Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Great Dinner Party

If you think that parties are the domain of the fraternity house, the Friday afternoon office, or the tailgate -- but definitely not the circle of Jesus' followers, think again....because Jesus teaches us in Luke 14: 1-24 that the invitation to life in God’s kingdom is more like the invitation to a great dinner party; a party to which all are invited, but sadly one that not all will choose to attend.

1 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely....12 He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’ 15 One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, ‘Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’ 16 Then Jesus* said to him, ‘Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17 At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, “Come; for everything is ready now.” 18 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 apologies.” 19 Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.” 20 Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.” 21 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.” 22 And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” 23 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. 24 For I tell you,* none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.”

I can’t say I’ve ever been to an “A-list” party but I did attend a benefit for Habitat for Humanity at the Beverly Hills Hotel once. It was a nice dinner, with a lot of very rich and famous people (none of them at my table). As I was retrieving my car after the event I found myself standing out on the curb next to Tommy Lee Jones and his wife (an actor who was paid 20 million for just one of his pictures). As the valet brought up his car, the attendant got out and said, “Jones!” He and his wife immediately walked out and got into their car. OK, I admit it. I had this momentary fantasy of someone driving up in a red Ferrari and shouting "Craig!" -- but it was shattered by the sound of the attendant getting out of my car and saying, “Blue minivan!” 

Now the scene where Jesus tells this Story is an actual dinner party that he had been invited to. Luke tells us that the host was a “leader (archon) of the Pharisees” (1). The point Luke is trying to make is that Jesus had been invited to an elite A-listers event. He was being ushered into the inner circle, as he dined with some of Israel’s prominent religious leaders. Anyone other than Jesus might have been thrilled simply to be invited but Jesus does something shocking…he informs the host that his guest list should have included the poor, crippled, the lame & blind (12-14). Why did he do this?

Perhaps its because he knew that they objected to the way he spent time with prostitutes and tax collectors and Roman soldiers…touching lepers, restoring sight to the blind, apparently more interested in the poor than the religious elite. These are the ones you should have also invited. Imagine the dead silence. A pious fellow tries to change the subject, not realizing it was the subject: “Blessed is the one who will eat bread in the kingdom of God (15)!” So Jesus tells a story about what it really means to be invited to the blessed life in God’s kingdom….

First, the invitation to life in God’s kingdom is like an invitation to a “great dinner,” a holy party (Luke 14: 15-16). The pious dinner guest said that those who eat bread in the kingdom of God will be blessed…and Jesus agrees with that basic idea: that life in the kingdom of God both now and far all eternity is a blessing, something to rejoice in. Once upon a time, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many” Jesus begins. To be part of God’s kingdom is like a great dinner…a celebration, a party.

Now many of the religious professionals of Jesus’ day didn’t get this. Jesus was constantly criticized because he ate and drank with tax gatherers and sinners. Jesus and his band just weren’t serious enough…to their minds. In Luke 5: 33-35, Jesus says “You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them.” Friends, the bridegroom is with us. He has died and risen from the grave, and he is with us now. We have reason to celebrate. I think a lot of us have given in to the idea that passionate spirituality and passionate celebration don’t mix. But our Lord tells us that to be around him is not meant to be a dull, joyless experience.

In Deuteronomy 14, Israel is instructed by God to set apart a tithe each year… for peak times of celebration. They were to gather up a tithe of their grain, wine, flocks etc. and go to Jerusalem and have a party; and if they lived too far from Jerusalem, they were to convert these into cash, bring them to Jerusalem and “spend the money for whatever they wished… whatever they desired. And…eat there in the presence of the Lord…you and your household rejoicing together” (14: 26). In other words, they were to come to Jerusalem live above their normal standard of living; they were to splurge. They were not to stay in the Motel 6, they were to stay at the Hyatt (to borrow an illustration from Arthur Burke). They weren’t to eat hamburgers and fries, but Filet Mignon, and rejoice together with God’s people.

And so in anticipation of the Great Dinner Party that God’s people will enjoy with him one day, we need to practice the party now! It’s a witness to the world when God’s people make a habit of celebration. We need to celebrate with large groups of our Lord's followers at a conference or family camp or fellowship dinner... We need to celebrate in smaller groups, vacation with family or friends, or spend time on a couple’s retreat. We need to celebrate privately, on a personal retreat where we can pray and listen to God’s voice. Hear me again: If God’s kingdom is going to be like a great dinner party, we’ve got to start practicing the party now….

Secondly, the invitation to life in God’s kingdom is a free invitation to all (Isaiah 25: 1-7; Luke 14: 16-17, 21-23). As Jesus continues his story, he says that the host of this great dinner party “invited many” (16). Now it was common in Middle Eastern culture to announce the day of a banquet and send out invitations long beforehand. The host planned the amount of food to prepare, based on the number of people who accepted his invitation. Then, on the day of the feast, servants were sent out to summon the already invited guests, telling them “all is now ready”. That is, the food was cooked and prepared, and was now ready to be eaten. But in Jesus’ story, something extraordinary happens next. All (18) the guests begin to make excuses for why they could not come. To accept an invitation beforehand and then back out at the last minute after everything was prepared was considered a huge insult. Things are not that different today.

