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Excuses, Excuses - April 28, 2018

Luke 14:12-24 As I’ve been studying for this series, I’ve been reading about the many ways we misinterpret the parables. All too often we read them through a very Christian lens without much regard for how 1st century Jews would have heard them. And just as often, because of our myopia, we do harm by immediately assuming Jesus is out to indict the Jews. We have to remember Jesus was a Jew. He did not renounce his faith or his people. He did teach them new perspectives and challenge their biases, much as he would with us if he were seated here today. Which is a caution as we dig into these teachings—we must be wary of believing what we’ve always believed about a particular story, and particularly

cautious if we feel overly confident or edified in our own selves because of the teaching. Each parable is a bit of a brain teaser. And if you focus too hard you’ll only see the details but not the hidden image or lesson.

How many of you remember the magic eye 3-d images that were really popular in the mid 90s? Like one of these? Sometimes there’s little tiny shapes you can see…but there’s also a hidden image in there. They aren’t obvious, you almost have to cross your eyes to see them. Sometimes you have to move. Sometimes you have to stop looking for the thing you’re desperate to see. Sometimes you have to look away and then come back before the image finally reveals itself. Parables feel a little like that. We often see certain little bits, but struggle to see the hidden meaning. And to get it, we have to move around a little, stop looking for the obvious, or look away and then look back.
Today’s parable had me moving back and forth, looking away and looking back again, and crossing my eyes to try and see it.
• How did we go from being thrilled at the thought of joining God’s heavenly banquet to a story about a feast and the guests’ bad manners?
• Why would they refuse to go?
• And how does any of it relate to us and our actual faith walk?
• Who are we? Are we the first invited or the last?
• Based on what?
• And what on earth is the heart of the parable?
Let’s start at the beginning of the scene…Jesus is at a special dinner among the Pharisees, and over the course of the meal they ask him a number of questions and he observes some of their behavior. The first thing he observes is that they are all jockeying for position. At the table there would have been a reserved spot for the host, then the place of honor near the host. The closer you were, the more honored you were. And the guests who arrived were placing themselves near the host. You could say they just wanted to spend time together, but at a formal meal there were assigned seats. So Jesus cautioned them…when you’re invited to a formal meal, don’t place yourself in the place of honor, lest you be embarrassed when the host asks you to move down. Instead, choose the place of humility so that you might be pleasantly surprised if you’re asked to move up! Jesus saw that the guests really wanted to win. They wanted to be first, most important in the eyes of the host. They wanted power and prestige. But Jesus warned them: Don’t think too highly of yourself. You may not be the bee’s knees. Don’t assume you deserve the best. Be humble and gracious. It’s not all about status and gains.
Then he pushed his lesson a little further and told them to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind to their parties. Invite the people who could never return in kind. Instead focus on godliness and righteousness. Then sort of missing the major point, a man at the table exclaims, “Wouldn’t it be great one day to eat at the heavenly banquet!?” Which kind of warrants a “well…yeah….” From all of us. I mean, who doesn’t want to eat a great meal in heaven?
And then Jesus starts this parable of a man and his banquet—talking about how none of the invited will actually come. And we’re kind of left scratching our heads going, “That guy over there just said he really wanted to go…and now you’re talking about how no one is going to show up…what did we miss?!” he says he wants to go, you say he’s not going to bother showing up….because why? It’s like a weird riddle or a magic eye picture. You have to walk away and come back to it since what meets the eye is clearly not the answer.
So we try again, from a different angle. The men at the dinner are very concerned with status and Jesus keeps trying to up-end that.
• Don’t look for the place of honor.
• Don’t invite the prestigious just because they can return the favor.
• Start your guest list with the least desirable.
Jesus wants them to see it’s not all about your rank because even those with wealth and status can totally miss the point. Which is, I think, the point. Let’s go through it step by step.
A man plans a great feast—not just a simple dinner, but a great feast, and sends his servants out to invite people—presumably, his people—ones he chose by name anyway and a certain “many” say yes. So he plans the meal accordingly. How many chickens or goats or fatted calves all depended on the head count. There were no rotisserie chickens if you planned for too few and no deep freezers if you over cooked, so you wanted to get it right. The servants started to work for the planned number of guests and as things got close to ready they went out to let folks know, it was time. So the guests’ job is to finish getting dressed and head on over. After all, they’ve been planning on it for days.
But instead of heading over they give some lam version of “I beg your pardon but I just can’t make it.” The first we hear says, “Oh I just bought some land. I need to go take a look.” Which, congratulations to that guy, BUT you don’t go buy land and then go take a look. No, you look at it, walk it, measure it, test the soil, look at the view. Ponder it. Look at it again. But you certainly don’t buy before investigating and that’s basically what this guy is saying.
