Tasting Paradise

Preacher: Marilyn Stahl

Scripture: Isaiah 25:6-9; Luke 14:1-24

Jesus said, “I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.” 

Prayer

Lord Jesus,
You are the Bread of Life!
Intensify our hunger for your living Word.
Call us to your great banquet.
Free us from all that hinders our loving response to you.
Bring us into the joy of your reign,
             here and now,
             on earth, as it is in heaven.   Amen.

Opening story

Any mother who prepares daily meals for her family knows, first-hand, that when the food is ready to be served, there is an urgency and an intensity to her call to “come to the table!”  Now.

And how discouraging those times are, when, at the last minute – after everything hasbeen prepared – her entire family does not show up for dinner.  First, her husband phones to say, “I’m sorry, I forgot to tell you that I have a meeting at the office.  I will not be home for dinner.”  Then, her son calls from school and says, “Our band is playing for the basketball game tonight.  Please excuse me, I’ll have to eat later.”  And finally, even her daughter admits:  “I just want to go over and eat at Vanessa’s.”

Today’s gospel is about extending our table beyond the family members and close friends that we usually eat with to include the poor, the homeless, and those that our society has for some reason labeled as outcasts.  It is also about Jesus choosing an unlikely character to be the agent of God’s redemptive work.

Reflection on the Gospel

Perhaps nothing is more surprising and hard to believe about the upside-down world of the reign of God than the wide, all-encompassing embrace of God’s mercy.  In fact, the wideness of God’s mercy often seems like a scandal to us.

Through our journey with Jesus at table these past weeks, we have seen Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners. We have watched him welcome the tears, kisses, and fragrant ointment of a repentant woman of the city. We have seen him divide loaves and fishes to feed the crowds on the hillside. Then last Sunday, we heard him challenge and confront the religious establishment of his day.  “Woe to you Pharisees,” Wes and Sue proclaimed so convincingly.  “Woe to you lawyers, too.”

Yet, where do we find Jesus today? Of course, he is on his way to another meal, on the journey to Jerusalem. But after last Sunday, who would have guessed that Jesus would still be eating with the Pharisees. In fact, Jesus is at the home of not just of any Pharisee, but a leader of the Pharisees!

This is Jesus’ third meal at a Pharisee’s house in the Gospel of Luke. In the first two meal scenes, the Pharisees are presented as negative examples. What not to be like. In the first story, for instance, Luke set up a sharp contrast between the woman’s great love and the Pharisee’s utter lack of hospitality. Last Sunday’s story was full of challenge and conflict with the Pharisees.

Today’s third meal scene at a Pharisee’s house, though, seems somehow to be different.And as I reflected on it this week, I found myself really resisting what the Gospel story was revealing about the reign of God. What was it about the story that I did not like?

In the end, I could come to no other conclusion but this:  I think that in today’s meal scene at a Pharisee’s house, Jesus is inviting the religious leader to be not just another negative example – which, of course, he is, in part. But there is also a call – however subtle and discreetly issued through the simple words of a parable told at table – for the Pharisee to picture himself in a new light. To enter Jesus’ story.

In essence, Jesus is saying to this leader of the Pharisees, “Try this.” Can you see yourself as “that certain man who gave a great dinner?” Are you open to the possibility that you, too, have a leading role to play in the great drama of salvation?   Have you ever considered that the rich and the poor might need each other?

But for us to accept that possibility, we have to accept an even more basic fact: That God loves Pharisees, too. That even Pharisees are included in the wide embrace of God’s mercy.

A little hard to swallow, isn’t it?

Yes, Jesus’ call to discipleship will require of the Pharisee a huge reorientation and conversion experience.  He will have to follow the hard path of downward mobility, and practice the humility that blossoms into solidarity with the suffering of the world – with the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

But perhaps we need to go back to the beginning. Seven hundred years before Jesus, the prophet Isaiah had a wonderful vision of a messianic banquet at the end of history. The LORD of hosts will spread the banquet and serve the food on the holy mountain. All people, including the Gentiles, will be gathered in. Death will end.Tears will be wiped away. It will be a glorious feast of celebration!

But over time, Isaiah’s prophetic vision got distorted. Some communities began to envision an angel of death using a sword to destroy the Gentiles. They turned Isaiah’s beautiful vision into a bloody and violent battle scene. Others, like the Qumran community (which wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls), not only envisioned the defeat of the Gentile nations, but also assumed that there would be ranks of dignity. In their view, no one “smitten in their flesh, or paralyzed in feet or hands, or lame, or blind or deaf or dumb” would be admitted to the heavenly banquet.

