This year, Luke is my favourite gospel. I find it earthy and ordinary, connected to the realities of life... Luke’s audience was mixed Jewish and Gentile, and also quite mixed economically and socially as well…a cross section of poor and rich. While there’s lots of common material with the other gospels, the stuff that’s unique to Luke tends towards emphasising the humanity and compassion of Jesus, and his concern for all who are needy. Many of the parables in Luke are about living a life of discipleship, a life connected to God’s purposes, which seems relevant to me, in this time and place.
So today I’d like to look at one of the parables in Luke’s gospel. [Read Luke 14:16-24]
As well as looking at some of the details of this parable, I’d like to look ‘through’ this parable to the gospel of Luke as a whole. This parable of the great dinner brings together some of the major themes or concerns that run through Luke’s gospel, these being: meals, costly discipleship, reversals of expectation about who’s in and who’s out, and concern for the poor and outcast.
This story does appear in Matthew as well, and it’s worth noticing the differences. In Luke’s gospel the host is just a house owner. In Matthew, the host is a king, throwing a wedding feast for his son. This immediately sets up a messianic subtext in the Matthew version– the host is God, the son is the messiah. In Matthew’s story, when the invited guests make their excuses, the king destroys them and their city…the focus of the story is the judgement of the king. Luke’s story by contrast is set among ordinary people, and the focus is on the graciousness of the host. Luke, as well as making a point about the final judgement, is more deliberate about tying this parable to Jesus’ message about how to act in relation to others.
Matthew has Jesus telling this story in the temple, in a theological argument. But the context of the parable in Luke is this: he’s at a house, at the invitation of a leader of the Pharisees, at a meal on the Sabbath. He’s just taught those gathered about dinner party protocol - where to sit (in the place of dishonour), and who to invite (the poor and the marginalised). These are the upside-down principles of table fellowship as they’re enacted by Jesus and his followers. Then one of the dinner guests says to Jesus: ‘Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’ It’s at this point that Jesus launches into the parable.
One of the links between this parable and the whole gospel is the theme of hospitality – the importance of dinner. In Luke, sharing a meal with people is a demonstration of the kingdom realised among us. The ‘final banquet’ – the symbol of the great celebration when God’s people come home to their eternal joy with Christ – this banquet is either occurring or being prefigured each time Jesus eats with others. In Luke, meals operate on at least three levels, which are all simultaneously present. These are the level of ordinary eating, the eucharist/communion meal, and the eschatological, or ‘final’ banquet. At the last supper, Luke ties all three levels together. In the upper room, Jesus says to his disciples: ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer, for I tell you, I will not eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’
One of the most important aspects of this banquet theme is the inclusive nature of the fellowship. Jesus welcomes and eats with those who are considered ‘sinners’. By doing this, Jesus creates a picture of the kingdom based on different principles from the religious and social elite. Some of the most important teaching Jesus does is round the meal table, and it’s also where some symbolic events are enacted…for example, it’s while they’re at dinner that the woman comes and anoints Jesus with her tears and perfume, in chapter 7. Jesus has chosen a dinner as the subject for this parable, because for him the image of a shared meal is an image of the kingdom of God, the place where God and people meet and enjoy each other.
Meals continue to be important in our lives today – both the sharing together of communion once a month (or once a week if you come to the evening services), and when we gather together in people’s houses to eat and drink and share our lives. When we do this, God is among us. How well does our hospitality reflect God’s values? Are our homes and tables open to all comers? How do we exercise hospitality to others…even within our own church community – do we just invite our friends round, or do we use the meal table as a chance to include and get to know people who are new, or that we don’t know very well?
The second theme that’s strong in this parable, and in the gospel, is picked up in the reference to the poor, crippled, blind and lame. Luke’s beatitudes are not ‘spiritualised’…there are blessings for the poor (not the ‘poor in spirit’ – that’s Matthew) and woes for the rich. The gospel of Luke begins with two famous passages about the mission of Christ: here’s a few lines from the ‘Magnificat’, the praise song of Mary in chapter 1: ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.’ And then in Luke 4, Jesus begins his ministry by quoting from Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ This quote echoes throughout the whole of Luke, and we can hear it in this parable, where the poor, the lame, and the blind, are brought in to share the banquet. Care for the marginalised is one of the dominant themes of this gospel, and it is clear Luke wants to see this aspect of God’s character lived out in the Christian community.
Archaeological research has uncovered documents that tell us about a Jewish religious sect operating around the time of Jesus – called the Qumran community. This group considered themselves elect, and pure. They barred those who were paralysed, lame, blind, deaf, mute, or simply old from participation in their community. Jesus sets out an ethic that’s directly opposed to this – those who end up at the banquet are the poor and outcast, while the socially elite make their excuses and are banished. The society we live in, in urban Auckland, has some similarities to the attitudes of the Qumran community. While people don’t talk of elect religious purity, there are social and financial barriers to accessing health, status, influence, and wellbeing. Even in churches, those who are un-beautiful, un-wealthy, or disabled are un-likely to get their photos on the glossy publicity brochures. I was horrified to hear a couple of years ago of a larger sized woman who wasn’t allowed to sing in a church choir not very far from here, because she didn’t look very good in the squitty little t-shirts that they had to wear.
At Cityside, we are not a social service agency, or a drop in centre. We do not have the capacity as a group to do much for the systematic problems facing the poor and marginalised in our city. Some of us as individuals enact Jesus’ welcome for the poor and outcast through our work, or through financial contributions to various organisations, or our personal voluntary lifestyle. But I want to ask the question, to what extent is this theme, this emphasis of Luke’s gospel, expressed in our community life together? Is there more we could be doing to ‘go out into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in’ those who suffer from prejudice, poverty, and oppression, and to eat together the feast of God?
This parable is structured by the host’s invitation and the guest’s excuses. These illustrate the theme of discipleship…specifically the cost of discipleship, which runs through the whole gospel. It is impossible to read Luke’s gospel and get to the end feeling like it’s possible to both follow Jesus, and live life on my terms, or the terms of ‘mainstream New Zealand.’ Many people were invited to dinner in this parable – we can see this as an invitation to follow Jesus, to enter his life, to participate in the kingdom of God. Many made excuses as to why they couldn’t be there. The representative excuses are - I need to see to my land, I need to try out my oxen, and I’ve just got married. Property, and family. These excuses pop up again later on in chapter 14 of Luke, where Jesus says ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple…and…none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.’ They are also repeated in chapter nine of Luke, where Jesus invites three people to follow him, each of whom makes an excuse. These excuses also relate to home and family. Throughout Luke’s gospel, the point is made that the calling of Jesus conflicts with the norms of family and social networks and will provoke his followers into a crisis of loyalties. It is impossible to serve two masters, and the gospel repeatedly depicts situations where people choose which ‘call’ they’re going to heed – that of Jesus, or of money, land and status.
It’s important to note that for some in the world, the choices are much starker than they are for us here in New Zealand. In some places to follow Jesus will literally mean rejection by family, threat of death, or being cut off from work and financial security, and thrown off land. But the principle still applies to us in some respects.
We talk a lot in the church about how wealth, and security and various other commitments can distract us following Christ, by interfering with our priorities and provoking us to worry. The story of the rich young ruler, who lacked ‘one thing’ – the ability to release his possessions – is thematically central to Luke’s gospel.
But it’s also worth noting how much family turns up in Luke’s gospel as an obstacle to discipleship. Jesus’ mother and siblings turn up once where he’s teaching and ask to see him and he ignores them, saying to the crowd – here are my mother and brothers and sisters, all you who have given up everything to follow me. For many in Luke’s community, they would have needed to hear that…their families might have disowned them and they relied on their new family, the church, to survive. I can relate to that. While I’ve never been rejected by my family for following Christ, I have certainly been mocked, confronted and misunderstood…and at those times have needed the message of Jesus to me…these followers of mine, they are your family. I can’t understand the emphasis of those in the Christian church who want to say that ‘family values’ are at the heart of the Christian message. I simply can’t see it in the gospels. In fact, I see the opposite. I see the message that often, the dysfunctions, expectations, pressures and demands put on us by family life – even healthy family life – can prevent us from full and free service of Jesus Christ. While I accept (with lots of qualifications) the idea that the family structure is a basic unit in society, and needs to be supported and made as healthy as possible, I don’t see how family life can be held up as the epitome of the life of genuine discipleship. Often, they’re in conflict, and at those times, Luke’s gospel tells us, we need to choose Jesus. However, it’s a balance, as this is the same Jesus who criticised the religious leaders who exploited a loophole in the law because they wanted to avoid supporting their aging parents. And another small footnote: please don’t hear me saying ‘the church’ when I say ‘Jesus’ or ‘the gospel’– in no way do I equate attendance of church activities with a life lived in the service of Christ.
In Luke, there’s an emphasis on the moment of choice…there’s an invitation, then an excuse. Jesus’ teaching on discipleship in this chapter is to ‘count the cost first’, before embarking on the life of faith. For most of people, it’s not like that. We set foot on this journey a while ago…and perhaps for many of us, the cost of following Christ wasn’t communicated very clearly in the evangelistic rally where we were first saved. Or we grew up in the family of God, and so this cost business didn’t factor too much – unless we saw our parents agonising over some hard choices. So for us, the cost counting isn’t as stark and one-off as it is in the stories. We need to count the cost every day, or every year, as we renew our choices in our life generally. As a new opportunity arises in the workplace, or we consider extending our mortgage by a couple of hundred thousand dollars, or we respond to a situation in our family life…we need to weigh these things up against the call of Jesus, to ask how these new demands improve or diminish our capacity to serve him in the world.
The final theme that I want to look at is the idea of the great reversal. The last verse of the parable: ‘For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner’, is actually Jesus speaking to the dinner guests. The ‘you’ is plural. Throughout Luke, people’s welcome to the final banquet is determined by their response to Jesus, and their compassion to others, not by the normal measures that are used by society to determine who’s ‘in’. Luke’s gospel warns that people may find themselves excluded from something in which they might have expected to participate. In chapters 11-13 of Luke, Solomon’s queen and the wicked people of Ninevah rise up to judge the present generation, which has been unable to see the Christ in this man who ate and drank with sinners. In chapter 13 there is a chilling image of people who had been with Jesus knocking on the door, saying ‘Lord, open up!’ and Jesus saying ‘I do not know where you come from.’ And then all these other people, from the east and west, from north and south, come and eat in the kingdom of God: ‘some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.’ Luke is concerned to point out that the religious leaders, and those with power in Israel, by grumbling against Jesus and having him condemned, were rejecting his invitation to join God’s kingdom. They used his table fellowship with sinners and healing on the Sabbath as ‘excuses’ for rejecting him. They should rather have recognised these things as signs of the kingdom in their midst. But, their blinkers were on…the blinkers of cultural norms and expectation.
Complacency is one of the great challenges to the church in the West. Even though we’ve become a minority institution, still we manage to believe that we have a monopoly on truth, and that we have all the answers. In this frame of mind, it becomes almost impossible to see where Christ really is in the world, and to be with him there. I don’t think we should operate in a constant state of self-critique and analysis…these things if overdone lead only to inertia. And in the end it’s impossible to step completely outside our society’s worldview, and the way it has shaped us since our birth. But I think we should check our assumptions from time to time, to ask the question – am I still following Christ, or a picture of the Christian life I formed ten years ago? Or a picture of the Christian life that has more to do with my culture – both my church culture, and the culture of the society I live in? How much has my image of Jesus been transformed by my own desires and interests, rather than my desires and interests being re-shaped by the gospel? And how can I ever presume to say who ‘out there’ in the world, or the church, is or isn’t going to eat bread in the kingdom of God?
So, four themes that run throughout Luke’s gospel, tied into this one parable: hospitality at the meal table, concern for the poor and marginalised, the cost of discipleship, and the reversal of expectations about who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. Jesus invites all of us to eat dinner with him, to feast from the table of God’s presence and provision. I think this parable asks us four questions: How do we participate in this feast with others in our lives now? Which ‘others’ do we extend that invitation to? What excuses do we make to avoid full participation in the feast ourselves? And what unchallenged assumptions do we have about what it means to eat this celebration meal?