Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 7/2/95
Luke 14:1 And it came about when he went into the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees on the Sabbath to eat bread, that they were watching him closely. 2 And there, in front of him, was a certain man suffering from dropsy. 3 And Jesus answered and spoke to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” 4 But they kept silent. And he took hold of him and healed him and sent him away. 5 And he said to them, “Which one of you shall have a son or an ox fall into a well, and will not immediately pull him out on a Sabbath day?” 6 And they could make no reply to this. 7 And he began speaking a parable to the invited guests when he noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table, saying to them, 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him, 9 and he who invited you both shall come and say to you, ‘Give place to this man,’ and then in disgrace you proceed to occupy the last place. 10 But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you. 11 For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.” 12 And he also went on to say to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and repayment come to you. 13 But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” 15 And when one of those reclining at the table with him heard this, he said to him, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 16 But he said to him, “A certain man was giving a big dinner, and he invited many. 17 And at the dinner hour he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is ready now.’ 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first one said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land and I need to go out and look at it; please consider me excused.’ 19 And another one said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please consider me excused.’ 20 And another one said, ‘I have married a wife, and for that reason I cannot come.’ 21 And the slave came back and reported this to his master. Then the head of the household became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and the lanes of the city and bring in here the poor and the crippled and the blind and the lame.’ 22 And the slave said, ‘Master, what you have commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ 23 And the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the highways and along the hedges and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste of my dinner.’”
After dinner speakers have a reputation for being boring that is often well deserved. Jesus, on the other hand, was anything but boring. In fact, his few remarks here probably broke up the party! We can break them up into four discourses and one interruption, and look at them in more detail in turn.
We have seen Jesus teaching about the Sabbath before, and so it does not need much comment now. But we should notice that Jesus had probably been set up. The fact that they were “watching him closely” in vs. 1 implies that there is a good chance this sick man was a plant, a not so subtle attempt to get Jesus in trouble and discredit him if he broke the somewhat arbitrary Pharisaical regulations that governed what constituted “work” on the Sabbath. Jesus with his question brilliantly turns the tables on them and puts them on the defensive, simply by his way of phrasing the question and framing the dispute. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” Who wants to publicly come out against healing? And then he quickly follows up his advantage with another question: “Which one of you shall have a son or an ox fall into a well, and will not immediately pull him out on a Sabbath day?” Well, what could they say to that? The silence that followed was no doubt tense with Pharisaical embarrassment. They could not accept Jesus’ conclusions, but neither could they oppose them without exposing the unloving and legalistic—and hence, ungodly—tenor of their own spirituality. Jesus, as he always did, had put them between the proverbial rock and the parabolic hard place.
Having made his point, Jesus charitably relieves the company’s embarrassment by changing the subject—though I’m not sure how much relief was actually provided! Noticing the guests jockeying for positions of honor at the head of the table, he offers them a sample of his typical shrewd, common-sense peasant wisdom. If you are interested in social recognition, you’ll actually get more in the long run by taking a lower place and being asked to move up than by over-reaching and being sent to the back of the line in disgrace. The curious thing is that he does not challenge the assumption that social advancement is a good thing and a worthy goal by attacking their pride directly. His comment here is open to a very cynical interpretation: you want to pursue pride? I’ll give you a way to do it more efficiently! I suspect this is one of those times that we Bible readers at the distance of two millennia suffer from not being able to see the twinkle in the dominical eye. The very absurdity of that literal interpretation gives the pompous guests an opportunity to laugh at themselves and realize they are taking themselves way too seriously. Anyone who was willing to receive instruction could have been corrected in a relatively painless manner; those who were not would find that their laughter had a hollow ring to it and left an empty taste in their mouths. As with most of Jesus’ parables, the hearer will get out of it what he is capable of getting. Putting yourself forward can backfire; maybe we shouldn’t be putting ourselves forward at all; maybe our whole focus on merit rather than a concentration on grace not only leads to social awkwardness but is what is keeping us outside the kingdom. It’s all there. What you take away depends on you.
Now Jesus turns from the guests to the host with a similar application of the principle of grace to his social situation. When you throw a party, don’t invite your friends or other rich people who can invite you back; invite the poor and the powerless instead, and your reward will be received in the kingdom. This would be a very different affair than the Pharisee had actually arranged, a miserable failure of an attempt to make himself look good to his friends in the religious establishment by getting that idiotic peasant prophet from Nazareth to break the Sabbath, no doubt so he could lecture him about Jewish ethics.
