When we were looking at this passage from Luke in a more reflection mode at Rest a couple of weeks ago, I suggested that we imagine a banquet, our favourite food, the things that really get our taste buds tingling. I wonder what that might be for you. I wonder what your go to celebration meal is – do you have a favourite place to go and eat with friends and family to celebrate. In our household there are gradations of celebration. If we want to celebrate something minor, like the end of a school term, then we’ll order in a Dominos pizza. Birthdays are marked with croissants and pain au chocolat for breakfast and birthday cake for tea. Special birthdays or anniversaries we will go to a favourite Indian restaurant. I wonder what it is in your house, with your friends.
I hesitate to claim that something is universal, because there are always exceptions to any generalisation, but it does seem to me that celebrating by eating together is probably as close to a universal experience as you can get. Most human cultures across the world and through history have marked special occasions by eating some kind of special meal together. We see the range of this in the Bible, from huge feasts lasting several days to mark coronations, religious festivals, or just parties, to simple meals of grilled fish on a beach – eating together is a thread that runs through many of the accounts of life the are recorded in the Bible.
Given the near universal expression of eating together and feasting as a cultural phenomenon, it is hardly surprising that the Biblical writers draw on this image as one that can help us connect with what life with the goodness and abundance of God’s provision for us, both in this life and in the life to come.
A good example of this is found in Psalm 36, v5-9
“Your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies. Your righteousness is like the highest mountains, your justice like the great deep. You, Lord, preserve both people and animals. How priceless is your unfailing love, O God! People take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house; you give them drink from your river of delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.
In this great poem, praising God, we get the great virtues of God – love, faithfulness, justice, as we might expect, but in the same list is the feast of the abundance of God’s house. God’s generosity and abundance are as core to who God is as are love, faithfulness, and justice. Which means that feasting in the kingdom – making the most of God’s generosity – is as much an expression of a faithful Christian life as our responses to God’s love, faithfulness and justice. Yes, of course, our response to God’s generosity to us will be generosity to others, but it will also include enjoying that generosity. We feast ourselves, as well as inviting others to join the feast.”
As we move into the book of the prophet Isaiah, we find images of the feast that Go d is preparing. We might want to think about whether these prophecies are intended to be an image of the restored earthly kingdom of Israel, post exile, or whether they are intended to be images of the final restoration of the Kingdom of God over the whole of creation. Perhaps it’s both. Either way, we can draw out some of the characteristics of what God’s rule and reign look like, on earth and in heaven.
In Isaiah 25: 6-8 we read:
“6 On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
the best of meats and the finest of wines.
7 On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
8 he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.”
This description of the feast that God is preparing is particularly interesting because of the universality of the guest list. And it’s not a hint, or a single appearance, it runs through the whole picture, it is at its heart. It’s for all peoples. God is going to destroy the shroud enfolding all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations. Tears will be wiped away from all faces. Towards the end the focus shifts back to God’s people, but it seems to me that there is a strong link made here between the universal invitation to the feast, and the removing of the disgrace from God’s people. We will return to this later.
In Isaiah 55:1-2 we read:
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
2 Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labour on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Again, we note the universality of the invitation, “come, all….” Here, though our minds our drawn to Jesus’ proclamation in the temple courts at the feast of the tabernacles, recorded in John chapter 7, when he stood up and said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.” This, in turn, repeats what Jesus had said to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, and what he had said to the crowd after the feeding of the thousands in John 6. He is the source of living water, he is the bread of life, he is the feast that satisfies and keeps spiritual hunger and thirst at bay. More than that, the living water then flows from us to others. As we enjoy the feast, so we are empowered and enabled to draw others to the feast.
There are many other examples of feasts and festivals in the Old Testament, often linked to the sacrificial system. This link is seen clearly in the accounts of the first Passover. The people of God were enslaved in Egypt, and God had sent Moses to free them from this enslavement. On the night before they were going to escape, they celebrated the first passover. Through Moses, God tells the people that each household is to take a lamb and slaughter it. Then we read this in Exodus 12:7-8:
“Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the door frames of the houses where they eat the lambs. That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast.”
