The Parable of the Great Banquet: Luke 14.12–24
He then turned to his host. ‘When you give a lunch or a supper,’ he said, ‘don’t invite your friends or your family or relatives, or your rich neighbours. They might ask you back again, and you’d be repaid. 13When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. 14God will bless you, because they have no way to repay you! You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’ One of the guests heard this, and commented, ‘A blessing on those who eat food in God’s kingdom!’ Jesus said, ‘Once a man made a great dinner, and invited lots of guests. 17When the time for the meal arrived, he sent his servant to say to the guests, “Come now – everything’s ready!” 18But the whole pack of them began to make excuses. The first said, “I’ve just bought a field, and I really have to go and see it. Please accept my apologies.” 19Another one said, “I’ve just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’ve got to go and test them out – please accept my apologies.” 20And another one said, “I’ve just got married, so naturally I can’t come.” 21 So the servant went back and told his master all this. The householder was cross, and said to his servant, “Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in here the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.” 22“All right, master,” said the servant, “I’ve done that – but there’s still room.” 23“Well then,” said the master to the servant, “go out into the roads and hedgerows and make them come in, so that my house may be full! 24Let me tell you this: none of those people who were invited will get to taste my dinner.”’
Once, many years ago, I preached a sermon on this pas- sage. I emphasized the extraordinary way in which Jesus tells his hearers to do something that must have been as puzzling then as it is now. Don’t invite friends, relatives and neighbours to dinner – invite the poor and the dis- abled. The sermon had a strange effect. In the course of the next week my wife and I received dinner invitations from no fewer than three people who had been in church that day. Which category of guest we came into we were too polite – or anxious – to ask.
It looks as if the passage is offering real advice. The parable of the supper, which follows, is a parable all right, but Jesus really seems to have intended his hearers to take literally his radical suggestion about who to invite to dinner parties. Social conditions have changed, of course, and in many parts of the world, where people no longer live in small villages in which everyone knows everyone else’s business, where meals are eaten with the doors open and people wander to and fro at will (see 7.36–50), it may seem harder to put it into practice. Many Christians would have to try quite hard to find poor and disabled people to invite to a party – though I know some who do just that. Nobody can use the difference in circumstances as an excuse for ignoring the sharp edge of Jesus’ demand.
In particular, they cannot ignore it in the light of the parable. The story is, obviously, about people who very rudely snub the invitation to a splendid party. They make excuses of the usual kind. The householder, having gone to all the trouble of organizing and paying for a lavish feast, is determined to have guests at his table, even if he has to find them in unconventional locations. The original guests have ruled themselves out, and others have come in to take their place.
The first level of meaning of this parable should be clear. Jesus has been going around Galilee summoning people to God’s great supper. This is the moment Israel has been waiting for! At last the time has arrived; those who were invited long ago must hurry up now and come! But most of them have refused, giving all kinds of rea- sons. But some people have been delighted to be included: the poor, the disadvantaged, the disabled. They have come in and celebrated with Jesus.
The second level, as with the previous parable, is what this might mean for Luke in particular. Once again the expected guests are the Jews, waiting and waiting for the kingdom, only to find, when it arrived, that they had more pressing things to occupy them. Of course, in Luke’s day many Jews had become Christians. The detail of the parable can’t be forced at this point: it isn’t true, at this level, that ‘none of those who were invited shall taste my banquet’, since clearly many Jews were part of Jesus’ kingdom-movement from the beginning. But the majority of the nation, both in Palestine and in the scattered Jewish communities in the rest of the world, were not. Instead, as it must have seemed to those first Jewish Christians, God’s messengers had gone out into the roads and hedgerows of the world, getting all kinds of unexpected people to join in the party – not just Gentiles, but people with every kind of moral and immoral background, people quite different from them culturally, socially, ethnically and ethically.
But there is a third twist to this parable, in which it bends back, as it were, on itself, returning to the challenge which Jesus gave in verses 12–14. The party to which the origi- nal guests were invited was Jesus’ kingdom-movement, his remarkable welcome to all and sundry. If people wanted to be included in Jesus’ movement, this is the sort of thing they were joining.
Once again, therefore, the challenge comes to us today. Christians, reading this anywhere in the world, must work out in their own churches and families what it would mean to celebrate God’s kingdom so that the people at the bot- tom of the pile, at the end of the line, would find it to be good news. It isn’t enough to say that we ourselves are the people dragged in from the country lanes, to our surprise, to enjoy God’s party. That may be true; but party guests are then expected to become party hosts in their turn.
How do you celebrate God’s kingdom in your life?
How might you or your church become a party host and share the good news more widely in the way described by Jesus in this parable?