We have to understand Jesus’ statement here in turns of the dynamics of that particular social situation. He is not forbidding us from inviting our friends and family over; otherwise, Mary and Martha and the New Testament Christians who practiced hospitality with their Christian brothers would be condemned. But he is saying that there is something drastically wrong with this man’s attitude and motives. The principle that ties these two statements together is that of grace, unmerited favor. If salvation is by grace, if the kingdom of God runs on the principle of grace, then whether you are a guest or a host you ought to live your whole life in that light of that grace. If you are a guest, don’t be jealous of your own honor but take delight in the honor offered to your neighbor. If you are a host, treat your neighbors as God treats his people; that is, make a habit of showing your hospitality to those who have no claim on it and no way to repay it. That—not keeping a bunch of rigorous rules you made up to build a hedge around the Law but which show that you have no real understanding of the Spirit behind the Law—is the way to be godly, to be like your Heavenly Father.
Well—ahem. Are we supposed to apply this today? That’s a stupid question. Is it in the text? Well, then, it applies to us. O. K., how are we supposed to apply it today? Now, that’s a more intelligent question. For indeed the circumstances are a little different. Jesus command was addressed to a rich man in a culture where to be rich meant you had a large staff of servants who would constantly be there to guard your house. Also, the poor would have literally been his neighbors—think of Dives and Lazarus—rather than being sequestered in their own neighborhoods or ghettoes. In that culture you would not have been putting your family or you property in danger by giving opportunistic but irresponsible people an opportunity to case a joint they would otherwise have been unaware of, as I did when one of my naive attempts to put this commandment into practice led to our checkbook and a credit card being stolen. We may not all be in a position to literally invite the poor home for a meal, as this man could very well have done with nothing much more to fear than the other rich neighbors looking at him funny.
But that does not mean that we cannot find ways to live out the spirit of Jesus’ words here. Lew Rabbitt, the father of one of my childhood friends, did regular prison visitation, leading a Bible study in the local jail. He built a guest house on the hill above his own home, and gained the trust of the local authorities to the point that they would sometimes release a prisoner into his custody. Such a man, along with others who had recently been released and had nowhere to go, would be brought to that house and helped to restart their lives. Lew would take them around and pester his friends until they gave jobs to these ex cons, as well as holding daily Bible studies with them until they were able to move out and be on their own. We euphemistically referred to them as “the men on the hill.” I know people who go beyond nursing home visitation to the point of “adopting” a resident whose family is either dead or absent and uncaring, going to great trouble to bring them home for Christmas and other occasions so that some sense of family and belonging is restored to them in their last years. And perhaps there are some who are in a position to take the risks implied by a literal obedience. My point is, if you do not think you are called to do that, you are not absolved from obedience. Be creative and find ways to apply the spirit of the commandment in ways that will be meaningful in our culture and our society. You say, “It just isn’t done!” So what? If you want to be like your Father in Heaven, you will do it.
Now, why would I give such a harsh heading to the person trying to inject such a fine spiritual sentiment into the proceedings? “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Perhaps it is because I have met enough such people to become deeply suspicious of those who go out of their way to look spiritual by mouthing vaguely pious phrases with which no one could possibly disagree. Their noses are often stuck a bit too far up in the air. The obvious motive for this interjection is for people to notice how very spiritual the speaker is. I suspect he was thinking, “This folk rabbi claims to be the Messiah, and all he’s got to offer is a bunch of lame-brained advice for entertaining? Let’s talk about the spiritual banquet!” If so, he had profoundly missed the point. But Jesus would take his interruption as an opportunity to try and make it once again.
O. K., Jesus says in effect, you want to talk about the kingdom of God and the feast that awaits us there? Showing God’s grace to the needy around you not spiritual enough? O. K., let’s talk about that supper. Who do you think will really be eating it? Hmmm. It turns out to be, not the Pharisees, but some of the very ones Jesus wanted the host to be inviting to his house here and now!
