The Parable of the Great Dinner
15 One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, ‘Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’ 16Then Jesus said to him, ‘Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, “Come; for everything is ready now.” 18But 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 apologies.” 19Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.” 20Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.” 21So 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.” 22And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” 23Then 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. 24For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.” ’
I served a small, rural church for four years in the beginning of my vocational ministry (though in any sense of the phrase I am still very much “in the beginning”). Advent rolled around, and I created a lunch/speaker series called the Advent Luncheons. I cooked chili, baked potatoes, and soup. I called ministers from the area and invited them to come and speak on topics relevant to the Season of Advent. I advertised to the church and some members of the community.
I remember going home and telling my wife, “If I can’t compete with Bean Day, I may need to find another line of work!”
The day of the dinner arrives, and the master of the house sends his servant out into the town to check on the invited guests. They offer to the servant their apologies and excuses for not attending. This is where the homiletics get tricky, as well as the modern-day implications for our discipleship. These were not lame excuses. Inspecting your land, tending to your new oxen, and being present for your wedding celebration are not tantamount to Bean Day. This was an agrarian society, contracts heavily involved word of mouth, face-to-face interactions, and hand shakes. Hospitality was huge and wedding celebrations lasted up to seven days. What would it say to your spouse and your families today if you attended your own wedding ceremony but skipped the reception or the honeymoon? Fred Craddock rightly calls these apologies attractive alternatives. Attractive alternatives appear legitimate, are important, and need our attention. The dinner host isn’t dealing with people skipping out because they need to wash their hair and clip their toenails. These people are declining attendance because of economical and familial obligations.
These excuses are often preached as the shocking portion of the parable. They are not.
The second section of the parable involves the master sending his servant out into the town to bring in “the blind, the poor, the crippled, and the lame.” These are people who are in a different economic status, living a different life than those originally invited. The servant goes back into the town and begins to reach out to a different class. I can’t help but think of the rest of Jesus’ dining etiquette in Gospel of Luke. “Don’t sit at the head of the table. You’re sure to be moved down by someone more important than you. Instead, sit at the foot of the table and be elevated.” Those who would have normally ranked higher in the seating chart have fallen away, and so the servant moves down the table, and in doing so moves a few seats closer to where we can find Jesus.
This invitation is often preached as the shocking part of the parable. It is not.
When Methodism was at its greatest in the colonies, states, and the Expansion – when Methodism was the largest denomination – they were ministering with and inviting in freed slaves, women and children, and coal miners.
They were taking in people that others didn’t want in their churches. In fairness, I must say that it didn’t stay that way (see US United Methodism today with its 92% Caucasian aging demographic, middle to upper-middle class tendencies, increasing costs and declining attendance, etc.) but there was a time that Methodism truly was a great shrub in the garden that took in all kinds of birds from the air to nest in its branches. Methodists didn’t just invite within the lanes of the town they were comfortable with and knew well, or within one specific class of individuals. Methodists did what the servant and the master finally did in the third section of this parable.
This is the shocking part of the parable!
The servant has gone out and invited in the blind, the poor, the crippled, and the lame. There was still room at the table, and so the master sends the servant completely out of the town:
“Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.”
Any time you think you’ve gone to least of these, or far enough out of your comfort zone, or into the neediest neighborhood, or the most-shunned group in society, I hope you will find what the servant found: there was still room at the table. There were still empty chairs.
We who are reading this right now are most likely those who have already been invited, know the master and the house and know about the party, and are now battling the attractive alternatives. As Jesus often does, we are humbled greatly by his teaching. We know that the table and chairs stretch on further than we can see and we are probably not the most important guests. We know that if our attractive alternatives take us away there will be others to invite.
For there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one lost sheep who is found than over ninety-nine righteous sheep who already know they are a part of the flock. There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one new guest to the dinner than over ninety-nine who are already on the guest-list and must send their apologies on the day of the party.
We walk the line between Bean Day Thursday and Sunday worship. We must choose where we invest ourselves and who we invite in light of, and often in spite of, the attractive alternatives.