Jan 15th, Love is a Wide Word – Parable of the Banquet, with Becca Ellis
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Love is a Wide Word – Parable of the Banquet, with Becca Ellis.
This Sunday, we’re beginning a new sermon series titled seeking a Deeper and More Spacious Faith through the Stories of Jesus. And we’re going to be looking in particular at the stories Jesus told, these narratives called the parables. Jesus would use these stories to point his listeners toward what the love of God really looked like in the world, to challenge the status quo and invite curiosity. He would lead people to asking questions about how they were living their life, instead of just blindly following in some system that didn’t really work for the flourishing of all. The more that I read about Jesus life and learn about the context of the time he was living in, I find myself met with a strange tension when it comes to our faith, because Jesus was constantly pushing back at the boundaries of the religion of his day.
The boundaries or beliefs, if we’re speaking about this in religious terms, offer us security, identity, a sense of belonging. They keep things together, right? Rules give us this nice and tidy way of looking at the world, of knowing where we fit or don’t fit. They seem to keep us moving in an aligned direction towards something. And while I don’t think that Jesus was necessarily against boundaries, it did seem that where the law drew one line, jesus would stand with those on the other side, or where religion said, oh, these people don’t fit in right here, jesus said, no, make the table larger.
And so in our context, I think this invites a pause, a moment to look at the ways our beliefs and religion, when too rigid, might actually get in the way of us living out this spacious and inclusive faith that we’re called to. Jesus always seemed to be flipping the narrative, taking the way our earthly kingdom or societies functioned, and contrasting that with these kingdom of God values, petitioning for us to live in a more spacious way. And even what Jesus said he had come to do was to preach the good news of the kingdom of heaven, that it wasn’t this thing that was far off one day for us to secure for ourselves and go to and live in bliss, but rather it was among us and within us now. And so you would often address this, try to teach this through the art of storytelling. Many of these parables would begin with the kingdom of heaven is like and a parable is often described as just a simple story with a moral lesson in it.
But there’s sort of this other element where there’s this hidden truth, something there for us to unearth and dig out a little bit. And even Jesus understood that not everyone who heard his stories was going to grasp at the full meaning of it, or at least not right away. And so it’s interesting to me. Many of these parables I’ve heard interpreted the same way over and over and over again as if there is one clear cut meaning to it. And some of these interpretations have actually been kind of problematic when it comes to reconciling it with a God whose love is described in other places and embodied in the person of Jesus as unconditional and available to all.
I love stories, and I think some of the best stories are the ones that teach us something about ourselves that earth, some sort of truth that in other contexts we might actually be a little guarded against. But when we enter into a story, we can let our guard down, we can become removed from it, we can get curious. And I think this is why Jesus used parables so much to teach people. So as we dig into these parables over the next few weeks, our hope is that you will be invited into a posture of curiosity, that if you feel challenged or hear a new way of looking at these stories, that you might lean into that discomfort and try to learn something from it. That if you have questions, you keep asking them.
And as more on earth, you might discover a new depth to your faith and understanding of who God is. And I hope that this will inspire more discussion and questions. I’m not here to tell you what these parables mean. I’m simply offering another perspective and more questions, hopefully about what this ancient wisdom might have to teach us today, how it might invite us, even in our own context, into living more fully this faith and spacious way to love. So this week, we’re going to begin with the story Jesus told about a dinner party and table manners.
But before I get into our text from Luke, I want to offer a few pieces of context about ancient Jewish culture that I think offers a little bit more depth to the story. So the culture that Jesus lived in is one where this dichotomy of honor and shame was of utmost importance. And the story took place in the society where there was sort of this phariseaic prosperity gospel in place, that to be rich and have power was evidence of God’s blessing upon you. In the opposite, to be poor and outcast in some way was evidence that God had withheld a blessing from you. And another part of the shame honor system that played out was individuals would work to earn their standing in society.
So the meal table in this context was really the perfect playing field for this, where you would strategically invite guests who would be able to repay your hospitality in some way or help you gain honor in the community. So Jesus is at one of these dinner parties, in fact, when he has this story that he tells, he’s at a Sabbath meal hosted by one of the religious leaders in the community. And here’s what Jesus says. So our text is starting in Luke 14, verse 15. One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God.
