You are Cordially Invited

Series: Taste and See that the Lord is Good

#3:  You Are Cordially Invited…

Luke 14:12-24 (NLT)

By Rev. John Gill

Football season has begun.  How many of you like football?  What is the premier event in the world of football?  The Superbowl, right?  How much would you pay for a ticket to the Superbowl?  For fans, there is nothing more highly prized than a pair of Superbowl tickets on the 50 yard line.  I’m sure those are snapped up almost instantly once they go on sale, and if you waited tool long, would be impossible to get unless you are willing to pay thousands of dollars to a scalper.  Yes, the Superbowl is one of the most exclusive events in all of sports.

Our text this morning is about another exclusive event – a great banquet.  Unlike a football game, it is an event you can’t buy your way into – you can be admitted to this special occasion “by invitation only.” In Biblical times, an invitation to such a special event as a banquet would be highly prized – and persons receiving such an invitation would clear their calendars so they wouldn’t miss out on such a fabulous feast.

Banquets in Biblical times were very special occurrences, and carried with them a lot of significance that we, in our day, may miss.  They were more than merely a chance to get together with friends – they were events that were packed with meaning.

Throughout the Bible, we see how important banquets were.  If we were to count up all the references in the Bible to banquets and meals, I’m sure they would number in the hundreds!   It’s not surprising, then, that scripture describes the Kingdom of God as the ultimate banquet.

Over and over we see that when covenants were established, they were accompanied by a great banquet. Feasts were used to mark a pledge made between the parties.  That is why, even today, weddings are often followed by a dinner or reception, and why visiting heads of state are treated to a gala banquet at the White House.  We “seal the deal” over food.  The Jewish Scriptures taught that when the Messiah comes and God finally breaks into history to set things right, he will acknowledge his covenant with his faithful people by inviting them to share his presence and experience the abundance of his grace.  They called it “The Great Banquet in the Kingdom of God,” or “The Great Messianic Banquet.”  At that time, God will throw a great party for his elect – who, they assumed, were the Jews.

So, banquets were used to seal the making of a covenant.  But of course, just as we experience in our day and time, banquets in the ancient world also were times of great celebration and rejoicing. Those with invitations to attend were privileged, indeed.  But, too bad for those who were shut out of the banquet.

The Jews believed that, when the Messiah comes and establishes his reign, those who are worthy will be invited and will experience great joy in being in the presence of God. But there is a flip side. Those who are unworthy will be shut out, and forced to look on the festivities from a distance, with regret and sorrow.  Perhaps the most well-known passage that illustrates this understanding of an exclusive banquet is from the 23rd Psalm, – words we can recite by heart: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” You see, for the Jews, the Great Messianic Banquet would be ecstasy for the faithful, but agony for the faithless who are shut out of the party.

That’s what those who first heard this parable believed.  Jesus had gone to a dinner party with some Pharisees, experts in keeping the Jewish law.  When one of them made the of-handed comment, “What a blessing it will be to attend a banquet in the Kingdom of God,” this is precisely what he was thinking. This Pharisee was absolutely certain that, when the Messiah comes and invites people to the Kingdom banquet, his name would be on that exclusive invitation list, and that he would have a reserved place at the table.  But Jesus says, “Not so fast,” and he tells them this little story.

According to our story, the host makes out a guest list and issues the invitations.  It’s like couples today who send out “save the date” cards to those on their wedding guest list – “your on the list, and a formal invitation will soon be coming.  Apparently the guests say they intend to come.  They are told to be ready – that, at a later time, a servant will let them know when the banquet is ready to be served.  And all is made ready for this extraordinary dinner party.  Nothing unusual so far.

At least that’s how the story begins.  But Jesus, the master teacher, always gives his stories an unexpected twist. As Jesus unfolds the story, those originally invited snub the host, making feeble excuses why they can’t come. So the guest list is revised, the doors are flung open, and anyone and everyone is welcome at the banquet table. No longer is it “by invitation only.”  Now its “come as you are” and “first come, first served.”  And those who had thought they would still have reserved places at the table are the one’s left out in the cold, as other, less worthy folks, take their seats.

As with most of Jesus’ parables, whether we hear this teaching as good news or bad news depends upon where you are in the story.  So let’s take just a moment to consider three groups Jesus mentions in this parable and see what Jesus is trying to teach us about the nature of God’s kingdom, and how that insight might give us a new understanding of the great banquet that we will share together in a few moments as we come to the Lord’s Table.

1)  First, Jesus mentions the “insiders.”

Who were those who received an invitation?  The righteous Jews, like this Pharisee Jesus is telling this story to – those at the heart of the Jewish establishment – they were the religious insiders.

They longed for the time when the Messiah would come and the great banquet would begin.  But most of the religious leaders could not accept Jesus as the Messiah, and so Jesus tells them that they may miss the party all together.  Obviously, to hear that they might lose their privileged places at the Table in the Kingdom of God would not have gone over with them very well.  Of all people, they believed that they deserved an honored place when the Messiah comes to establish his reign.  But Jesus is the Messiah, and the Pharisees had failed to see it.  So, like the invited guests in the parable, the Pharisees made feeble excuses as to why they couldn’t come to God’s banquet.

God had sent them an engraved invitation, an invitation that had been delivered by Christ himself, but they refused to accept it.  They had rejected Jesus.  In fact, in Matthew’s version of this parable, those invited actually murder the messenger, just as the religious leaders would soon conspire to have Jesus killed.

But, as bad as this parable makes them appear, we must be careful not to assume that God does not care for “religious insiders” like those Pharisees.  God clearly must want them at the Table since they had been specifically invited to come.  And it’s possible that some who were initially invited to the banquet did come – it would be nice to think so.  Those “insiders” would certainly have been welcome at the table.