Sacrifice and feasting go together. The lamb is sacrificed, the blood is used to mark the doors, and then the people share the meal together. Later on, after the people have escaped, and God gives the commandments of how they are to live together, and how they are to worship, this duality continues. Most of the produce that was brought to be sacrificed – meat, grain, oil, wine, was then eaten by the priests or the people who brought it. Some of it was burnt up, but most of it was eaten – feasted upon. As we read through the Old Testament we find this pattern repeatedly, a pattern which is picked up by Jesus at the Last Supper, also a passover feast, and continued on in our communion services.
And so, we come to the New Testament, and our passage for this evening, from Luke 14. But, before we dive further into that, I think we will need to go back a bit first. What does the first line of this passage say? “One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him….” Hold on a minute, we’re at a dinner with guests, that might be important. And what is it that this guest has heard that has prompted him to say something to Jesus? That might be important as well. So, let’s go back to the beginning of chapter 14 and see what’s been happening.
As we do, we discover that Jesus has been invited to a Sabbath meal at the house of the leader of the Pharisees. This is a big deal. According to the Talmud, observant Jews should eat three meals on the Sabbath – one on Friday evening to mark its beginning, and two on the Saturday. We don’t know which of these it was, but all three had religious and social implications. This wasn’t just someone being invited to Sunday lunch, in Jewish culture expressions of faith were integrated into family life. You didn’t go to synagogue for the primary expression of Sabbath – you marked it with your household in your home. Feasting and faith intertwined.
We know that Jesus and the Pharisees didn’t always see eye to eye, but for some reason this leader of the Pharisees wanted to invite this wandering rabbi and miracle worker to his home for a Sabbath meal. Jesus had accepted the invitation, but wasn’t in the mood to make things easy for his host.
He starts off by challenging the Pharisee’s understanding of the Sabbath, and their application of the Sabbath law. He sees a man living with dropsy, and asks the question, “is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath or not?” They refuse to answer, so Jesus heals the man. In passing, we note that Jesus took the man away to do this. Perhaps to give him some dignity and privacy, not just an exhibition in the Jesus’ show, but a person who Jesus saw and loved. When Jesus returns he again challenges the other guests on their understanding of the Sabbath law. They were happy enough to share the physical food on the Sabbath, but would they truly revel in God’s abundant provision, and would they allow everyone to enjoy the overflow of that provision?
Jesus hasn’t finished making them uncomfortable though. He’s got a couple of other points to make. I wonder if you’ve ever had to do a seating plan. The only one I’ve ever had to do was for our wedding. I seem to recall sitting there with lots of bits of paper with names on, and a plan of the tables, working out who would get on with whom, who should be at which table closest to the high table, last minute changes as people dropped out or family members asked if they could bring their new partner. I’m glad I’ve only had to do it once.
It seems that the significance of where people get to sit at special meals is almost as universal in different cultures as the feasts themselves. It surely was in Jesus’ day. Jesus uses this as an illustration of humility in practice. Surely, he says, it is better to take a low seat and be invited up, than to take a high seat, and be asked to move down. But he doesn’t stop there, not only should we be humble about our place in society, but we should extend the invitation to our parties, our meals, beyond those who would normally fit in at our table. We shouldn’t just invite those who can invite us back, but should invite those who could never repay our hospitality, to those who would not even, normally, have even the lowest place at the table because they wouldn’t even be in the room. We might be repaid in this world, but at the resurrection feast, surely there will be reward for those who do this, says Jesus.
And it is this that the dinner guest at the beginning of our reading this evening is responding to. Jesus has been talking about earthly feasts and meals, with a link forward to the great feast of heaven, and this guest picks up on the link and says, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God.”
Which, in turn, acts as spring board for Jesus to tell another uncomfortable parable, of a great dinner to which many are invited, but not everyone attends.
The first thing to notice is the double invitation. At that time it would have taken some time to produce a great feast. Animals would have had to be sourced, selected, prepared, cooked. The initial invitation would have been sent to get an idea of who was coming, so that the right amount of food could be prepared. It’s like the “save the date” invitations that get sent for weddings and other celebrations nowadays. Now it’s time for the “come and get it” invitation – that goes out to those who have already indicated that they will attend.
