Toorak Uniting Church

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Luke 12: 1, 7 – 24
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
29 August 2004, 9.30am

Looking at the words of Jesus that are there for us to consider today it thought it may be helpful to first of all clarify some of the context those words were spoken in.

Meals were a big deal in the Middle East in Jesus’ time.
A very big deal.
They were occasions where community was shaped and the order and organisation of society was displayed and confirmed.

People invited people they felt were on the same social plane. The guest list was circulated beforehand and if you, as a guest felt there were people invited you didn’t want to mix with you politely declined the invitation. It would hurt your social status if you would respond positively to such an invitation.

On the other hand and at the same time it was considered rude to invite somebody you knew would not be able to reciprocate because it put them in the very awkward position of having to find an apology and make sure everybody else would know about your apologising to make sure the party was not compromised by your presence on the guest list alone.

Inviting and being invited a very tricky business that took thought and attention to get right.

Of course one could, if one’s status was secure enough, invite somebody entertaining or special to lighten up the occasion. A new prophet that had hit the headlines recently probably somebody that would fall into that category where a dinner party for pious and prominent Pharisees was being organised.
The order of seating at the table was very strictly determined by the social status of the guests. There was a very strict pecking order and everybody would have known how to adhere to it. No mistakes would ever be made, every meal a confirmation of the current state of affairs.

A lot of these meals would be quite public. With people standing around and watching important people eat. And again: reinforcing the status quo, making sure everybody knew where everybody else’s station in life was.

It is in this context Jesus has been invited to a meal at the house of an influential Pharisee. Jesus’ social standing was, most probably, rather wobbly compared to those who he is sharing the meal with. He would not have been able to invite his host back. That he was invited at all makes clear that he was held in some esteem and that his news value probably made up for his not being able to reciprocate.

His disciples were probably looking on, together with others, who had come to see how those of importance regard this rabbi, interested in the conversation, hungry for sensation and something different. There weren’t any Olympic Games on television at the time, or any good movies, so some hair splitting between religious leaders and a wandering rabbi would have been a major source of entertainment to those who were not so fortunate to be able to actually lie down at the table with them.

And then Jesus is rude. Very rude. And confrontational. Something one should never be as a guest in polite company.

"When you are invited to a wedding banquet do not sit down in the place of honour." At the time you would know very well where your place would be, you would have checked the list of other guests and decided beforehand exactly where in the pecking order you would be. If somebody would deny you your rightful place you would leave in a huff, not let yourself be sent to a lower place at the table.
Social status something to be proud of and insist upon!

"Why invite the same old gang every time? Invite somebody who can’t repay you!" Now that was even worse: If as a host you put somebody on your list that wasn’t up to being part of the social circle you were aiming at, the others on your list would probably feel offended and decline. Inviting a guest you knew would not be able to host a party themselves very offending.

In this context the rabbi from Nazareth’s remarks are totally absurd.

Fortunately somebody saves the day: "Blessed are those who eat bread in the Kingdom of God." A pious remark of a pious man thrown in at the right time. Steering the conversation away from tricky subjects and bringing up a "safe" topic to talk about: The Kingdom of God, who would be in it and what it would be like. Lots of scope for some theological nit picking!

But Jesus does not comply. Again he shows bad table manners and proves to be an annoying and slightly embarrassing guest.

Against the backdrop of that remark about the Kingdom of God he tells a story: About a man organising a dinner party and inviting many, and none of the guests turning up.

Against the background of the remark made it is clear that Jesus is talking about God and that the dinner party is the big feast God will lay on at the end of times according to the prophets.

The Pharisees felt certain that they would be part of that feast. The only question really who else would be there. They would be at the top of the list they felt, pious, following the law to the letter, held in high regard in society as people of high moral standing.

The crippled, lame, blind and poor people that, as far as Pharisee theology was concerned, would never ever qualify for a place at the banquet of the Lord at the end of time. The fact that they were crippled, lame, blind or poor indicating that they or their forebears had sinned gravely and that God had withdrawn his goodness from them.

These people were untouchables!

And yet, Jesus dares to suggest that they will take the place of noteworthy and good citizens! Worse: Jesus suggests that the noteworthy and good citizens fail to recognise the importance of the feast and the person that is inviting them and decline their invitations. Even though they come up with good excuses, things that according to Deuteronomy would keep you from going to Holy war if there was one, but still: God is inviting and the people that are first on the list of invitees indicate they got other things to do.

Unperturbed God goes on to invite others, who are considered to be less suitable guests, and fills his house with joy. He knows they won’t be able to pay him back, he knows he may well lose the "important" people altogether after this move. And still he does.

There is a nasty sting in this story, for the Pharisees, and also for us: You who know so well how life is organised, how to get your priorities right, how to live a life of righteousness that will yield eternal life eventually, you got it all wrong. God is different, he doesn’t fit in with your social rules and social order. God doesn’t fit into your dinner parties and polite conversation. God does not depend on your goodwill as guests, on your good behaviour as socially and politically educated people, on your getting it right in the world. God solely depends on his generosity, on the wideness of his heart.

Being part of God’s Kingdom is not determined by social or religious standing, it is solely based on who takes up his invitation and becomes part of something that is altogether different.

A community where the rules of polite society do not apply, where the first come last and the last are put in the place of prominence. Where blessing and grace are for free and everyone gets invited. And where the turning down of God’s offer by some leads to the invitation of more and more unlikely people to become part of that great banquet at the end of time.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2004

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.