Jesus’ ministry restores Isaiah’s original, all-encompassing vision of the messianic banquet. Yet, for Jesus, the messianic banquet is not deferred to the end of time. Jesus is the Bread of Life. We can taste the banquet now.

The kenosis of Christ

We can see the reign of God breaking into history with every move that Jesus makes. The Pharisees are also watching Jesus closely, although their motives may not have been pure. Jesus is paying attention, too. On his way to the meal, Jesus sees – right in front of him – a man who needs healing. But it is the Sabbath. Earlier, when Jesus had healed a crippled woman on the Sabbath, the Pharisees had scolded him. So this time Jesus challenges them, “Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath, or not?” No one has anything to say. Jesus heals the sick man.

At the meal, Jesus notices other things. He sees how the guests take the places of honor at the table. Drawing on advice from Proverbs, Jesus teaches the guests to sit instead at the lowest position.

But there is a deeper meaning. Where we choose to locate ourselves reveals what we believe about the nature of God. God is self-giving love. Jesus was secure in his identity as a beloved child of God. In the words of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Jesus “emptied himself” and became human. He chose the path of humble obedience – even to death on a cross. In that emptiness, there is also a place for others.

When we have the mind of Christ, we know what is of ultimate importance in life. God’s gift of life gives each person dignity. Competition for the place of honor and wanting what others have leads to violence. When we let go of the place of honor, we are ready to learn what the people on the margins have to teach us. We see with new eyes. We start listening to voices not normally heard. We gain a new perspective.

Jesus tells his host not to invite friends, brothers, relatives and rich neighbors when giving a dinner.  Rather, blessing and happiness will come through table fellowship with the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

This is not an easy conversation to have with rich people over a meal. Can you imagine how the guests must have felt, sitting there in the places of honor? One of them blurts out:  “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!”

Was he trying to change the subject?  The great irony is that Jesus, the Messiah and Bread of Life, is sitting right in front of him, but – like the two foolish men on the road to Emmaus – this guest cannot recognize him.  He probably knows Isaiah’s prophetic vision of a messianic banquet at the end of time.  But he does not see that the reign of God is breaking in now, right here, in front of him and all around him.  It might cost something of him – his place of honor and privilege.  He is not yet hungry for a taste of Paradise.

Feasting with the uninvited

So Jesus takes the dinner conversation to an even more challenging level. He tells a parable. He paints a picture of what a new social order could look like. The host and guests become characters in his drama.

“There was a certain man who gave a great banquet and invited many people . . .” (Hmm…this sounds familiar, everyone at the table must have been thinking!) On the day of the banquet, the second invitation was issued: “Come, everything is ready now.”

But the invited guests all make excuses. The first says he has bought some land, and claims that he needs to go inspect it. He asks to be excused. The second says he has bought five yoke of oxen, and claims he needs to go test them. He also asks to be excused. The third simply says he cannot attend because he has gotten married. They all have primary attachments other than the reign of God.

The host becomes angry. What will he do? The invited guests have totally betrayed him and are trying to sabotage the party. He could just dwell on the injustice done to him, and become bitter and resentful. But there is all that delicious food, ready to be eaten, now.

And here is the turning point of the story. Where we all hold our breath, and hope beyond hope that the host will make the right choice. Think of “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” in the streets of the city, we want to shout from the audience. They would come with joy to your banquet.

But the host knows that if he invites the poor to his table, it will probably mean the end of his relationship with the insiders that he invited initially. There will be a cost to his generosity. He will share the rejection and contempt that the poor experience every day. How can he possibly have the courage to do it?

Because the table is spread before him, too.  The day of his rejection by the social elite is also his day of liberation.

He chooses wisely.  He sends his servant out to gather “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” of the city streets.  When he learns that there is still more room, he sends the servant out a second time even farther, to the roads and lanes, perhaps even beyond the city gates, to compel people to come in.  In this way, those who may feel unworthy, or in any way doubt that they could possibly be truly welcome at such a great feast, will participate in the banquet.

The parable of the great banquet is based on the values that Jesus proclaims in the Beatitudes.  Because we will not be covering the Beatitudes from the Gospel of Luke during this series on the meal scenes, I would like to close with those liberating words of Jesus now:

The Beatitudes

Blessed are you who are poor,
for the kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!
Behold, your reward will be great in heaven.

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