Now the incredible thing about this host, is that he refuses to let these rude guests ruin his party. He tells his servant to go out at once into the city streets and alleys. “Collect all who look like they need a square meal, all the misfits and homeless and wretched you can lay your hands on, and bring them here (Eugene Peterson, The Message).” After the servant does this, and his banquet room is still not filled, he commands his servant to“Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled" (23)!

Hear the words of Isaiah 25.6-8, 35:5, 61:1-2: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples feasts of rich food… And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud [of death] that is cast over all peoples….the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped….[and] the Lord has appointed me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Sound familiar? Isaiah is describing the invitation of Jesus: that all who will may come.

Yesterday my girls and I found ourselves in downtown Los Angeles after returning from a visit to my mom and dad's home in Pasadena. Our intention was to head for Olvera Street for lunch but then we saw thousands and thousands gathering along the streets to speak out on immigration. As anyone knows who lives in California, arguments over immigration have reached a fever pitch. Millions come here for work, for a fresh start, and a second chance – some come legally and others come illegally. At this point I want to make a spiritual point from Scripture -- not a political one. Few people have truly experienced what it is like to be a refuge from another country, an "alien" or “foreigner” but the truth is that before God we are all aliens who have been welcomed to God’s party. “Remember," says Paul, "that you who were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship and foreigners to the covenants of the promise… who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2: 12-13). Imagine if we could all live as foreigners and strangers in this world who have been brought near to God, loved, accepted and invited to attend God's kingdom party...

Sadly, we don't live in such a world yet...because the invitation to life in God’s kingdom can be refused, but not without regrets (Luke 14: 18-24). As wonderful as God’s gracious invitation is, the fact is that not everyone wants to accept it. That's the world we live in. In Jesus’ parable, he describes some of the lame excuses that folks use, in order to avoid being there!

Excuse #1 (“I bought a piece of land and I must go out and see it.”) Kenneth Bailey, an expert on Middle Eastern culture shows in his book, Poets & Peasants, that this is a bold faced lie. No one buys a field in the Middle East without knowing every sq. foot of it like the palm of his hand. It would be like saying “I just bought a new house over the phone, and I must go and see it now & the neighborhood.”

Excuse #2 (“I bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out.”) Again, Bailey suggests that is just as absurd as saying, “I just bought five used cars over the internet, and I’m on my way to the garage to find out if any of them will start.”

Excuse #3 (“I just got married, and therefore I cannot come.”) This is Middle Eastern jargon for saying, “I can’t come because I’m busy with my woman.” Bailey contends that this would be heard as a crude excuse; that no one would use newlywed status to back out of such an invitation.

Jesus is teaching us some important things about God’s kingdom here. First, there is no good excuse for opting out of God’s kingdom: it may be a new hobby, a new relationship, a busy work schedule that keeps us from church, or a habit we don’t want to give up, but none of these are worth the sacrifice of our relationship with the Lord and his people. Secondly, the Lord’s invitation has a time limit. “None of those who were invited [and refused] will taste my dinner” (24) Jesus says. If we think we can just crash the party at the last minute, we’re wrong. The door is open to all, but the door will not remain open forever. God will allow us to refuse his invitation.

In his book, The Kingdom of God is a Party, Tony Campolo tells a story about John Carlson, a young Lutheran minister in Minnesota, who gained attention when he came up with the idea of throwing a special party the night of the senior prom for those who didn’t have dates. Get this. He called it the Reject Prom; and it turned out to be such a great party that before long even some of the students who had dates to the prom chose the Reject Prom instead. Now the Reject Prom sounds a lot like the great dinner party in Jesus’ story. It’s a party that everyone who will, may come to. It’s the gift of saving grace. It’s forgiveness for the sinner, strength for the weak, hope for the hopeless, healing for the wounded, and life for the dying. It’s the only party that God is throwing.

Jesus my Lord and Messiah, forgive me for thinking that to follow you could ever be a dull or joyless affair. I see now that the only true joy, the only real party in town is found among those who have come to admit their sins and failures, experienced your gracious love, and begun to walk in freedom as your disciples. I ask your forgiveness for busying myself with distractions, making excuses and keeping you at a distance with my so-called hobbies, responsibilities and personal obsessions. Coming now to this table, I gratefully accept the invitation to joyous fellowship in God’s kingdom as your forever friend and follower. Now may the greatness of your gift be made known through my words and in my life…that all who will may come, and that your house may be filled, to the glory of God. Amen.

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