Invitational: Guest List
When I was a child, we were allowed to have a birthday party every year, but we had to alternate the size of our party every year. One year, we’d be allowed to invite as many friends as we wanted, and the next, we were allowed to invite perhaps two or three friends to do something special with us, like going to Skate-a-while. I’m one of four siblings, and this policy helped to keep birthday party spending under control, since it seemed like it was always someone’s birthday. Either way, big party or small party, determining the guest list was an important matter. Did you invite your whole class? Even the kids you really didn’t get along with? Or did you leave a few people out? What about friends from church? Or friends from camp? And if it was a small party year – how to choose the two or three who were your very closest friends? I remember making lists in my diary, trying to figure out exactly who would be invited.
It doesn’t get much easier as adults. I officiate at many weddings, and sometimes in the planning process the couple will lament to me that they’re having trouble figuring out who to invite. One couple had their guest list pared down to a certain number of guests, only to have the respective sets of parents add dozens of names to the list that they felt just had to be invited.
Today, as we continue to think about what it means to be an invitational church, we turn to a parable from the gospel of Luke that centers on, believe it or not, the guest list for a party. The scene of our text today is set at the beginning of chapter 14, when Luke tells us that Jesus has been invited to the home of one of the prominent Pharisees to share in a meal on the Sabbath. Pharisees were religious scholars, interpreters of the law of Moses. And Luke tells us that they’re on the lookout, watching Jesus very closely while at supper, almost expecting him to break the laws governing the keeping of Sabbath, which he is prone to do. He doesn’t disappoint. He heals a man, arguing that doing so is as necessary as pulling someone from danger, helping them up from a fall, things allowable on the Sabbath.
Next, Jesus makes note of how people come in to the dinner table and look to choose the places of honor. He tells people that those who choose the best places for themselves should watch out, lest the host come and tell the guest they must give up their seat for someone more important. This might not communicate to us today when we think of being invited over to a neighbor’s for dinner. But if you think about being invited to a wedding reception, one of the few places where it is common to be assigned seating that might be related to your closeness to the hosts of the event, you get the idea. You wouldn’t want to sit too close to the bridal party’s table, unless you knew that was where you were supposed to be – perhaps unless you were family, or close friends. How embarrassing would it be to be asked to move? Jesus gives this example to make a broader point, a familiar refrain of his throughout the gospels: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus continues saying “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’” The people Jesus lists – the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind – all of these people would have been on the fringes of society. They would not be at the Pharisee’s table. Who people ate with was a fairly regulated affair in Jesus’ day. There were rules to be followed and hierarchies to be observed, just as Jesus’ comments about who sits where suggest. And as we’ve talked about before, even today, who we actually sit down and eat with, share meals with, even today – that tends to be a pretty small group of people. If they weren’t already, the others dining with Jesus were probably getting pretty uncomfortable.
One of the fellow dinner guests, hearing Jesus, responds, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.” It’s hard to tell if he’s agreeing with Jesus, or just convinced that he will be among those dining with God, but his words prompt Jesus to share a parable.
Someone gives a dinner and invites many people. And when the time comes for the dinner, he sends his slave out to let the invitees know that it is time to come to the feast. But suddenly, they all have excuses, and can’t attend. The slave reports back to his master, and that master is angry. He sends the slave back out, to the streets of town, and then further out into the roads and lanes, to invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame, inviting more and more until the house is filled. ‘For I tell you,’ the master concludes, ‘none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’
The party giver in this parable isn’t just mad because people had other plans and didn’t drop everything for his party. When Jesus mentions that the slave goes out to call the guests to come when the banquet is ready, this isn’t the first time they’re getting the invitation. In Jesus’ day, the invitation would have happened in two parts. “(1) the initial invitation some time ahead [of the event], and (2) the actual summons to the meal when it is ready.” You can think of it as the invite to dinner, and then the host actually telling you, “Dinner’s ready,” so that you come sit at the table. The guests the slave summons would have already been invited and RSVPed ‘yes’ to this banquet some time before the summons that takes place in our passage. So their excuses now represent a sudden, last minute change in plans. And their behavior, then, as now, would be considered impolite. For all those people to not show up would result in bringing shame on the host.
The excuses the guests give aren’t very sound, either. The tract of land purchased already would have been examined before this time. The oxen would have been tested. The new groom would have known about the wedding when he was first invited and could have refused then. The guests, one after the other, give excuses, and their excuses, coming at the last minute, after they’d already said they were coming, represent a great insult to the host, and a very weak attempt on the part of the guests to cover their own rude, neglectful behavior.
And when the master sends the slave out to invite more guest, Jesus lists the same group of ‘unwanted’ community members that Jesus mentions before he begins telling this parable – the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. When the master sends the slave out yet again because there is still room, the roads signify people even farther from the center of acceptability. These people would be considered ritually unclean, socially unacceptable. These people, the master invites into his home.
How we understand this parable has to do with what role we assign ourselves in the story. Who do you think we are in this parable? Maybe we first think of ourselves as the master of the house – the one throwing the party. After all, if Jesus was just advising the Pharisees on who to invite to their dinners, that would be a logical conclusion. If we are the masters throwing the party, what’s the message for us? Just, perhaps, what Jesus has already said. Those with an abundance to share ought to share it not with those who already have enough of their own, but with those who are poor in material things. We might conclude that we need to expand our vision, so that we’re seeing not just who is already here, in our lives, in our church, but wondering who it is that might be in the streets of town, who it is out on the proverbial road. I imagine our lives as concentric circles. We’re at the center, with our family, our loved ones. Maybe our church family is next, or close friends. Then maybe co-workers, acquaintances. If we’re the master, Jesus is asking us to figure out who is in these circles way out here, at the edges, and is asking us if we have invited them into our faith communities, into our lives, into our hearts.
But maybe we are simply someone on the guest list, not the master throwing the party. If we’re on the guest list, which part of the list do you think you’re on? Are you in the first round of invitations? Second? Third? If we’re on the guest list, and God is the master, (which sounds a little more likely, doesn’t it?) how do we respond to God’s invitation to us? How do we respond to Jesus’ invitation to discipleship? Perhaps we are like the guests who were on the original invitation list. We said yes to God – that’s why we’re here, after all. But when it came time to actually be disciples…well, something really important came up. Are we waiting for a better offer? Maybe one that doesn’t involve this whole humbling-ourselves thing? Are we letting our lips RSVP yes to God’s kingdom, while meaning for our actions, our lives, to remain unchanged? Do we think that if we are not ready to come, or if we don’t like the guest list, God’s party gets rescheduled? Cancelled? If we can’t be the host, do we just not want to come at all?
Here’s what I think. We are the slave in the story. A servant of God. We’re the messengers. We get to deliver the invitations – but the invitations are God’s invitations. Because the party is God’s. The feast is God’s. God is the party-thrower, the inviter, the host. It’s God’s table. It is not our party, and not our guest list. We’re not the ones in charge. We’re not the hosts. We don’t choose who gets invited or not. We can help out, but it is God who is setting the banquet table. It is God’s role to determine the guest list. And God’s guest list is really long. It contains lots of surprises. Even the kids in our class we don’t like, but God is inviting them anyway.
We’re messengers, sent from God into the world to share God’s invitation to relationship, to discipleship, to the party that is life with God. And sometimes we’re like the slave in the story, returning to God with bad news that some people have declined the invitations, and expecting, perhaps, that God will stop there. But God is going to send us out again and again, pushing us to travel to the places we don’t normally go, sending us with piles and piles of invitations to distribute. God is throwing the party of a lifetime. We have the great privilege and responsibility of serving God and helping to deliver the best invitations people will ever receive. So let’s get to work. There are a lot of invitations to deliver. Amen.