The first pastor I served with believed that food was at the heart of Christian ministry. Whether it was preparing meals for people in need at Manna House, bringing meals to new parents, or gathering to eat for midweek suppers, so much of our ministry focused on food. There were seasons that I would eat at the church on Sunday dinner, Monday lunch, and Wednesday dinner — at that didn’t include lunches consisting of leftovers from those meals.
This church has a neat tradition called Food and Fellowship. People sign up to share meals with others in their homes four times a year. Each time the group rotates, so there’s an opportunity to meet new people at every meal. This year was the first time that we signed up for it, and the schedule dictated that we would host for the first round. So, we contacted the others scheduled to come to our house and found an evening that worked for all of us. I made a menu based off of food preferences from the group. (Turns out I was the only fussy eater!) So, there was an invitation, a plan, and then a lovely evening spent in each other’s company, sharing food and good conversation. It’s the way that dinner parties are supposed to go.
Today’s gospel text drops us into a dinner party, hosted by a leading Pharisee. Our focus this morning is on the parable that Jesus tells as the evening progresses (and for the next few weeks our attention will be on Jesus’ parables), but let’s just get this out there: Jesus is not the world’s most well-behaved dinner guest. He begins the evening by healing a man suffering from swelling on the sabbath. Next, he criticizes the way that the guests vie for the best seats at the table, based on their desire to be the most important. He then tells them that their dinner invitations should go to the poor, crippled, and lame because then you are holding the feast without any ulterior motives.
After these awkward moments, one of the dinner guests calls out, “Blessed is anyone who eats bread in the kingdom of God!” It’s an effort to get Jesus to offer his views on who is welcome to the table at the final Messianic banquet, which is an argument that has stretched for over 700 years. At this Pharisee’s table, the expected answer would be something along the lines of this: “Oh, that we might keep the law in a precise fashion so that when the great day comes, we will be counted worthy to sit with the Messiah and all true believers at his banquet.” But that is far from the answer Jesus gives.
But, as I mentioned, Jesus is entering into a much lengthier debate. It’s one that started with our Old Testament text for today — Isaiah 25. This prophetic word comes while Israel is at war with Assyria. It’s a time of us against them. Isaiah gives a picture of a rich feast — the Messianic banquet. It’s the party of all parties. Except that the dinner includes all the nations, not just Israel. That’s a hard word to hear when you have some very clear, real world enemies, isn’t it? You don’t mind most others finding welcome…but not your enemies.
A couple of hundred years later, the Jews are exiled to Babylon, a new set of enemies. The language people understood shifted from Hebrew to Aramaic, so the scriptures were translated expansively into this new language. This translation was known as the Targum, but sometimes the translator took a lot of freedom in translation. That happened with Isaiah 25. Here’s how it reads in the Targum.
Yahweh of hosts will make for all peoples in this mountain a meal. And although they supposed it an honor, it will be a shame for them and great plagues, plagues from which they will be unable to escape, plagues whereby they will come to their end.
It’s pretty different from what we heard from our translation of Isaiah 25. Basically, God’s making a meal in order to punish those not in step with God’s law.
A few hundred years later the book of Enoch came along, which is still in Bibles that include the apocrypha today. It tells of a great banquet with the Messiah that includes the Gentiles — the outsiders — but the angel of death will show up and destroy the Gentiles, filling the room with gore that the true believers are supposed to wade through in order to sit down with the Messiah. Disturbing image, isn’t it?
During Jesus’ day, the Qumran community (famous for preserving what we now call the Dead Sea Scrolls), wrote similarly of the exclusiveness of the Messiah’s banquet. Only the pure — not the blind, deaf, lame — will be there. So, we have Isaiah’s original vision of the inclusive Messianic banquet countered quite aggressively with three vivid images of exclusion.
