10/11/2020 Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost The text is Thomas 64: 1-11.
Jesus said, A person was receiving guests. When he had prepared the dinner, he sent his slave to invite the guests. The slave went to the first and said to that one, “My master invites you.” That one said, “some merchants owe me money; they are coming to me tonight. I have to go and give them instructions. Please excuse me from dinner.” The slave went to another and said to that one, “My master has invited you.” That one said to the slave, “I have bought a house, and I have been called away for a day. I shall have no time.” The slave went to another and said to that one, “My master invites you.” That one said to the slave, “My friend is to be married, and I am to arrange the banquet. I shall not be able to come. Please excuse me from dinner.” The slave went to another and said to that one, “My master invites you.” That one said to the slave, “I have bought an estate, and I am going to collect the rent. I shall not be able to come. Please excuse me.” The slave returned and said to his master, “Those whom you have invited to dinner have asked to be excused.” The master said to his slave, “Go out on the streets and bring back whomever you find to have dinner.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
This parable about guests refusing a dinner invitation appears in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, as well as being recounted by Thomas this morning. And I tend to lean toward Thomas’ version; and not just because we share a name. It’s not unusual that different writers recall events with some differences in the specifics. Among the Synoptic Gospels; Matthew, Mark, and Luke quite a few of the details of the events that are recalled differ slightly.
Some of these differences are quite subtle, while a few are rather widely divergent in their specifics. This may be attributed to several different reasons; the gospels were actually written down quite some time after the actual events took place, and recollections may have been fuzzy. The gospel writers were writing for diverse audiences. Being human, each writer had their own agenda, and their writings necessarily reflect that. We didn’t delve into Matthew’s version this morning, but he adds another aspect to the story; he notes that the party host was a king and after his servants were killed by the people who declined his invitation, he ordered their city to be burned. And in Luke, there is the implied threat that those who decline the invitation will not even get a taste of the banquet. Like I said, I rather prefer Thomas’ version.
There is no doubt that Jesus spoke this parable; and in Matthew it is the third of three that he told to the crowds, and especially to the chief priests and Pharisees who had questioned his authority to teach in the Jerusalem temple. So, it follows that Jesus’ intent is to offer up yet more proof to the religious leaders of the day, that he was in fact the Son of God, the long-awaited Messiah. Both Luke and Mark intended to portray the parable as a condemnation of those who would refuse God’s invitation to acknowledge Jesus as Savior. This lends itself to a sense of folks being excluded, while the preferred Thomas interpretation leans more toward inclusion. So, again the Thomas version points more faithfully into the inclusive nature of Christ’s message of redemption for all God’s people.
All the gospel versions of this parable of Jesus include the responses of the invitees as they decline the offer to attend the banquet. They all seem a bit weak to me; “I’m moving into a new house”. “I have to plan my other friend’s wedding dinner”. “I must check on my newly purchased field”. I don’t know about you, but if I am invited to a fancy (and free) dinner, I’m going! After hearing all these reasons why people decline the banquet invitation, the host has his servants go out into the streets to invite whoever they run into. This is a most extravagant proposal; bidding strangers into the house for a free meal.
So, we encounter quite a dichotomy within this parable; those who refused the invitation were presumably friends of the host. Who else would be invited to a big dinner party, other than one’s close associates? And these are the ones to decline the invite. So, he then has his people go around the neighborhood inviting whoever they happened to come across. This group, who ultimately “come to the party” are strangers whom the host has likely never met. And it is assumed that they, once invited do in fact attend. Again, who would refuse a free meal? Well, apparently, there were many who did, giving flimsy excuses for doing so.