To understand this exchange, we have to know something about both the biblical and the cultural background to it. The biblical background is the prophecy of Isaiah 25: 6-9. “And the Lord of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain, a banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow, and refined aged wine. And on this mountain he will swallow up the covering which is over all peoples, even the veil which is stretched over all nations. He will swallow up death for all time, and the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces, and he will remove the reproach of his people from the earth—for the Lord has spoken. And it will be said on that day, ‘Behold, this is our God for whom we have waited that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation!’” It is astounding how badly the Pharisees had missed the point of this prophecy. They expected to be the guests there. But the invitation had originally been made to all nations, and they had restricted it, first to Jews alone, and then only to the legalistically unblemished like themselves. Nevertheless, when the invitation was given in the coming of Christ, they hid behind their legalistic excuses, accusing him of breaking the Sabbath, for example, rather than responding to it.
Culturally, we need to understand the nature of invitations in the ancient Near East. An invitation is a two-fold process. First is what we would call the invitation, which comes some time in advance. If you accept, you have obligated yourself to show up for the event, for the provisions would be bought (or slaughtered) on that basis. The second phase is the one represented by the slave in the parable. When the time came, he would be sent to fetch the guests and escort them to the now fully prepared feast. To refuse at this point without a truly grave and inescapable reason would be a terrible insult to the host. Yet that is exactly what the guests in the parable do. “I’ve bought a field and I have to go see it.” Nobody would buy land sight unseen today, and you definitely would not have done it then, for fertile land was at a premium. You would never buy a piece of property until you could recite every feature of it and list its productivity figures for generations. Nobody bought oxen without a test drive, any more than you would buy a used car that way today. In fact, the ox dealers would have a field right next to the auction where the buyers could test the animals out before bidding on them. These excuses are on the level of “I’ve just painted my toenails and I have to let them dry.”
By this time the interpretation of the parable should be coming into focus. The man giving the banquet is God. The Banquet is salvation, the blessings of the Messianic kingdom. The first invitation was the Old Testament, and the prospective guests who had received it are Israel, most pointedly its religious leaders. The slave bearing the second invitation is the preaching of the Gospel. He is greeted by the Jewish establishment with some really lame excuses. “I’ve just bought a house and I need to check out the neighborhood and see if the roof leaks.” “I’ve just bought five used cars and I need to go see what year they are and whether they start.” I suppose that corresponds to “You don’t keep our Sabbath rules.” And quite possibly, “You’re not spiritual enough, talking about inviting the poor to our houses. What about the heavenly banquet?” Those from the streets and lanes (names for roads in town) are the “unworthy” Jews, and those from the highways and hedges (roads outside of town) are the Gentiles. The people actually enjoying the banquet—strangely just like the one Jesus had suggested to the host, if he wanted truly to be like the Father—are those who had no prospects or expectations, in terms of their own righteousness, of being there.
What then is the significance of this parable for us? First it surely raises the question, “What is our excuse?” “The Church is full of hypocrites.” “I will follow Christ someday, but not right now.” Give me a break! Such things are an insult to God’s intelligence. They are even an insult to yours. Second, it underscores the fact that God’s desire to save us exceeds man’s willingness to be saved. No matter how rebuffed he has been, he keeps sending the slave out until the house is full. Third, we must realize that the invitation has to be acted on. Were you raised in a Christian family? Are you a member of the church? Have you heard the Gospel all your life? That just puts you in the position of those who had received the first invitation. What will you do when the slave comes and says, “Now is the accepted hour, today is the day of salvation?” That is what will determine your eternal destiny. Say yes! Do not hesitate, do not squirm and make excuses. Come!
Finally, we who have already responded must realize the importance of persistence in evangelism. We must “go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in.” This is not a reference to strong-arm tactics but an exhortation to urgency and earnestness. Sometimes you did not get the standard two-stage invitation. The second round of guests only got the invitation to come right now. Palestinian politeness required you to refuse such an invitation, lest it be only offered out of politeness. Normally the host would then say, “O. K., hopefully some other time,” and that would be it. But if he really meant it, he would persist and convince you that, despite the full round of formalities having not occurred, he really meant it. Then it would be O. K. to accept. That is what the word “compel” really means here. (We see this being acted out when Jesus met the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus. When they first asked him to stay the night, he very correctly “made as if to go further,” but then when they repeated their invitation he very correctly accepted it.) So if we are the slave in the parable—and we are—we must not just say, “God has provided salvation in Christ, and you can take it or leave it.” We must go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in.
The banquet is ready. The food is getting cold. When the hall is filled, the door will be shut. And my Master really wants you to be there! Yes, he really does. Won’t you come with me? I am afraid we do not communicate such urgency because we do not feel it ourselves. Therefore, let us read these parables with full understanding and meditate on them until we begin to. Amen.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams