This sermon was originally published on Reading Sermons. The sermon date was Wednesday March 17, 2010.
Scripture: Luke 14:1-24
Volume 47 No. 27
Text Luke 14:12-14
1. The Great banquet
2. The Sabbath Dinner
3. The Kingdom Feast.
One of Jesus' best-known parables is the parable of the great banquet. It is even set to music in the familiar song "I Cannot Come." But it is also a perplexing parable. Who is the banquet host? We most naturally suppose he is God, but when we think further about him, we realize that he acts in ways that do not fit with God's character. Let's look at the parable and its context more closely.
This whole section of the chapter is about dining, dining with Jesus. The parable itself of course is about dining, and since it's a parable, we know it has something to say about dining with Jesus. Besides that, Jesus told the parable at a Sabbath dinner, and that dinner tells us something more about eating with Jesus. Then finally, one of the guests raises the subject of the kingdom feast, and Jesus tells us something about that meal as well. So, these are our three points: The great banquet, the Sabbath dinner, and the Kingdom feast.
In the society and culture of Jesus' time it would be an almost unthinkable offense to snub an invitation to a banquet. Hospitality was everyone’s solemn obligation. The only people not included under this social system were the moral and social outcasts, and these included the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Upstanding people assumed that the troubles of these outcasts proved they were being punished by God for their sins or for the sins of their forebears. True, according to the law of Moses such people were to be given alms and food from the Levites' supplies kept for that purpose, and they might also glean if they were physically able. But, as in our own time, this "welfare" only drove home their shame.
The duty to be hospitable included accepting invitations to dinner as well as inviting others to dinner. Refusing such an invitation would be an outrageous insult to the host and would mark the intended guest as a social misfit. The only way you could get away with your refusal would be if the host was himself an outcast like one of the traitorous publicans. Some of these outcasts were rich, but they were regarded as despised by God because of their sins.
The host of this parable may have been just such an outcast. He may have deserved being snubbed by his invited guests because of greedy and shady business dealings. Whatever his faults may have been, each of his guests treated his invitation in the same way, implying that he didn’t deserve social acceptance and that they were right to turn him down. He wanted to be admitted to polite society, but they rejected him.
The urgency and even panic in the host's voice shows how desperate he was to be accepted. He cannot bear the disgrace of having prepared food ready for so many and having no guests to eat it. An empty house would be worse than a house full of outcasts. So he sends his servants out to bring in enough people, poor, lame, blind and crippled though they are, to show the "snooty" citizens that he doesn't need them. But he still has empty seats, a telltale sign of his rejection. So he orders his servants to go out and find innocent and unsuspecting travelers and bring them in, by force if necessary. This certainly does not sound like God. But we'll come back to that point. Now we will go to the Sabbath dinner.
Jesus told the parable of the great banquet during a Sabbath dinner at a prominent Pharisee's house. Sabbath dinners were very high religious and social occasions. They were not to be interrupted by lesser matters that could be handled later. The man with dropsy was apparently part of a setup to test Jesus, and the dinner guests were watching him closely to see if he would put the sick man's interests ahead of their Sabbath dedication and obedience to God and his commandment.
It is hard to say exactly what disability this man had. It may have been painful since Luke says he was "suffering" from it, but it is not important for us to know that. We do need to know what Jesus is teaching those who were listening. After healing him Jesus asks "If one of you has a son or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will he not immediately pull him out?" Of course their answer would be "yes", not only regarding a son but even regarding an ox. That is to say, they themselves believed that God would not condemn a person as a Sabbath breaker if he rescues an animal from drowning on the Sabbath even though it involves hard work. Jesus' point in asking this question is to teach them, and us, that it is not necessary to know how long a person has had a disabling condition nor how long it could still be tolerated. What is necessary for them, and for us, to know is that the need of the disabled man for help is as demanding and urgent as that of the drowning ox or even the drowning son, and that God expects them, and us, to help such a person in need.
