(A couple in our congregation were celebrating their Golden Wedding anniversary and had invited everyone to enjoy wine and cake after the service!)
During the week I asked T what she and D did for their wedding reception 50 years ago. She told me they had a buffet meal and I’m sure all their guests were well mannered and didn’t engage in unseemly jostling to get to the front of the queue to be sure of getting the best food! I’m sure they were nothing like the people Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel reading.
Let’s first look at the context of this passage: Jesus has been invited to dine, with others, at the house of a leader of the Pharisees but it’s not a straight forward invitation. We’re told that they were watching Jesus closely and we can be sure that Jesus was well aware of their scrutiny. In that society as well this meal would have been eaten with open doors so that anyone could come in and watch or perhaps beg for food or money.
Jesus watches how the other guests behave and tells them what Luke calls a parable. It sounds like Jesus is giving good worldly advice but because Luke calls it a parable we know we need to be on the lookout for a hidden message that will tell us some profound truths about the kingdom of God.
Jesus says that when you attend something like a wedding banquet it’s better to be moved from your chosen seat to a better one than to suffer the humiliation of being told there’s someone more important than you and you must give up the place you’ve chosen and move to an inferior one.
When I started thinking about this I realized how much we take for granted that we can book or reserve seats for all sorts of events:
Travel: Train, bus, plane
Entertainment: Theatre, cinema, concert, restaurant
Sport: Wimbledon, County Cricket Ground, Wembley Stadium
The best seats will cost more but sometimes a ticket won’t guarantee a seat at all and you stand in a train from London to Penzance!
But when it comes to social events like birthday parties or wedding banquets we attend at the invitation of the host and invitations aren’t for sale – they are gifts of love and friendship just like T and D’s invitation to us to share in their celebrations.
Before we move on let’s just look at the scene of this particular meal that Jesus is attending.
I suspect Jesus has chosen for himself a place removed from the place of greatest honour. If so, there is some wonderful irony here about the Pharisees who believe they have the right to positions of honour, sitting almost in judgment of Jesus who, after all, is just a rabbi from Galilee. They don’t realize that when they are invited to the great wedding banquet in heaven this Galilean rabbi will be exalted to the seat at the right hand of God himself as God’s chosen one, the Christ.
But for now Jesus continues to speak, telling his host that he shouldn’t be inviting only those who can return the favour. He should invite those from whom he can expect nothing. He suggests the people among whom he himself is teaching and healing: the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind – the kind of people who might be watching this meal, hoping Jesus will heal them.
And when Jesus heals people he knows that they will not be able to repay him – is healing is pure gift.
And then Jesus removes any doubt his listeners might have had about the meaning of his words by saying:
“You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous”.
Like them, we realize that Jesus is talking about how things will be at the great wedding banquet in the kingdom of God.
So now we need to put aside our notions of reserving or buying seats and our deeply inbuilt concept of some people being more important than others. We need to forget about celebrities, hierarchies and social class. None of these things will mean anything in the kingdom of God.
Instead we need to learn more about what does matter in that kingdom. So let’s see what Jesus might be saying to us today.
Firstly: It is God who sends out invitations to his kingdom. He sends them to us all in love and with a deep longing for us to say yes, we do want to come. We cannot earn or buy these invitations and there’s nothing we can do to “deserve” them. God would like the pleasure of our company simply because he loves us for who we are and what we mean to him. Just as T and D invite us to celebrate with them because we’re all members together of God’s family – no-one will be excluded this morning!
Secondly: God also invites us in this life to serve him in a certain way whether within the church or out there in our community, in our offices and homes. Some of us may find it very hard indeed to believe that we could possibly be good enough to say “yes” to God – he must have got the wrong person – I couldn’t do that. But that’s not the message of the Gospel and it’s not true humility. We are not humbling ourselves if we tell God and each other that we’re not good enough to take on a certain task. We humble ourselves when we accept God’s invitation with grace, understanding that although we may not feel worthy God has promised to be with us. And with his help and supported by each other we will be able to say yes.
Thirdly: God’s invitation goes out to everyone and he asks us to be as generous and open in our lives. In God’s kingdom we are going to come across all sorts of people and we may need to remind ourselves sometimes that everyone we come across, hear or read about carries with them the same invitation we’ve received from God. We’re not to think in terms of what other people can do for us or whether they will repay us. It’s not for us to decide whether or not someone “ought” to be included or excluded. Our call is to love others as God loves us.
I’d like to end with words from the letter to the Hebrew we heard earlier: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it”
If we believe that anyone we meet might be an angel or Jesus himself we may find our lives changing naturally and with love and humility. Let’s pray that it might be so. Amen.