The remarks about hospitality and table manners Jesus makes at the beginning of the passage we read today, as well as the story he tells about the big banquet where all of the invited guest decline the invitation so kindly extended to them are at the heart of the gospel of Luke in a cluster of stories and sayings where Jesus challenges his listeners to chose and make a decision about whose side they want to be on: Gods or not Gods.
At the end of chapter 13, just before where the reading for today started, Jesus says:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills its prophets and stones those who are sent to it!
Words that sound very similar to those we heard from Jeremiah and psalm 81. Words of complaint from God saying that although God offered healing and prosperity, although God has saved his people innumerable times from all sorts of dire situations, people have turned their backs on God and wont give God his due.
What wrong did I do that your fathers went far away from me? Didnt I lead them out of Egypt, didnt I safely guide them through the desert? Didnt I bring you to a plentiful land? You abused and defiled it and made my heritage an abomination ..
Words that show a God in distress, a God disappointed and disillusioned, begging to be heard and loved by his people. And never getting anywhere with people that prefer their own broken cisterns to the fountain of living water the Lord is offering.
A sad God complaining about his people, a vulnerable God, not quite sure how to draw his people to himself, how to pull them close to his heart and be able to care for them.
The almighty on his knees .
It is this God, this recurring theme from psalms and prophets Jesus refers to with his words about Jerusalem killing the prophets and stoning those who have been sent to her just before he tells the parable of the great wedding banquet with God as the host. A host that invites many to his feast, but gets a very meagre response to his invitations. A host who has offered hospitality but is turned down. A host who has laid on a feast but gets a thank you but no thank you from all his guests.
A terrible thing to happen. A host offers himself, opens his house and heart to people, is prepared to share and show generosity, makes himself vulnerable by opening his door to people . and is turned down.
Declining an invitation like that is an affront that would be difficult for anybody to swallow, not in the least by the Creator of all who offers his hospitality to mere mortals.
The mortals however dont seem to be aware of the graveness of their offence. Quite casually they seem to come up with their various excuses: a piece of land, a new span of oxen, a honeymoon. All very valid by the way. In Deuteronomy it is these excuses that are named as reasons for men to be exempt from duties in the army.
There are more important things in life than a meal!
The hospitality of the Almighty something to be considered alongside a host of other, very important things. There are more important things than spending time with God.
That goes for all of us, doesnt it. There is money to be made, there is life to be lived, there are a million other things that need our urgent attention.
How much time do you spend answering Gods invitation? How often does it occur to you that someone is waiting with love and a pair of wide open arms to welcome you into his company? Is it something you ever consider when you think about God, about faith?
The story that is told through all of scripture is that this is the way it is, this the way it happens: that God invites, God calls, and that God is turned down. That God beggs, God cries, God feels disappointed and forsaken, but that God comes back, that God doesnt let go .
And so it is in the story we read today: God opens his doors even wider and invites others, even those who the people who had been invited first, would probably not have wanted to sit at one table with. The poor, the lame, the cripple and the blind. Outcasts in the society of those days. People so clearly cut of from Gods blessing that they were considered to be cursed and were consequently cut off from the community.
Those who had no place at all take their places at the table of the Lord and become guests of honour, those who have nothing to repay are welcomed in with open arms.
Healing takes place, unexpected, people at the bottom of the heap offered fruit of the tree of life.
Its a mirror Jesus holds up to those who have invited him to dinner. A mirror that is confronting and not very pleasant.
You who kill your prophets and stone those who are sent to you!
Jesus will be killed, killed in Jerusalem, rejected by those who would have considered themselves to be first in line for a place at the banquet God had promised to lay on at the end of time.
By the same people who invited him to dinner, probably hoping for a meaty discussion or a few flippant remarks from this up and coming rabbi from Nazareth.
They get abuse and defamation instead.
Right at the beginning of the meal, even before theyre all well and truly seated hes spoiled the party with his flippant and inappropriate remarks, confronting his fellow guests with objectionable actions. Healing a man on the Sabbath, berating them about the seating arrangements, bringing up the issue of social reciprocation. All things that one just did not do!
As everybody including Jesus would have know there were very strict customs regulating all these things. Healing on the Sabbath a contentious issue. Seating arrangements at a meal an excellent and well working tool to enforce social status and the ordering of society. Everybody at the time would have known where to sit and where not to sit, there was a list that circulated before hand to make sure everybody would place themselves correctly in the social pecking order of the day! Jesus would have known this! How could he suggest that some of them might be lower in their socials status then they thought?
And then the paying back issue: nobody would ever think of inviting anybody that could not return the compliment. It would be most inappropriate! Meals were designed in those days to confirm social standing. Inviting somebody that could not pay for a similar party themselves would compromise the party and would lead to other, more important people declining the invitation. It would ruin everything!
It is at this point that one of the other guests tries to lead the conversation into more suitable areas for discussion: "Blessed are those who eat their bread in the Kingdom of God!" That would be something they could all happily agree on wouldnt it?
But unperturbed does Jesus go on: "Someone gave a great dinner and invited many, but nobody came because they all had an excuse .."
With the reference to the Kingdom just before it is all to clear which meal Jesus is referring too, and after the painful remarks about pecking order and recipocration issues all too painfully clear who he considers to be the people that come up with the excuses: Sorry God, no healing on the Sabbath, our rules wont allow it. Sorry God, no social climbing in our circles, decency wont allow it. Sorry God, no room for free meals, our social structure doesnt accommodate those who have nothing to offer.
Over and against all that Jesus puts a God that invites social outcasts, nobodies with nothing to offer and sharing with them at the end of time instead of with those who would have been pretty sure thered be a place for them. So sure in fact that they think they can decline the invitation and postpone their being part of Gods Kingdom for a bit because they reckon God can wait.
It is to them Jesus extends a dire warning: Others may have taken your place by the time you get round to taking it up.
God calls, God beggs, God longs, God gives, God extends and invitation, God waits. For us to come and be close to his heart, for us to be part of his Kingdom happening on earth. God offers, makes himself vulnerable in his giving for us. Leaves it up to us to answer, to take up the invitation, to become part of that contrary movement where social standing is of no importance, where everything offered comes for free, where we are called to offer, in Gods name, hospitality, that will leave us vulnerable and with no obvious gain but the healing and well being of others.
It is for that God we are here today, invited, called, beckoned to come and be part of the people that are part of Gods offering to the world. It is that God that seeks to meet us in worship and that calls us to meet him here, in this building where we come to praise his Holy Name.
It is that God that calls us to take our place alongside him and join our lives to His, sharing and giving and loving as He does. Generously, without holding back, without any reserve, without expecting any gain. Just because we want to be part of Gods loving.