As followers of the Way of Jesus, we are prompted to insert ourselves into the Scriptures, to discern how Christ’s parables taught to the people of his day apply to us; as guidance for our lives. This “teaching moment” that Jesus shared with the crowd features rather obvious allegories to those to whom he was speaking. The host of the dinner may be assumed to be either God or Jesus; in Matthew’s version the host is a king giving the banquet in honor of his son’s wedding. The ones declining the invitation are the religious leaders of the day; they refused to acknowledge Christ as Messiah. Thus, Jesus depicts them as petty excuse-making deniers; stubborn people more concerned with clinging to their perceived power than being open to the gift freely offered to them. The banquet itself represents the salvation offered by Jesus, through God’s unmerited grace. And the strangers who were ultimately invited to the meal are those who are open to the reality of the truth of Christ. In Jesus time, these were those who came to follow him; and as his followers today, we assume their role in the parable. We have been invited to the feast, and on the invitation card we have replied; “Yes, I will attend”.
We have been gathered in from the streets and we have accepted the invitation to share in the Holy Supper that Christ provides. And we will once again satisfy our hunger and thirst for mercy, love, and forgiveness as we celebrate the Eucharist at the Lord’s Table. We have to come to acknowledge the truth of Christ and we gladly accept the banquet invitation each week.
But it’s not so much that the invitation is accepted; it’s the fact that the offer to come to the table is a universal one. Jesus doesn’t reach out only to his friends, only to those with whom he has a close relationship. The invite is aimed especially at the stranger. The gift of salvation is freely offered to everyone, to any who simply believe that Christ is Savior. No effort is needed to gain acceptance to the party, there isn’t a “donations accepted” notation on the ticket. There isn’t a bouncer at the door with a clipboard, checking to see if our name is on the list. There’s no need for a tuxedo or black cocktail dress; this party is “come as you are”. And the event doesn’t end with the Eucharist; that is just the beginning of the banquet. It’s what happens after the party ends that’s important.
And the parable doesn’t explicitly recount that; in fact, we’re not even told how many people showed up to the feast after the host’s servant went street-by-street to round up guests. But we do know what our response must be. As recipients of the grace of God, expressed through the bread and wine that free us from the yoke of sin, we are tasked with inviting others to the banquet. It’s time we revisit the characters in the parable, and maybe we should insert ourselves into an additional role. What if we assume the job of the host’s servant, what if we recognize that it is our duty to bring others to the banquet? Jesus intends for all of his followers to be evangelists; to be “evangelical”. Now, before you start to squirm, thinking that I’m about to suggest that we each depart from the normal way that Lutherans express their faith, be assured that I have no intention of asking folks to “evangelize” on the corner.
But, we really ought to reexamine just what the word in the name of our denomination means. We are after all, the “Evangelical Lutheran Church in America”, the ELCA. The term has taken on specific context in our culture, one that historically reserved Lutherans tend to find somewhat disconcerting. But we needn’t be fearful; the word is from the Greek, “euangelion”, and it simply means “Good News”.
This eventually evolved to the word, “Gospel”. So, as Evangelical Lutherans, we are called to spread the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus. Sounds rather like we’re being sent forth to invite others to the banquet. Again, this doesn’t require standing on the corner waving signs, or approaching people we meet, uncomfortably pressing them to “come to the party”. Remember, we’re Lutherans, and our heritage is very much more reserved. What we can do, and what Jesus commands us to do, is to live lives that portray us as followers of the Way. “Love one another”, Jesus commands. “By this, they will know you are my disciples”. Pretty straightforward, no? If, by our actions, if our behavior is such that others wonder what it is that determines how we act, and another is prompted to inquire; consider that to be their response to the invitation.
Each time we act as Jesus commands we become like the servant bringing the unspoken, witnessing invitation to the streets. When we feed, clothe, or shelter, “the least of these”, the invitation to come to the banquet that is Christ’s salvation is presented in a tangible way. So. let us go forth, as evangelists, spreading the Good News of God in Christ Jesus. Let’s invite everybody to the party, “Come to the Table, for all is prepared”. Amen.
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious and Holy God, we have received your Son’s invitation to come to the banquet that is his feast of salvation. Bless us with the will to express our thanksgiving for this gift in ways that would prompt others to respond to the invitation, saying “Yes, I will attend”. And we pray these things the name of Jesus Christ, who welcomes all to his Table of righteousness. And the people of God say…Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.