life.”

There is something unsettling here about who really belongs to Abraham’s family. This has been a consistent theme of Luke’s Gospel (see Luke 3:8; 13:16; 13:28 and even 19:9). Many who presume entitlement to a relationship with Abraham will not sit with him in the heavenly banquet.

The rich man imagines that in this afterlife the old social order still holds and he requests Abraham to dispatch Lazarus to bring some water to ease his suffering. Later, when he requests help for his family Abraham refuses saying they have the witness of the Scriptures. But even at the end he defies the biblical witness and refuses. Abraham makes a startling comment in concluding the story to the effect that the danger of privilege and piety is that it could care less about the clear prophetic witness of justice. We claim commitment to biblical authority, but we chase the spectacular and prefer if someone comes to us “from the dead” (Luke 16:30).

This is such a complex and challenging story, that Myers believes is actually the key to understanding Luke’s message of discipleship. It challenges us, as Myers says “to either ‘live against’ or ‘die with’ the inhumane disparities that divide our social landscape.” It makes us think about the persistence of economic disparities, whose implications last beyond our life here; it challenges us about the place of biblical authority and prophetic witness; about how we crave the spectacular in our walk of discipleship at the expense of the hard work of doing prophetic justice.

It’s an obvious question really, but where and who are the rich man and Lazarus today? Where do you see a “great chasm” (Luke 16:26) between peoples and people groups? What does it require of us to act in prophetic witness against such a divide?


Twenty-Fourth Day of Lent

Luke 15:11-31
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

This is probably the most well-known parable of them all and challenging to make some comment on it that  hasn’t been made a thousand times before and better. But allow me a moment to offer some ideas on reading the parables. First, in reading and understanding the parables it helps to be a good story teller or reader of stories, so the more stories we read or movies we watch the better. Give it some thought and you can figure out what makes a good story for you. We’ll also see how good movies or novels move different people in different ways. The best stories are the ones that allow a multitude of ways in towards understanding.

No good story has only one meaning.

On the evidence of the parables Jesus was a master story-teller. And it seems reasonable to assume therefore  that there are multiple ways in to understanding a parable and not just one meaning. And often the routes to understanding shift as we get older or experience more of life, and this means we can return again and again to the parables and see new things in them. The new thing doesn’t undermine the truth of other perspectives we had in the past, it adds a layer to them.

A second thing to say is that very often Jesus leaves a parable unfinished (we saw that yesterday in the parable of the great Banquet). The unfinished element is where we can insert ourselves.

Today I want you to consider the possibility of a different way of reading this parable. It comes at the end of a set of three parables of lost things. In the first two the shepherd and the woman are responsible for losing something valuable which they shouldn’t have lost. They conduct a frantic search, find it and throw a party. It is reasonable to carry the same structure over into this parable.

If this is the case then we could consider the possibility that the father in the story is responsible for being careless by losing something valuable. In the first story the shepherd loses 1% of what was in his charge (one sheep out of one hundred). In the second story, the woman loses 10% of what was in her charge (one coin out of ten). In the third story the father loses 100% of what was under his own roof…his two sons.

Uniting a sheep with its flock is easy as is returning a coin to a purse. But with all the hurt and damage done in a dysfunctional household, the reconciliation is not as easy and demands a great deal of grace, forgiveness and patience on the part of those who are estranged.

And so to the unfinished part of this parable. The careless father meets his older son outside his house, he insists on relational language (compare verse 30 with verses 31-32), and assures him of his inheritance. The big issue for the parable is what happens next?

Take some time with this parable to imagine possible outcomes. What options are open to the older son? What about the younger son? Now imagine the story many years into the future, the morning after the father has died and the older boy inherits the land. What happens on that morning in large part depends on decisions made on the evening of the young boy’s return from his time away, many years previously.

Reconciling human beings is nowhere near as easy as reconciling sheep or coins. It takes courageous decisions which sometimes entail not getting what you’re entitled to in order to ensure better relationships. It often takes many, many years, indeed sometimes the best outcome for troubled relationships is a decision to set a trajectory rather than a destination or outcome.

Think of a troubled relationship in your life, one that has perhaps caused frustration or pain or one where you have difficulty reconciling yourself to its loss. If, today, you were released from the need to have a reconciliation, what would it look like to imagine setting a trajectory towards reconciliation?

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