Then Jesus said to him, someone gave a great dinner and invited many at the time for the dinner. He sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, come, for everything is ready now. But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, I have bought a piece of land and I must go out and see it. Please accept my regrets.
Another said, I have bought five yolk of oxen and I’m going to try them out. Please accept my regrets. Another said, I have just been married and therefore I cannot come. So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.
And the slave said, sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room. Then the master said to the slave, Go out into the roads and lanes and compel people to come in so that my house may be filled, for I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner. So the traditional interpretation that I have heard for this parable many times is that the host represents God, who is throwing a party, inviting everyone to the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus is the slave who was going out into the world, offering us salvation, calling us to accept him as Lord and Savior. But due to our earthly concerns, such as oxen, land, getting married, we come up with excuses and continue on with our lives, only to miss out on being blessed by God and ultimately saved from eternal punishment and separation from God. But when I get curious about this text and I look at some of the other things Jesus teaches in other places about the Kingdom of God, I think there’s more for us to glean from this story.
Many of Jesus parables were really a commentary on the day in age he was living in. Often he was telling these outrageous stories that his listeners knew were slightly outrageous and trying to flip the narrative a little bit to get them to live into this different way of relating to one another in the world. And I think what’s interesting is when we pull back and look at what Jesus said right before giving this story. So Jesus is at a Sabbath meal, like I said, and he’s in the home of a religious leader in the community, and it says in the text that he is being watched. Jesus is being watched carefully because they were often trying to trap him in his own words or look for some kind of accusatory behavior they could use against him.
But they’re sitting around a table, and Jesus seems to notice how the guests are behaving. They’re all choosing for themselves the places of honor at the table. So first, he offers some unsolicited advice on how gats should act, essentially calling out those seated around the table for their less than covert social jockeying in an attempt at gaming honor. So starting in verse seven, if we go back, he tells them first a different parable. He says, when you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host.
And the host who invited both of you may come to you and say, give this person your place. And then, in disgrace, you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place so that when your host comes, he may say to you, friend, move up higher. Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Now, I find this actually a little funny because it seems to me that strategically positioning yourself at the lowest spot in hopes of being promoted is that really a humble posture that he’s telling them to take on but just to keep going?
Jesus goes further, and he turns directly to the host of the earth and he says, suppose you give a lunch or dinner. He said, do not invite your friends or brothers or sisters or your relatives or your rich neighbors. If you do, they may invite you to eat with them, so you will be paid back. But when you give a banquet, invite those who are poor. Also invite those who can’t see your walk.
Then you will be blessed. Your guests can’t pay you back. Jesus is essentially saying that love is never self seeking and this petty pecking order just doesn’t exist when we live into the values of the kingdom of God. Part of what I find really ironic about this story also is that Jesus was often scrutinized for his table manners. He was called a drunkard and a glutton.
He shared a table with the outcasts of society, ate with those who are considered unclean. And so here he is with this reputation, being closely watched for any inappropriate behavior, and yet he calls out everyone for their poor table manners. So following the thread of the table, historically, the table has actually been a pretty political and divisive space. Norbert Elias, a German sociologist who studied the transformation of manners from the Middle Ages through the 18th century. In his work, he points out how pizza apart the meal table played in creating a more sophisticated class, widening the divide between the proper and the less cultured.
Essentially, the table has long been used to divide the wealthy from the poor. It’s been a place to climb up the socioeconomic ladder, to make strategic, social and political moves and gain something in return. Somehow this thing that you would think is meant to bring us all together over a common, shared human need. Food, sustenance nourishment, can also become a symbol for divisiveness. And this was true in Jesus day also, the hosting of banquets and meals shared around the table, served as a space to negotiate and compete in the social arena.
What Jesus is suggesting, I think, however, is that the Kingdom of God has a completely opposite way of relating with one another. And, you know, I’m reminded of a story this weekend about Martin Luther King, Jr. That he shared in one of his speeches. He was on a flight, and they found the airplane had motor issues, so the flight was delayed, and they gave all the passengers food tickets so that they could go have a meal while the plane was being worked on. So they exit the plane, and Martin Luther King Jr.
He’s the only black passenger on this flight, he notices a server, comes and starts to escort him to where he thinks is going to be the dining hall. But instead, he has led to a compartment with a table with one chair and told that he will be served his meal here. Martin Luther King, Jr. He refuses, and he goes back into the main dining area and sits down. Well, after a while, he notices that everyone else has been served but him.
