The Feast Must Go On

Luke 14:12-24

[Having said this to the other guests] he then addressed the one who had invited him in these terms:
“When you have a celebratory meal [like this one to break your Sabbath fast] or when you [hold a] feast, do not go inviting your friends, nor your brothers, nor your relatives, nor your rich neighbours, in order that they also will invite you in return and so that you will then have this entered as credit [in the social register]. But when you throw a feast call the poor, the disabled, the broken-down and the blind. And you shall be blessed since they cannot recompense you; you will receive your reward with the resurrection of those with right standing.”
And one of those reclining there, hearing these things, said: “Blessed are they who will eat their bread in the Kingdom of God!”
And [in reply to this] he said this to them:
“[Once upon a time], there was a man who prepared a great feast, sending out invitations to many. And at the appointed time to those invited he announced: ‘Come for all things have been prepared for you!’ But each one, with the same inclination, came up with their excuse.
“The first said: ‘I have bought a farm which I must go and inspect [what I have purchased]. Please have me excused.’
“And another said: ‘I have bought five pairs of oxen. I must be off to test them, Please have me excused.’
“And another said: ‘I have married a wife and so I cannot come’.
“So the servant returned and reported [these excuses] to his Lord. Then the Head of this House flew into a rage and told his servant: ‘Go into the streets and lanes and bring in [all] the poor, the disabled, the blind and the broken down.’
“The servant replied, ‘Lord, that has [already] been done and there are still seats to be filled.’
“And the Lord said to his servant, ‘Go out into the countryside, and [look under] the hedges, and insist to those [living there] that they come in. My house has to be filled [and all places taken] for I’m telling you that not any of those who have been [formally] invited shall partake of my banquet.”

We are here assuming that Luke is maintaining continuity in his account of Jesus’ parables. Here, having told his fellow guests how to conduct themselves as those living according to the way of the Kingdom of God when invited with other guests to a party, he proceeds as “Guest of Honour” to boldly throw out a challenge the leading Pharisee who has invited him to the meal. Jesus tells him how he should go about constructing his “guest list”. To this he received a loud pious commendation from one of his fellow guests. But then, it seems, Jesus uses this as an opportunity to underscore what the “blessedness” of eating bread in God’s Kingdom actually means for this life, for the actual activity of throwing a feast. Such blessing comes not from receiving the invitation to the feast but from actually sitting down and sharing the banquet. It’s an invitation not to be trifled with. But if one’s feasting, one’s invitations and one’s answers to invitations, are all caught up in a search to maintain one’s social prestige then one’s feasting looses its true celebratory character. It may even become embroiled in a pay-back system of giving mutual offence, even a form of slavery.

When we read one of Jesus’ parables – and in particular this one – we are confronted with the question of how to understand the situation of its inaugural audience. We can confidently expect that Jesus expected his parables to be re-told. But let us keep in mind that Luke has told us who Jesus is addressing. It is a story told within Luke’s story.

The parable is of a man who plans to hold a large feast. All the invitations are sent out far and wide – but no one has accepted the invitation. The apologetic excuses, as Jesus identifies them, are notable and, in fact, make for humorous reading.

I have bought a farm; it needs my inspection. My apologies, thanks for the invite; thanks but no thanks. This raises the question: who buys a farm without first inspecting it?
I have purchased five yoke of oxen. They need to be tested. My apologies, thanks for the invite; thanks but no thanks. Five? Who makes such a significant purchase ‘on spec’?
I have married a wife. There is no apology. Of the three this is almost the most ridiculous. It is simply ducking responsibility and shifting the blame. She wouldn’t let me come. She made me do it. This invited man’s marriage becomes an excuse for his inability to accept the invitation that ad been given long beforehand.

There are interesting twists in the telling of this parable. Here Luke tells us how Jesus gave explicit teaching about hospitality and throwing parties to the presumptuous Pharisee who was happy to have him as “Guest of Honour”.

