Paula Northwood October 6, 2019
Scripture Luke 14:15–24
Twenty years ago, when I was the director of a program called Faith in Action for Model Cities Health Center, the board and I planned a volunteer appreciation event. We sent out over 200 invitations, hired a caterer and ordered flowers. People sent in their RSVPs, and we expected around a hundred guests. Everything was ready. The decorations on the table were exquisite, the buffet looked and smelled delicious and then we waited . . . and waited. Eventually, maybe 20 people showed up. We had a good time but there was this air of disappointment that pervaded the evening.
Have you ever planned a party where the people you invited kept making excuses? Maybe. But did you respond by inviting total strangers instead? Probably not. We are more like the person in a different story where the guests arrived and they sat down to dinner, and the host asks her little girl to say grace. She says, “But Mommy, I don’t know what to say!” The mother says, “Sure you do. You’ve heard me pray. Just say what you’ve heard me say.” So the girl folds her hands and bows her head and says, “Jesus, what was I thinking inviting all these people over to my house?”
We continue our series on the parables, and this one, called the Parable of the Great Banquet or the Great Feast, seems somewhat straightforward. A person plans a party and invites a few people, who then make excuses. These excuses make the party planner angry. The moral of the story is “Don’t be like the people who make excuses, or you will be excluded.” Is that it?
As we are finding out, parables are often metaphors for a deeper message. What can this parable mean for us today?
It may help to understand the context of this passage. In the gospel of Luke, we have an occasion where Jesus is eating at the home of a Pharisee on the Sabbath. We might think, because Jesus is often critical of Pharisees and Sadducees, that he would avoid them, but, in the scripture, he often eats with them. One can imagine that he enjoyed the legal and theological conversations that ensued. It is possible to disagree and still have respect and care for the other.
In the verses prior to this morning’s story, Jesus heals a man suffering from a medical condition (maybe edema), and that provokes the Pharisees and other guests to ask if it lawful to heal someone on the Sabbath. Jesus does what he often does: He answers with a question. He asks, “If you had a child or even an ox fall into a well on the Sabbath, would you not immediately pull him out?” The response is silence, so he gives them some teachings on party etiquette. He tells them not to take the highest places of honor or the best seats when invited to a party. And, when you host a party, don’t always invite just your friends who will return the favor, but invite people you may not know: the poor and marginalized.
All this advice is offered before Jesus tells the Parable of the Great Banquet. If we examine this parable in terms of metaphor, one could understand that God is the one inviting people to the feast. God is inviting initially only God’s chosen people of Jewish faith to a fuller, deeper, richer more celebratory and nourishing life. But God’s chosen people make excuses, or maybe they think they don’t need this kind of nourishment anymore. Now everyone, even Gentiles, are invited to God’s table. And according to the last sentence of our text for today, those who make excuses will be kept from experiencing this new life.
When I was growing up, this parable was interpreted as a mandate for church attendance. The banquet was worship, and if you made excuses for not participating, you would be excluded from heaven after the final judgment. It’s an interesting use of the parable, but I don’t think that it is that simple. Parables never are. Jesus turns our preconceived ideas about God’s love and expectations on their head.
Jesus is all about transformation: transformation by the renewing of our minds. God is inviting us to a metaphysical party, a deeper spiritual nourishment, and we good, socially acceptable people have excuses. He was inviting these lawyers and teachers of religion to a deeper understanding of God’s expectations. We don’t know if they accepted this invitation or not.
Some scholars have written that it doesn’t matter what the excuses are; they are to just symbolize excuses. But I think they are worth examining. We all make excuses, maybe daily. They are often little white lies we tell because we do not want to hurt each other’s feelings.
And in our parable, these are good excuses! Tying up some loose ends around the purchase of property, checking out a purchase of oxen or, in our case, it would be a new vehicle we need to test drive, are excuses that make sense. The final one involves family, a new spouse. From my perspective, these are not lame excuses, but they do indicate that the people are coming from a place of wealth and privilege.
For the wealthy and successful, an invitation to enter a space of existential freedom and divine love when life is already pretty good may not be that enticing. Can our blessings be obstacles in our spiritual path? When life is good, and we are blessed to have material, financial and social capital, we can spend a huge percentage of our lives defending and growing it. Even when there’s an invitation to something much larger, sometimes we just can’t let go of what stands in the way. That accounts for the first two excuses, but I find the third one most troubling. The excuse of marriage, family, even relationships? That can’t be right? But are there relationships that keep us from experiencing the life-giving, soul-transforming divine love? It is important to know and understand what is behind our excuses.
This parable can be understood and used in many ways and for us, as a church, we can apply some of our own initiatives. If the party symbolizes church growth, what are our excuses that keep us from supporting the church? If the party symbolizes addressing the climate crisis by banding together to take care of our planet, what are our excuses for avoiding this issue and why? If the party is an invitation to racial justice, inclusion and equity, what are our excuses and why?
Lately, I’ve been reading Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” He writes that history is a long and tragic story of how privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals see the moral light and give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals. Dr. King goes on to share his disappointment in white moderates who made excuses, such as “the civil rights movement is moving too fast and the methods are too direct.” Excuses. He goes on to patiently and systematically dismantle racism with an explanation of why we can’t wait, why God’s banquet is now. And here we are 60 years later and not enough has changed.
We are invited to a banquet that displays racial connectedness and spiritual transformation. Any institution, the church especially, that diminishes the humanity of any child of God based on race, gender, sexual orientation or any other aspect of social unacceptability or marginalization must be exposed and liberated. There can be no excuses for the church of today or tomorrow in perpetuating discriminatory practices. We must move beyond human perceptions and excuses and fling open the door to the banquet and invite everyone in. This creates a very different form and shape to our spiritual and community life. It is no longer elitist, separatist or competitive; it changes our deepest imagination in the direction of unexpected embrace and inclusion. In a recent Richard Rohr meditation, he writes “Our worldview will not normally change until we place ourselves, or are placed, in new and different lifestyle situations. You do not think yourself into a new way of living, you live yourself into a new way of thinking.” That’s transformation.
And so, we as a community are struggling to live into a new way of thinking. We are beginning to set aside our excuses and open our hearts to the work of transformation. It is good and difficult sacred work.
Later we will gather with Christians around the globe on this World Communion Sunday to celebrate the invitation to the table. There is a beautiful line is our text this morning: “Come, for everything is now ready.” The table is spread. Everything is prepared. And every one of you has received an invitation. Amen.