And then the second guy says, “Oh goodness, you know, I just bought 5 yoke of oxen and I need to make sure they’ll team alright. Now, this guy is kind of a jerk on 2 accounts. 1) He’s being really pretentious “Oh I just bought 5 pair of oxen, aren’t I wealthy?!” A standard farm only needed 1 or 2—this guy got 5! And by saying so he’s flaunting his wealthy. 2) he’s doing things backwards as well. If you’re buying oxen in pairs—you team them first. You yoke them together and make sure they’ll work together and pull evenly. You don’t check that after the fact. And maybe since he’s getting 10 he’s not too worried about it…but that just takes him back to being a terrible braggart.
So both of these men seem to be telling some sort of tale to get out of this east. And then the third guy—he doesn’t even bother using manners. He doesn’t say, “I beg your pardon.” Or “Please excuse me”. He just says, “Yeah, I just got married…” which he kind of would have known when he was invited a couple of days ago and he could have properly begged off then, but instead he either lied or he’s absolutely terrible with dates.
And on and on it went—until all of the “many” refused to attend.
Honestly, it’s the kind of story that feels soul-crushing to me. Here this man wants to throw a feast and he invited all these people—his people—pays for the food and the wine, uses his animals, gets everything read, and no one shows up. It breaks my heat. I can just imagine him so sad and heartbroken. But he didn’t stay sad for long—sadness quickly turned to anger—except it was a weird kind of anger. You see, it was an honor/shame culture and everything played into keeping the balance of honor and shame. That’s where you get “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. It’s about balance and justice. All these guests have just shamed the host. It would have been proper, expected even, for him to shame them back—to retaliate in some way. An eye for an eye. Tit for tat. But he didn’t send his servants to rebuke them. He didn’t do anything to balance the scales. In fact, he shames himself further by sending his servants out to invite the beggars, the sick, and the street people. This was not kosher. And today we might think, “well he showed them!” that was not the case in the first century. All he was showing them was how much shame he could heap on himself. And all those sick, begging street dwellers came—though probably reluctantly—after all they knew it was taboo. They knew it was shameful for the host. They knew it was socially unacceptable for them to attend this fancy feast. In fact, they probably would have refused to go, not in spite, but out of custom. They wouldn’t have been welcome at a proper party, so they had to be really really sure they were invited.
But those folks didn’t fill the room. So the host sent the servants out to the country, to the even less desirable people to invite them. These were the ones who were really far flung from the community. They weren’t good enough to be outside a business in town—they had to go really far out and probably would have had to have been triply convinced that the host actually meant to invite them. But eventually, they did go. And the host’s party was finally full and he was pleased.
Then Jesus finishes his story with a dig—“Not one of those invited will taste my banquet.”
Except it’s one of those that leaves you hanging. It doesn’t end on the downbeat. It ends on the upbeat leaving you waiting for what comes next. Like, “I get that the invited people in your story don’t come and eat, but why would no one come to your feast, Jesus? That doesn’t make sense….
So then we’re back here looking at the image trying to make sense of what we’re seeing. Turning our heads. Moving around. Crossing our eyes. What on earth is the point?
Here’s where we have to go back and wind our way through. What went wrong with those that were invited? Even back to the guy who started it all, just by wanting to eat at the heavenly banquet. What’s the issue?
Here’s what I think—all the guys at the dinner with Jesus were consumed with status. They weren’t so much concerned with the host who bothered to invite them or enjoying the meal that was set before them as they were with how important it made them and how they then compared to the others.
And then the men in the parable—they weren’t concerned with the host or pleased to be picked for the dinner. They were so unconcerned that they could say yes one day and then come up with some lame excuse a few days later. And the man excited about the kingdom feast? It seems he, too, was really only concerned with status and not at all about what it would really mean to be at the kingdom feast. That’s how he elicited the response he did.
But, of course, those were 1st-century problems. They don’t really relate to us. Because we never worry about status. Certainly not in a university town. We never do anything in order to gain status or notoriety. We never wait to say yes to an invitation until we know who else might be there. We never beg off at the last minute using some lame excuse without much regard for the host or the gift of being invited. Do we? I didn’t think so.
But, for argument's sake, let’s just pretend that we were concerned with status and rank and reputation. Then what might Jesus’ teaching tell us?
Maybe that it really is a problem to do what we do for social gain.
Or maybe that when honored with an invitation we should be grateful for the opportunity—for being included and thought of for a special time together.
Maybe we need to think about our yeses before we actually commit so that we can do the things we said we would not just because we have to, but because we want to and we can.
And maybe we need to return to the teaching at the start of our passage….when you invite people to a special meal don’t start with the most popular, or the most well-liked, or the ones who will be sure to invite you too. Start with those you might think of last, or know the least. Start with those who can’t owe you any favors because there’s nothing other than kindness and time together to share.
Examine your motives.

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The First United Methodist Church of Moscow, Idaho takes as our mission to be the body of Jesus Christ, ministering to a community which draws strength from its diversity. Our mission centers on the worship of God, expressed through varied forms of prayer, preaching, music, and ritual.  See more...