I wonder: Luke’s record here of a well-beloved parable tells us how he understood Jesus’ confrontation with social forces uniting against him. The parable, with all its nuances, seems to have been written down in a detailed and well preserved form. Of those present who could have remembered the parable in its details? Could it have been a guest who was converted on this occasion? Could it have been the Pharisee himself who was converted, having been confronted by the wisdom of this parable?

The parable’s focus is upon the organisation of the feast – the sending out of invitations well in advance as well as the preparation of the menu, and other arrangements for the big day. But then, when we learn of the three replies among all those who declined to come, we are informed of other spheres of life that required the attention of those invited although these were also tasks which concerned entire communities.

There is the buying and selling of land (which after 50 years will revert to its original tribal owners), there is the farming of the land which also involves the breeding of livestock and then there are marriages to contract and family matters as well. So feasting takes place within a social context and throwing a feast requires planning. The invitations are sent out well in advance. There is much that needs to be done in life and feasting is but one dimension of a complex social round.

Shouldn’t these three have already sent their apologies? The activities which they claim make it impossible for them to come have also required their long-term planning. They have waited until the last moment to give their excuses. And so they show less than true respect for the householder who is throwing the party. His household is thereby demeaned by their thoughtless disrespect.

But then this is the story of how a prominent feast on the social calendar is replaced by a banquet open to hundreds. All the seats have to be filled.

It is in his role as householder that the servant’s lord and master flew into a rage.

“Get out into the streets and lanes and bring them all in,” he demands.

“Already done, sire,” says his servant who seems to have anticipated this. The servant of the house knows how important the feast is. This is a crucial element in the story. If you are wanting a feast, a true celebration of the goodness of the Lord, then here is the way to do it.

“Well then” says the man “get out beyond the town’s limits. Scour every nook and cranny. Bring ’em in from all these places for my feast must be filled.” And then comes the judgement: “But those offered invitations who have found something else to do instead will not be sitting at this table.”

So we ask: is this a parable about the Kingdom of God? The parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast are explicitly set forth in answer to Jesus’ question: What is the Kingdom of God like? We do not have this question as prefix to this parable. This does not mean that it cannot be read as a Kingdom of God picture, but as a parable of the one who embodies all grace and wisdom it also contains advice for the practical outworking of wisdom in everyday life. In this case, the issuing of invitations comes when the feast is ready and for these uninvited guests there is no need for a fanfare a month in advance. When one wants to throw a feast this is how you do it. Jesus has already said to the guests and his host that when it comes to invitations, feasts should not be held to ritualise the desire for social prestige.

He then addressed the one who had invited him in these terms: “When you have a celebratory meal [even as in this case to break your fast] or when you [hold a] feast, do not go inviting your friends, nor your brothers, nor your relatives, nor your rich neighbours, in order that they also will invite you in return and you will then have this as credit. But when you throw a feast call the poor, the disabled, the broken-down and the blind. And you shall be blessed since they cannot recompense you; you will receive your reward with the resurrection of those with right standing.”

The parable of the Great Feast suggests that the man wishing to hold a feast had to learn an important lesson. If one’s feasting is caught up with trying to maintain one’s social prestige, by allowing oneself to be in the grip of an invitation system that makes announcements of big intentions, then the reputation of one’s household is caught in a vicious treadmill and susceptible to having it’s integrity demeaned in the eyes of one’s social equals. “He’s the guy who planned a big feast for all is mates, and none turned up! He’s such a loser!” (Is there a parallel here to the man who started to build a tower but could not finish it?)

Those who by the end of the parable fill all the seats at the feast were unaware of the invitation system or even of the householder’s plans. Jesus told his host that in God’s Kingdom hospitality is not  simply a matter of inviting people of high standing. In fact, those on their way to God’s Feast who can throw parties should be throwing open doors to all those who will never get an invitation on the basis of their social standing.

BCW

3.1.17

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