The Uniform Series text for Sunday, July 29 is Luke 14:15-24, “the parable of the great banquet.” Here are some notes on that text:
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Who are these “straight men” in Luke? Last week it was “someone” who asked Jesus “Lord, will only a few be saved?” This week, “[o]ne of the dinner guests” says “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” This becomes the pretext for Jesus’ story.
The story seems to contradict the dinner guest’s statement, at least at first – the people invited to the great banquet don’t seem to feel it will be very blessed, or they wouldn’t make excuses, eh?
But how blessed would we feel if we were “compelled” to come to a party, for that matter? (v23) So this is a strange and somewhat disturbing story.
BACKGROUND & CONTEXT: We are still in Luke, just a bit farther on than we were last week. Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem. The immediate situation is a Sabbath meal at “the house of a leader of the Pharisees” (Luke 14:1), where everyone is keeping a close eye on Jesus.
[Maybe we have some experience with this kind of thing, if we have ever been to “meet the parents” and felt like every gesture and word was significant, or been to a lecture by someone who has a reputation for being controversial or partisan or brilliant – people’s pickiness gets activated, people watch and wait for them to say something outrageous or headline-worthy or something that gives the audience a chance to think “heck, that’s not so brilliant.”]
There has been a recurrent theme of urgency in Jesus’ preaching to the growing audience on the way to Jerusalem, but so far, on this occasion, Jesus hasn’t mentioned that urgency. He has healed a man with dropsy at the dinner (Luke 14:2-6), and he has made a few choice comments about his fellow guests’ jockeying for the places of honor around the table, suggesting that people sit in the peanut gallery, and invite the deplorables rather than the elite to their parties (Luke 14:7-14). Whether or not anyone takes Jesus really seriously here, we don’t know.
After this meal, Jesus will be back on the road again, and talking about the price people have to be willing and able to pay to be disciples. Or is it the price people have to be able to pay not to be disciples, to try to make a go of the other way of life? Still to come will be the parables suggesting that God seriously wants to find and welcome back the lost (sheep, coin, prodigal son, chapter 15).
So the parable of the great banquet, which is a story about some people being left out, or leaving themselves out, is followed up right away with stories of people being found or accepted.
CLOSER READING: A person (v16) gave a banquet, and invited or called a lot of people, and sent “his slave” who will later be “the slave” – so, not just any slave, but the specific slave, evidently, whose job it is to go round up the guests – to tell them “Come, for all is now ready.”
It is probably not a coincidence that v17 is in the communion liturgy. [Implication: people, don’t make excuses, be part of this.]
The excuses, according to some readers, are those that count as exemptions from fighting Israel’s wars. (Deuteronomy 20:5-8) They are not identical, however: there is a difference between “buying a piece of land” and “building a house,” surely? Between “being engaged but not yet married” and “just being married”?
Readers who stress the relationship between Luke 14:18-20 and Deuteronomy 20:5-8 see the differences, but think that Jesus is clearly referencing a well-known rabbinic list; he means to suggest that these guests are invoking legitimate exemptions to laying your life on the line in a battle. Should that make us think that these guests envision the banquet as being life-threatening? Ultimately demanding?
But I wonder whether there isn’t another set of comparisons worth making between Deuteronomy’s list and Luke’s. The guests in Luke, unlike the conscripts in Deuteronomy, either haven’t yet put in the time to have an asset (they have only bought the land, not built the house; or started acquiring the wherewithal to get the vineyard in, not gotten it in), or have already completed the pleasure and goodness that is only prospective in Deuteronomy. I.e., maybe, the people in Luke either haven’t gone far enough, or have already been there and done that. So, the exemptions shouldn’t really apply to them. As excuses, they’re a little “off,” maybe.
The slave is doing most of the work in the story – going back and forth, hearing out the guests, reporting to the host. [If this were an allegory, would the slave be Jesus? Or someone else?]
The host does a lot of talking: sends the slave with language; has a couple of lengthy speeches (vv21, 23-24), changing the guest list.
The poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame have come up already in this chapter, as the people to invite to parties (v13) so as to receive a reward in heaven. Some commentators point out that the blind, lame and crippled cannot offer sacrifices in the Temple (but can eat them; Leviticus 21:16-24). The blind and the lame, at least, might also have a connection with warfare – if we think there is some connection with warfare in this story – from the time the Jebusites said “the blind and the lame” would be able to keep David out of Jerusalem (2 Samuel 5:6-10).
But the main point, surely, is that they weren’t invited in the first place. They’re not the A list. The text doesn’t say this explicitly, but implies that they come willingly. We might imagine, because they are thrilled to have the opportunity. It is, presumably, a rare one.
There is room to spare. (v22)
Compulsion is the last resort. Or at least, strong urging – that might be a meaning of the verb in v23. It’s to be used on just anyone – no special qualifications, seems to be the idea. Whoever turns up, first come, first served.
The first guests invited seem to have missed out by having competing priorities; not taking the host up on his original invitation; or, not being ready to come when the host is ready for them to come. They don’t seem concerned about it, either. Almost as if it is an annoyance to have to deal with that invitation.
The host’s anger (v21) is explicit. Filling up the dining hall with 2nd and 3rd tier guests seems to be explicitly for the purpose of preventing any last minute change of heart on the part of the original invitees (v24).
[As a person who begs off of parties more often than not, I feel a little too much kinship with the invitees in vv18-20. Parties seem like so much effort – I would have to get dressed, leave the house, talk to other people, be on good behavior, feel awkward and out of place – and I tend to think I’m not needed, won’t be missed, it doesn’t matter whether I’m there or not – at least, that’s what I tell myself, when my feet are getting cold. I doubt that the challenges faced by introverts are the intended focus of this text. But they are hovering in my peripheral vision anyway. This story makes me think I should make more of an effort.]