Ancient Answers

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The Rules of the Game


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.

9781597528276Is 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.


(Click to enlarge)


(Click to enlarge)










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.

A great banquet hall, but still not big enough for all God's people.

A great banquet hall, but never big enough for God’s idea of a banquet.

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You know what is boring?

Audio file of today’s sermon

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort…” These are the opening words of one of the best and most popular novels of the 20th century, The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. The third and final installment of Peter Jackson’s overdone and overlong film adaptation opens this week.

“…by some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, and the hobbits were still numerous and prosperous, and Bilbo Baggins was standing at his door after breakfast smoking an enormous long wooden pipe that reached down to his woolly toes (neatly brushed) – Gandalf came by.” And Gandalf came to invite Bilbo to an adventure, something hobbits have little inclination to do! So Bilbo invites Gandalf to come back tomorrow for tea instead.

“Just before tea-time there came a tremendous ring on the front-door bell, and then he remembered! He rushed and put on the kettle, and put out another cup and saucer, and an extra cake or two, and ran to the door.

“I am so sorry to keep you waiting!” he was going to say, when he saw that it was not Gandalf at all. It was a dwarf with a blue beard tucked into a golden belt, and very bright eyes under his dark-green hood. As soon as the door was opened, he pushed inside, just as if he had been expected.

He hung his hooded cloak on the nearest peg, and “Dwalin at your service!” he said with a low bow.

“Bilbo Baggins at yours!” said the hobbit, too surprised to ask any questions for the moment. They had not been at table long, in fact they had hardly reached the third cake, when there came another even louder ring at the bell.

“Excuse me!” said the hobbit, and off he went to the door.

“So you have got here at last!” That was what he was going to say to Gandalf this time. But it was not Gandalf…” And so it continued, a dozen dwarves came to tea and thus began the adventure that Bilbo Baggins did not want to join.

The first chapter of The Hobbit is titled, An Unexpected Party. Today’s Gospel reading is also about an unexpected party. It was not unexpected in the sense that it was a surprise or unannounced. It had been announced, and invitations had been sent. But it was  unexpected in the sense that it was beyond anyone’s expectations. God is always unexpected, always beyond our expectations, always ready to bestow grace beyond measure. I simply cannot understand how anyone could be bored by the Christian message. It’s boring only when you turn it exclusively into a message about heaven.

But is today’s parable (Luke 14:16-24) about heaven? In one sense it is. But notice the image chosen by Jesus: a banquet, a party! The parable is even more about life here on earth. God invites us to enjoy life in the best way possible, in his company and in the company of God’s people.

The parable is really about community. It asks us: Who are your companions? Who is part of your community? Do you like to keep company with people outside of your circle? And Paul makes it even clearer in the reading today from Colossians, where he writes: “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free, but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

You see, the parable is not so much about us getting somewhere out of this earth, but God coming down to earth in search of us. The “master” is clearly meant to represent God, and the servant who is sent to bring people into the banquet is clearly meant to represent Christ, who came into the earth to seek the lost and the rejected. That is why we read this parable two Sundays before Christmas. It prepares us for the message of Christmas! God came down to invalidate all excuses. As Paul wrote in one of his letters, before Christ came people had excuses, just like the people in this parable have excuses – all valid excuses, by the way. But once God revealed himself to us in the coming of Christ, the excuses are finished.

God is building a community that is beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. They say Christianity is losing ground. Superficially perhaps. And if you watch too much Fox News you’ll hear what they call the “War on Christmas.” Forget the propaganda, forget the pessimists; don’t look at things through a narrow focus. The fact is that many who call themselves Christians might be the ones with the excuses. God is casting his nets wide, very wide, and he is bringing into God’s kingdom all sorts of unexpected people – unexpected by the excuse makers, that is. Unfortunately, the church chose to complicate the meaning of this parable by attaching an additional sentence at the end that is not part of Luke’s parable: “For many are called, but few are chosen” – taken from a completely unrelated Gospel passage (Matthew 22:14). The message of the parable is actually the exact opposite of this unrelated appendage!

Parable of the Great Banquet - Excuses, Excuses, Excuses!

Parable of the Great Banquet – Excuses, Excuses, Excuses! (click to enlarge)

Many people say Christianity is boring. You know what is boring? A life of excuses. THAT is boring! Don’t you get bored listening to people making the same excuses, why they don’t call you, why they forget your birthday, why they can’t stop drinking or smoking? Why they can’t help eating too much? Why they can’t come to Liturgy or help at the Festival? Why your child can’t do better in Math? Don’t you get tired of listening to the same excuses? Well, do you think God enjoys excuses more than you do? St. Paul tells us today to put off the old ways and become new, “renewed in knowledge after the image of [our] creator” (Colossians 3:10) Now that is exciting, and it’s not about heaven. It’s about earth and our life here. It’s about community – community without boundaries; community that knows no boredom, because it is always welcoming others, always embracing change, always welcoming the Spirit of Christ to be in our midst, in our worship, to open our eyes to the divine reality that is here.

People call the Liturgy boring. Why come, when it’s the same week after week? I beg to differ. Maybe it’s the people who call it boring who are boring or just bored. Every time I’m tempted not to believe in the Christian message, it’s the Liturgy that pulls me back. I can’t explain it in easy words, so I won’t try.

In his first letter, John wrote: This is what we proclaim to you: what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked upon and our hands have touched – we speak of the word of life. “What… our hands have touched” – beautiful. And I may add, what we have tasted with our mouths.

“Our Father who art in heaven…” we pray. But God is not just in heaven. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” God is on earth. God is with us – Emmanuel is his name (Matthew 1:23; Isaiah 7:14). The one whose birth we will celebrate in ten days. Now that’s something to get excited about. That is not boring. But God meets us here every time. We ask for the Holy Spirit to come upon us and upon the gifts here offered – upon US and upon the gifts.

Plenty of room in God's banquet

Plenty of room in God’s banquet (click to enlarge)

I’m glad you’re here today. I’m glad you’re here to share this eucharist with me. I’m glad you’re here to sit at the banquet. I’m glad you’ve come from all directions of the compass, from so many backgrounds, from different cultures and languages. I’m glad you’re here. But there are many missing, many who have excuses. Will you go looking for some of them? There is still room in God’s kingdom, lots of room. Don’t listen to the pessimists. God will bring many to the party. Bilbo was surprised by the dwarves who crowded into his hobbit-hole. We will be surprised immeasurably by who we will see sitting at the banquet of life – here and in heaven.

No human banquet can compare with God's banquet!

No human banquet can compare with God’s banquet!