So consider this: Many of us here this morning are religious insiders.  Like that Pharisee, do we see ourselves as deserving of a place at God’s table because we are religious?  Are there any here who have trouble accepting the Lordship of Jesus?  Do we tend to make excuses when God calls us?

As a religious insider, you have been given a personalized invitation to the banquet.  Don’t squander it!

2)  The second group Jesus identifies are the “backsliders.”

According to the parable, God bypasses those who are arrogantly self-righteous, and instead, invites people from “the streets and alleys of the town…the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.”   Those in “the streets and alleys” represented Jews who were either living a sinful life, or who had become outcast by society because they had infirmities, which the Pharisees believed were the evidence that God was punishing them for their sins.  Born into the faith, they were religious “backsliders.”  They were the riff-raff of Jewish society.  In that culture, because they were considered sinners, these backsliders would never have been invited to sit at the same table with the insiders – and you might recall that Jesus gets in trouble with the Pharisees for doing just that.  And yet, Jesus implies that, in the Kingdom, that is exactly what will happen.

With this parable, Jesus is telling the Pharisees (and us), that God would rather have, in his Kingdom, repentant sinners and outcasts who know they are unworthy to sit at his banquet table, than self-righteous religious folk who think they deserve special consideration because they have followed all the rules and earned brownie points with God.  Over and over throughout his ministry, Jesus makes this same point.  Or as the Apostle Paul puts it, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”  (Eph. 2:8-9)  You see, while insiders are banking on their own goodness to save them, backsliders are able to testify to the transforming power of God’s grace in their lives.  Those are the kinds of people God wants to fellowship with for eternity in the Kingdom of God!

Do we have any backsliders here?  Is there anyone in the room who knows what it is like to have their lives transformed by the power of God’s grace?  If we were to take seriously Jesus’ instruction to go into the city streets and alleys with an invitation to come to the banquet of God, who would we go to?  How would we invite them?  What would we do if they actually came?

So, Jesus says, there is room at God’s table for “insiders,” and “backsliders.”

3)  But God says that his table is large enough to also include “outsiders.”

Did you notice that the servants are sent out three separate times: to those invited, to those in the streets and alleys, and finally to those “in the country lanes and behind the hedges.”  Who are those in this third group?  They are non-Jews – the Gentiles – like you and me!

This no doubt was the most shocking thing Jesus said in this parable.  The Pharisees might have been able to hear the warning about the dangers of being self-righteous.  They may have been able to consider that God’s grace might extend to their fellow Jews who had sinned but repented.  But it was too much for them to think that the Banquet in the Kingdom of God may be open to people who believed differently from them!

But that is precisely what Jesus was saying.  Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of God is bigger and broader than we want to realize.  It’s like Jesus said in another place, “I have other sheep, who are not of this fold.”

You and I tend to want to check people’s invitations at the door – to restrict who qualifies for God’s banquet –  who is worth and who is unworthy –  who’s in and who’s out – who’s righteous and who is not – who are sinners and who are saints. At the Great Messianic Banquet in the Kingdom, will there be Baptists, yes;  Catholics, yes.  Mormons, ???  Will there be Jews??? What about Muslims, and Hindus, and Buddhists???  To be honest, I don’t know.  But thankfully, it’s not my call.  That’s God’s business.   He is the “host!”  It’s God’s business who he will seat at his great banquet and who will be excluded.  According to this parable, it seems that the only thing that will exclude us from being welcome at the banquet is if we stop inviting others to join us.

The invitation to this banquet in the Kingdom of God is offered to all.  There is room enough at God’s table for everyone!  Even for you.

I think this parable, while directed at the Pharisees to whom Jesus told it, has huge implications for how we in the church ought to think about Holy Communion. Communion is meant to be a foretaste of that Great Banquet in the Kingdom of God, so what applies to the kingdom must also apply to the Lord’s Supper.

As you are certainly aware, many denominations and congregations put some kind of restriction on who is welcome to come to the Lord’s Table when Holy Communion is offered.  Now, they have their own theological reasons for limiting access to Communion, based on church membership in their denomination, or even in that particular congregation. They may require certain types of personal preparation, such as confession to a priest.  They might restrict it only to those who have been confirmed, or were baptized in a certain way, or adhere to a particular set of doctrines, or are of a certain age.  Or they may leave it up to the pastor or the elders of the church to decide who is worthy to receive and who should be turned away.  When those kinds of restrictions are placed on who may receive the bread and cup, that is what is called “closed table.”

But, if the Kingdom of God is like the parable Jesus told, and if holy communion is meant to be a foretaste of that Great Heavenly Banquet, then I don’t understand how those congregations can justify closing the table to anyone.  In fact, if you believe Jesus, whenever we try to restrict access to the banquet because we believe others are somehow less worthy than we are, we are putting ourselves in jeopardy of forfeiting our place at the table when the Kingdom comes!  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to disqualify myself from that Great Banquet by turning anyone away whom God has invited to come to the Table.

That’s why we in the United Methodist Church practice, what is known as “open table.”  We believe that the invitation to the banquet is issued to all people, and whoever chooses to respond is welcome. God’s grace is available to everyone who will come and receive it.  It’s not our place to decide who is on God’s invitation list.  Our job is to invite everyone to come to the Table of the Lord so they can encounter the living God.

In a few moments, we will be invited to the banquet by Jesus himself.  There are only three things Christ asks of us in order to join in the feast:  that we love him, that we earnestly repent of our sin, and that we seek to live in peace with our neighbor.

If you can say yes to those conditions, even you will be welcome to the banquet.