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Everyone loves a party, especially if we like the hosts and the interesting guests they always invite. Throughout his narrative Luke observes that Jesus of Nazareth was someone hosts and hostesses liked to have on their guest list.
Jesus has always intrigued people. Even today people indicate they would love to have him on their guest list. But Jesus often proved to be an unpredictable guest, saying the unexpected in the course of a meal. And while the religious establishment were threatened by him, they kept him on their guest list – in the hope of trapping him during conversation.
In Luke chapter 14 we find Jesus at a dinner party in the home of a synagogue ruler, who may also have been a member of the Jewish Council (Sanhedrin) and a Pharisee. It was another occasion when the issue of Sabbath observance arose and the Pharisees there were watching him (Jesus) closely (14:1). The appearance of a man with edema (dropsy) could well have been a trap.
In the same way that hosts today often have place cards for seating their guests, so too protocols existed in the ancient world – including amongst the Jewish people. And, in the same way people today sometimes try and reposition their seating to be seen with the ‘right’ people, people then maneuvered their seats (14:7).
Observing this, Jesus did what he often did in a controversial setting: he told a parable. ‘Beware,’ he warned, ‘of taking a more prestigious position, only to find yourself relocated to a lower position by the host. It is better,’ he observed, ‘to take a lowly position first, so that if the host invites you to a higher position, you will receive the greater honor’ (14:8-10).
He also used the situation to return to his overall theme of the last day and observed that on that day there will be many unexpected reversals: “All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (14:11).
Having started to speak he continued with yet another observation, this time to his host: “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or rich neighbors; 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” (14:12b-14).
This must have been a conversation stopper. We can imagine that as they were just about to eat their next mouthful, Jesus reminded them of the poor and the hungry. ‘How dare he?’ some may have thought. ‘You arrogant upstart,’ others may have said.
One man tried to salvage the situation. Latching on to the idea of the ultimate party in heaven, he responded, “Blessed is the one who will eat bread in the kingdom of God” (14:15).
It was the kind of statement made by someone who liked to think he was good at conflict resolution. We get the impression that the speaker believed in life after death and was pretty sure of where he was going.
But Jesus, knowing that this comment reflected religious apathy, told another story: “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is ready now’” (14:16).
In Jesus’ day two invitations were sent out to potential guests prior to an upcoming celebration. No refrigeration meant that hostesses could not always be sure of the availability of the meat they wanted; nor could they stock up at home. Hence, two invitations: the first sent out some weeks prior to the party, the second, twenty-four hours before the event.
Jesus’ audience would have easily decoded that he was speaking about God’s kingdom. The Old Testament prophets had issued the first invitation to Abraham’s vast family. And doubtless his hearers expected him to tell them how they would all be part of it.
But the parable took an unexpected turn with the second invitation: “Come, everything is now ready.” But there was more: “They all alike began to make excuses”. ‘The first said, “I have just bought an investment property: I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’ Another said, “I have just bought five new oxen and I need to test them: please excuse me.” Another said, “I’m on my honeymoon, so I can’t come.”’
At first glance the excuses seem plausible. But they’re not. It would have been unlikely then, as today, to purchase land without first seeing it and knowing the details. Second, to purchase oxen without first testing them in a field was again most unlikely. The third excuse is the rudest. In a village community everyone would have known in advance about major events such as banquets and weddings. Furthermore, it was the height of rudeness in the Middle East to speak on social occasions about intimate relationships between men and women.
The parable exposes the way that people in every age are so focused on the interests and cares of the material world that they have no time for God. How attracted we are by the desires of our hearts and so fail to realize that there is a much richer dimension to our existence: we are creatures, designed to know the deep love of our Creator and the rich joy, beauty and delights of his eternal kingdom.
A prayer. God our Father, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as pass our understanding: pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you above all things, may obtain your promises which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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© John G. Mason
Note: Today’s ‘Word’ is adapted from my book in the ‘Reading the Bible Today’ series, Luke: An Unexpected God, 2nd Edition, Aquila: 2018.
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