But Jesus, as a guest at a dinner party, enters into this 700-year-old conversation. The dinner guest is expecting Jesus to give a polite answer that falls in line with his tamer view of exclusion, but Jesus instead shares a parable. He tells of a banquet where many are invited. This is not a spur of the moment thing. It’s more like our practice for wedding invitations. Guests get a formal invitation and respond months in advance. They’ve already responded with a “yes,” and so the host orders plenty of food, appropriate to the number who are coming.
But then the excuses come at the last minute. “I just bought some land.” “I just bought some new oxen.” “I just got married!” These are bad excuses for such a long-planned event. In fact, they are offensive. They are intended to shame the host. Land purchases in the Middle East took time. Good land is hard to find, and so a buyer would take a long look at the land before buying. To say, “Whoops! I just bought a field. Sorry I can’t come tonight.” is the equivalent of one of us calling home and saying we’ll be late for dinner because we just bought a new house sight unseen and now would like to look at it. We wouldn’t do that, would we? This last minute cancellation is intended to shame the host who will now have empty seats at his big party.
It’s a similar deal with the oxen purchase. Oxen work in pairs, and any purchase would involve an evaluation that they could do what they’re supposed to do. They need to be tested carefully before the purchase, so again, the timing of this guest’s excuse is intended to shame the host. The third man’s excuse is even worse. Unlike the others, he does not even ask to be excused, and the innuendo that he’s too busy with his wife to attend this banquet is unspeakably offensive in their culture. Even in these far more open times, that’s not an excuse anyone would make!
The host gets it. He is aware that these guests are intending to humiliate him. In good storytelling fashion, Jesus gives us three characters, but it is safe to assume that the whole banquet has emptied out with their last-minute excuses hours before its start. Now the host is left with the table set, the food cooking, no one coming, and a lifetime’s worth of humiliation. The parable turns here. In Ken Bailey’s words, “What is to be done with the energy created by anger produced by injustice?”
The master chooses to reprocess his anger into grace. He doesn’t stay stuck in his anger. Instead, he commands his servants to go out and bring in any and all who would come. His banquet is for all who would come. “Go get the poor, crippled, blind, and lame from our town. They eat at my table tonight!” he says. That is, the very people the Qumran community says are excluded, Jesus says they’re welcomed. Still, the feast is not full, so the host sends his servants further out. “Bring ‘em all in,” he says, and the master fills his banquet with the outsiders, the impure, and the unexpected, while those who initially received invitations made their own excuses for ditching the feast.
This is Jesus’ answer to the 700-year-old debate about who will be welcome at the Messiah’s table. There are two questions I want to leave us with as we consider what this parable has to do with us. First, the master in the parable chooses to reprocess his anger into grace. So, how do we reprocess anger and turn it into grace? Is there someone or some situation in your life where you are experiencing anger but getting stuck there? Anger is a good emotion, but Jesus is very clear that those who stay angry are far from letting Jesus’ rule take hold of their lives.
So, as you hear this sermon today, don’t just let go of it, thinking, “That was interesting or nice.” No, hear God’s Word for you. Let the Spirit speak conviction into your heart about what anger you may be holding onto, and then ask God to work on reprocessing that anger into grace for that person or situation.
This story tells of a man who turned his anger into grace by expanding who was invited to his banquet. It’s fairly easy to see that this master is a stand-in for Jesus, who will play host at the Messianic banquet. He uses this moment to expand who can come to the table. That’s good news for the whole world. Perhaps the only folks who don’t see this as good news are those who thought only those like them should be invited. So this leads to the second question that is especially pertinent on a communion Sunday: Who is invited to this table? Jesus sure seems to call the unexpected, so if you ever find yourself having a narrow view of who is invited, it’s likely time you ask Jesus to do some work in your heart to keep opening it wider until it grows to the size of God’s love for the world. It would also be worthwhile to consider who those are who feel excluded from this table. Who are the people in the roads and lanes who haven’t responded to the invitation to come? It’s time to make room for them too.
Guess who’s coming to dinner? It’s probably a whole lot of people you wouldn’t expect. And that’s how amazing this grace is that welcomes you, welcomes me, and welcomes all who would receive it.