As Jesus told this story, it is likely that there would have been gasps, and perhaps the odd giggle. The excuses of those who aren’t going to come are flimsy to say the least. No-one sensible buys land without seeing it, or oxen without trying them. It is highly unlikely that a wedding would have been arranged at such short notice that the bridegroom would have been unable to let the host know at the initial invitation that he couldn’t attend. These are deliberate and rude snubs of the host. As one commentator writes,
“Whatever one makes of their excuses, their refusal to join the great dinner is a social strategy the effect of which is the host’s defamation”
The host is furious, and sends his slaves out, to go and find guests who will come, who do want to share in the feast. They do this, and bring people in, but there is still room, so they are sent out to bring more in – this time from the country side. The host even tells his slaves to compel them to come in.
Now, this idea of compulsion is an interesting one. What does it mean to compel people to come to the feast, especially if we’re thinking that the feast represents God’s Kingdom in some sense? I’m not sure, but the explanation that seems to make most sense to me links back to what Jesus was saying earlier about inviting people to parties who could never return the favour. I wonder if you’ve ever had the experience of inviting someone to something, only to have them refuse because they didn’t think they could return the invitation. Sometimes, people are worried that they are not good enough, that they don’t deserve it, that they will never be able to repay it, that they will be out of place, and they need fairly strong persuasion, even compelling, to come in.
The parable finishes with Jesus strong statement, “none of those who were invited will taste my dinner” Which given that the parable was prompted by one of the other guests saying, “blessed are those who eat bread in the Kingdom of God.” might have caused some consternation around the table.
Now, one of the most common readings of this parable over the years has been to understand the recipients of the first invitation as the religious Jews. They had received the initial invitation to the feast through the prophets, and now Jesus is here, telling them that the feast is ready, and they are declining the invitation in a rude and insulting manner. The invitation then goes out to the irreligious Jews, those in the city – the publicans and sinners Jesus spent time and ate with. Then, the invitation also goes out to the Gentiles, those in the country side. And it is these, the unexpected who end up at the feast, instead of those who expected to be there, indeed who expected to be seated at the highest seats there.
This reading does make sense, and it does fit with much of Jesus’ other teaching. There, however some problems with it. Given what we read earlier in Isaiah about the universality of God’s invitation to the feast, does it make sense for the others only to have received the invitation as a result of the refusal to attend of the first invitees? Does it suggest that God only invited us to the party because of anger with those who snubbed the initial invite?
I’m not sure that these are fatal objections, perhaps they are just reminders that we are dealing with a parable, and we can get in trouble if we try and apply every aspect of the characters in the parables to the realities that they broadly represent.
So, as we’ve dived into this passage, and the wider ideas of feasting and banquets in the Bible, where have we ended up? What might we take out of this for our lives? It may be that as we’ve been exploring God has been putting something particular on your heart, and if so I encourage you to continue to reflect on it, and respond to it in the coming week. I have two particular suggestions to make as we come to a conclusion.
Firstly let’s consider our response to God’s invitation to enjoy feasting. It seems to me that this invitation is not just to a single feast, but to the ongoing enjoyment of God’s abundant generosity. This includes, but is not restricted to, our response to the invitation to the heavenly and eternal banquet. Yes, our response to Jesus invitation to repent and follow him is important, but God’s feast doesn’t begin in the future. It has already begun. Are we enjoying it today? This isn’t to say that there aren’t challenges, painful times, suffering – not everything is always great, yet. Even given this, however, it seems to me that we can aim to cultivate an attitude that inclines towards enjoying the good things that God has given us, celebrating God’s generosity to us.
The second thing for us to consider is our readiness to invite others to join the feasting. This has very down to earth, practical applications. Will we open our homes and tables to those outside our normal social circle and comfort zones? Our invitations to people to join God’s feast are likely to ring hollow if we are not willing to invite them to join in our own meals. An invitation to Sunday lunch can be a big thing, so if you need to start small – going for a coffee or a pint, sharing a table in the work’s canteen for lunch. One of the best ways to show God’s hospitality to all is to be hospitable to all.