So he finally is able to flag down a server and ask, when am I going to be served? I noticed everyone else’s and I’m not. And the server says, hey, look, if you want to go back to the compartment, I can serve you there. But this is the city ordinance and law, so there’s nothing I can do here.
Segregation is not really that long ago in our history, and in fact, it’s really still happening at all sorts of levels now, even if we’re not as aware of it. And so yet here is just another instance in history where division has taken place around a basic human right that should be something in common that brings us together. And I wonder if anything would have been different from Martin Luther King Jr. On that day if even some of the passengers were willing to question that law and stand up for inclusion in that moment. Because here’s the thing that I feel compelled about when it comes to this parable.
What is telling us about God, faith and living in the way of Jesus, that it is a wide and inclusive love that we are called to. And there is a very tangible and practical application beyond just some cerebral theology of inclusivity. I know people who can talk theology for endless hours. And theology, this is a word that, for me conjures up images of thick books and words like immutability and eschatology. But theology I don’t think is so much about this defined set of beliefs and knowledge that we attain, but rather a lived experience.
I think I agree with Soren Kirkgarde, the theologian and philosopher, who said being a Christian is not defined by the what of Christianity, but the how of Christianity, right? We think of the Scripture, they will know we are Christians by our love. And perhaps this is even what Jesus is talking about pointing to when he says, I am the way, the truth and the life. Theology is not just theoretical, it is a path that must be walked. And that path isn’t always easy because it defies ingrained social norms and these like, tidy lines we draw to know where everyone belongs.
It causes us to question the structures in place and ask, who are they really benefiting? It makes us look at our own privilege and ask, where does this all come from anyway? It invites us toward repair, to work, towards shalom the reconciliation and healing of all things through giving outrageously in ways that don’t work toward our obvious benefit. It says to forget about your social standing and the views of this corrupt system that just works to make the rich richer and the poorer poorer. Instead, be okay with keeping company with those who some people might not understand.
I’m not interested in a lot of theology if it isn’t practical, if it isn’t something that I can tangibly see and live out in my life. It doesn’t hold a lot of sway because we can sit around a table and discuss these concepts, but if it only ends up drawing more lines and pushing more people toward the margins, it has nothing to do with this way of living that Jesus was talking about. The table has long been divisive throughout the ages, even in our time. Think about holidays and gatherings with extended family, about how we might be bracing ourselves for that one relative’s opinions, or laying some ground rules for our spouse or kids in the car before we go in about what topics are not to be brought up, but in the way of Jesus. We find a reclaiming, an image for an expansive love that keeps inviting even and especially when there is nothing for us to gain.
You know, every month here we enter into sharing around the table together, taking the bread and the cup in remembrance of this inclusive and sacrificial love, this path that Jesus called us to walk, the path he walked to suffering and to death even. We’re asked to consider the idea that not only do you have something to give up, but suddenly the table is full of those who cannot repay you sitting in the seats of honor. And all are invited to this table. Not just the poor or the rich. There is a seat for everyone, no lines drawn, but the ones we draw ourselves.
And we aren’t just talking about dinner parties here. We’re talking about the places we inhabit, the people we encounter, the choices we make every day. So the question I want to leave you with today is, is there room at your table? What is informing the way you move through this world? And whose benefit are you working toward?
Or maybe you’ve been the one to feel left out, cast aside, like you have nothing to offer. So I’m here to tell you that if you have been made to feel like maybe there isn’t really room for you or you’re too much or don’t have enough to offer, whatever stories you have been told about who you are, it’s just not true. You are included in this love at this table, where it’s not about proving something about yourself, having a certain set of beliefs or looking or talking or acting a certain way, as if love is something we give or receive only in expectation that it must be repaid. No, this unconditional spacious and inclusive love is for all. No strings attached, only a deep hope and faith that this love changes us.
But we have to be willing to live into that love. We have to be willing to stand up and say, this isn’t right as we witness the suffering of others. We have to allow ourselves to be continually softened by this love that keeps saying, there are plenty of seats here at this table, and all are welcome. This is where we learn that love is really a much wider word than we can imagine, and there is always more room, peace and grace to you.