As almost always when reading the Gospels, context is everything! It is easy to take today’s Gospel reading, the Parable of the Great Banquet, as a moralistic lesson about getting into heaven; or as a rejection of the Jewish people, in that racist and anti-Semitic interpretation that has been popular through most of Christian history and continues to endure in many segments of the Christian population.
But let’s not settle for the usual interpretations. Let’s look at the all-important context. The entire chapter 14 of Luke takes place in the home of a Pharisee, where Jesus has been invited to dinner. It is a Sabbath. As the chapter opens, a man with edema (dropsy) comes to Jesus and is healed. Unlike other occasions of Sabbath healing, Jesus does the questioning here and is met with silence. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”
As he is sitting at dinner, he notices how guests compete for the places of honor. He then advises the host to invite the poor, the injured, the lame, the blind, instead of his friends or rich neighbors. Clearly, that advice did not fall on receptive ears, as one of the guests tried to change the subject with a little spiritual interjection: “Blessed is everyone who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!” A little spiritual outburst is always a convenient way to change the subject when the subject becomes uncomfortable. But Jesus refused to let the subject change so easily. And it is here, after that guest’s outburst that Jesus told the parable we heard today.
A man gave a great banquet. Clearly he was a rich man, a prominent man in the city – like the Pharisee at whose house was dining when he spoke this parable. Like the Pharisee at whose house Jesus was dining, the man in the parable invited his friends and rich neighbors. You can tell from the excuses that they were men of some wealth.
Among the elites of the ancient world no one goes to a dinner unless he is confident that the others at the table will be “the right kind of guests” The flimsy excuses offered here are an indirect but traditional Middle Eastern way of signaling disapproval of the dinner arrangements. The first person offering an excuse is an absentee landowner living in the city. The second has bought oxen sufficient to plow about 110 acres. No Middle Easterner would have bought either land or oxen without thorough inspection ahead of time. The first two excuses are thus transparently absurd. (Bruce Malina, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels)
I could use the parable as an opportunity to talk about excuses and how we use excuses in our Christian lives, but not today. Today something deeper and even darker is going on in this parable.
Is it conceivable that the guests used the excuses as a cover for shunning this man? After all, the man went on to invite, and even compel, people that were well outside the circle of the elite. By doing so, the man broke with the system; he could no longer be trusted to protect the social arrangement. (I owe this insight to a wonderful book, The New Testament in Cross-Cultural Perspective, by Richard Rohrbaugh.)
But you will object, that was after the invited guests refused to come! Yes, but what if the man had already shown signs of breaking the boundaries, of ignoring the rules of his social network? One of the greatest films ever made, La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939) by Jean Renoir, depicts such a closed society with definite rules.
Perhaps the man in the parable had already brought into his home some beggar or unsavory character? Perhaps this man had shown courtesy to a “Lazarus” – unlike the rich man in that other parable that Jesus spoke (Luke 16:19-31). Perhaps he was already suspected of not playing by the rules. And his behavior in this parable simply confirmed their suspicions. As a result, he placed himself outside the circle. But he now placed himself in the bigger, wider circle of God’s own making.
Immediately after this parable, Jesus is followed by many people, and he tells them that unless they turn their back on families and relationships and possessions, they cannot be his disciples. We hear Jesus say such things several times in our Gospel readings during the year. We should understand these sayings in the context of this parable. To be a disciple of Jesus you have to move outside the narrow circle you’ve been accustomed to. You must move into the new community that Jesus creates – which he creates daily, constantly! As Paul tells us in today’s reading from Colossians, “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, barbarian, Scythian, etc., but Christ is all and in all.”
The Liturgy is the place where this new community begins. Notice how often Jesus used images of dinners and banquets. Here the walls are broken. There are no divisions, no first and last places. Liturgy is our teacher, our inspiration. Though I decided not to talk about excuses today, think carefully about your own reasons for not participating in Liturgy.