Luke tells us that the dinner guests watched Jesus carefully, but also that Jesus watched them carefully. He noticed how each guest chose the best open seat. Rather than commenting on their selfishness in doing that, he gives what must have sounded like good practical advice but what was in fact a parable about the kingdom of God. He advised them, "when someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the places of honor, 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 man 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 honored in the presence of all your fellow guests."
Why does Luke call it a parable? Because Jesus isn't giving social advice but a stern and compassionate warning. When he speaks of a wedding feast they must have caught his point because that was a well-known figure of speech for the final coming and judgment of the Messiah. He is appealing to them to humble themselves in their own eyes before they attempt to join their divine host at the feast lest he will have to humiliate them. If they do not, the same self-centered indifference that they showed to the disabled man and that they showed in their choice of seats will blind them to their arrogant pride. And God will not admit the proud to his wedding dinner. Jesus sums up with these familiar words, "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
Now he speaks directly to the dinner host. He says, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; 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."
Imagine how this must have sounded to the Sabbath dinner host. In front of all his guests he is told that he shouldn't have invited the people he did. For that matter, imagine what would happen to you and your place in society if you stopped inviting your friends and acquaintances to come over, and instead searched out the marginal people Jesus stipulated. You would probably end up on the social margins right along with your new set of guests. It certainly would have meant the end of the tightly knit social fabric of life in that biblical time if the dinner guests and their friends had done it. Jesus' words probably confirmed the opinion of the dinner host and his guests that Jesus was at best a fool if not much worse.
But what about us. We are here in church because we at the very least want to honor Jesus. And most of us would go beyond that to say that we trust in Jesus and intend to follow his instructions. Well, what do you think about Jesus' instructions here? Is he exaggerating again? He does that some times for emphasis, talking for example about hating our spouses and children for the sake of the kingdom. Or does he mean these words quite literally? Does he really want us to change our whole pattern of social interaction? This brings us to our third point, the kingdom feast.
The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the righteous, and they talked about it as a kingdom feast. So when Jesus' talked about the resurrection of the righteous, one of the guests was moved to say, "Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God." Well, just who will eat at that feast? That depends on the host and on his choice of which people he will invite. We have already talked about the host in the parable of the great banquet, and about the host at the Sabbath dinner. Now what about the host at the kingdom feast.
Of course, it is Jesus himself. His fellow guests at the Sabbath dinner probably didn't believe that, but we do. We confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah who will judge the living and the dead. He will restore all things, and he will rule forever as David's Son. He will bring home his bride, his people, his church. That is why his return is pictured as the wedding feast of the kingdom. Now, what kind of people will he invite?
There can hardly be any doubt about who some of his guests will be from what he says in these verses. Jesus is not a hypocrite, he will not give instructions to others that he himself will not keep. When he commands his followers, he commands them to do as he does, to follow him. This means that he will invite people like those he told his host at the Sabbath dinner to invite; the poor, crippled, lame, blind, and the people who have compassion and share their resources and possessions with them.
You may be thinking, "Jesus said the people who invite those outcasts will receive their reward, so they must be his guests. But he didn't say anything about the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind being there too." Really now, do you think Jesus will reward disciples for inviting such people but not invite them himself? His ministry from beginning to end was one of compassion to this kind of people.
In chapter four Luke describes Jesus at the beginning of his ministry as quoting Isaiah's words, "The Spirit of the Lord is on me; therefore he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Then he said, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."
In chapter seven we hear John the Baptist in prison sending his servants to ask if Jesus is really the Christ. He had heard how much time Jesus was giving to sick and disabled people instead of preaching to the crowds, and he was perplexed. Remember, the general attitude toward poor and disabled people was that God was punishing them for their sins. So healing them must have seemed like someone in our own times emptying out the prisons. Healthy and able-bodied people were probably not at all pleased about these healings.
Jesus sent this reply back to John, "Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me." How strange it is that even a good and godly man like John should need this warning that the Christ is determined to show great compassion to marginal and outcast people.
It is true that some Bible passages describe God's sinful people as being like those who have disabilities. A blind person represented the spiritual blindness of people who do not know where they are going. A deaf person pictured the hard hearts of people who would not listen to their God. A lame person portrayed the debilitating affects of sin. This is why members of the priestly clan might not be priests if they had defects, disabilities or diseases.
But, God did not regard the disabled priests as outcasts. Just the opposite, they were representatives of the rest of the people, the picture of why ceremonially perfect sacrifices and priests were needed to cleanse them from their sins. So God's excluding people from the priesthood did not mean that the healthy and able-bodied had a right to treat the diseased and disabled with contempt. If they did they were rejecting themselves, for they also were disabled. In short, there was no excuse for Jesus' hearers to be contemptuous of people with diseases or disabilities as outcasts or sinners. Neither their scriptures nor Jesus himself gave them reasons for such an attitude.
We today also have no reason to be proud of ourselves in this matter. The way the church typically restricts the celebration of the Lord's Supper gives us an example of this same attitude towards people with disabilities. In I Corinthians 11 Paul rebukes some believers for going ahead with the Lord's Supper and ignoring the poor members who had too little to eat. He tells them that they are not discerning the body of Christ when they act this way. By this he does not mean the sacramental body in the elements but the church body of believers. He makes this clear in the next chapter with his powerful description of the church as a body. The self-examination he commands these careless members to conduct, is to bring them to realize that their neglect of the marginal church members is a deadly sin against the Church, the body of Christ, and therefore against the Lord himself.
But what we ourselves too often do with this call to self-examination is to turn it into an intellectual inquiry as to how much the professing Christian knows about the catechism or about the church and its rules. These things are valuable to know, and people should know them if they have the capacity. But we should not use this examination to exclude members with developmental disabilities from communion. Perhaps they can not give intellectually complete answers to the council's questions, or perhaps they cannot speak clearly enough to be understood, but their faith in Christ as their Savior is unmistakable from their demeanor and from their body language. If we exclude them from the Lord's Supper because they cannot put their faith into words, we are denying them the very sacrament which our Lord instituted to convey himself to believers without words through the touch, the taste, the smell and the color of the elements. That is, we are doing the same thing the church in Corinth was doing. We are ignoring and excluding poor and disabled people from participating as equals with ourselves in the Lord's supper
We are talking about the kingdom feast, and the Lord's Supper is a rehearsal for that feast. That's why the Lord said during the last supper that he wouldn't drink wine again till he drinks it new in the kingdom. That's why he said we should celebrate it till he comes again. Well, that's also why we must get it right, now, during the rehearsal. If we exclude people with disabilities who belong with us, we will be in danger of getting ourselves excluded when the real feast begins.
Now, let's go back to the parable of the great banquet. Does it describe God in some way? It is true that God chose the Jewish nation first to carry out his strategy to save the world, and the people first invited in this parable might stand for this nation. But we must immediately say that unlike the people in the parable the Jews according to Romans 9 through 11 will in the end not refuse his invitation. We must also say that God does not regard the poor, the blind, the crippled and the lame as his second choice guests as they are in the parable. Jesus makes it clear in his words to the Sabbath host that his preference is just the opposite. Even if we take the disabled guests to represent the gentiles, God's strategy from the beginning was to bless all the nations of the earth through the seed of Abraham and not to rank his guests as to his preference. We must say then that, like the judge in the parable of the persistent widow in chapter 18 or like the master in the parable of the shrewd manager in chapter sixteen, the host in this parable is a contrast to Christ rather than a picture of him.
Besides that, taking the host in the parable to be God turns the poor, blind, crippled and lame into figurative representations of gentile converts instead of actual disabled and poor people. The man with dropsy was a real man, and Jesus means real people with disabilities when he tells his host to invite "the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind." So too the poor and disabled people in the parable represent real people with real disabilities who are really poor.
Jesus had compassion for real disabled people. In fact, he gives them special attention and promises them the sure hope of the resurrection and the transformation of their bodies. We too should follow his example. No matter how we understand the parable of the great banquet, Jesus' words are crystal clear, and they are for us, when he says, "But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they can not repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." May the Lord give us the grace of his Holy Spirit so that we may share ourselves and everything we have with those in need. Then we will be ready for dining with Jesus when the time comes.