“When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.”
I guess that not many of us often serve up what we’d call banquets. For me, the word conjures up images of a Tudor monarch gorging on a seemingly unending stream of dishes. Whole roast wild boar with an apple in its mouth, haunches of venison and birds roasted inside other birds. Platters and trenchers and overflowing goblets.
Whatever the connotations of the word — even if it just brings to mind a muckle cairry oot from the local Chinese takeaway, enough to stuff all the family full — I presume we all tend to serve up something much more modest. Nonetheless, by the standards of many people in Jesus’ day — and even by the standards of a host of people throughout today’s world — the daily bread we lay on our tables has more in common with a banquet than with a simple crust.
It’s important to acknowledge that global perspective. It lands us in a much more complicated context than rural first-century Palestinian villages and towns of the Gospel narrative, where everyone knew who in the community was poor, crippled, lame or blind. Everyone knew who was in need and who was in plenty. The poor were not some abstract group hidden half a city or half a world away but real next-door neighbours.
That means we have to work harder to understand how to put into practice the challenge that Jesus lays down in today’s Gospel.
Strangely, the lectionary leaves out a crucial bit of context for that work. It skips the final parable Jesus tells at this Sabbath lunch: the parable of the great feast. You know the one: it’s the story where the feast is all laid out but the invited guests are much too busy with their other concerns, so instead the host orders his servants to invite “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame” — exactly the same groups that Jesus tells his host to ask to dinner. But even that doesn’t fill the party and the servants are sent out to the highways and byways to bring in the people they find there.
To leave that out of the lectionary altogether — we don’t even get to hear it next week — is a puzzling omission. The Gospel of Luke isn’t put together in some haphazard way. It’s constructed by a writer who knows what they’re doing and who is evidently aware that context is important because it changes how you read a story.
The parable of the great feast is the last and longest of three pieces of teaching at the table during the Sabbath dinner where our reading is set. It’s placed, if you like, at the head of the table, in the seat of honour. It’s the one that helps us to understand the other two more deeply. And the crucial point about that is that the Gospel writer makes it clear that the feast in the parable is a picture of the Kingdom of God.
The two pieces of teaching we heard in today’s reading — the parable about not taking the place of honour and the challenge to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind” — are not quite so obviously about the Kingdom. The first might seem to be about nothing more than heading off embarrassment and getting the most out of a social situation. The second is more about generosity. However, when we read them both back in the light of the parable of the feast, we can see clearly that Jesus is not simply lecturing his hearers on table manners and social cohesion but illustrating the values of God’s Kingdom. In fact, he’s talking about God’s generosity, about how God invites the humble and the excluded to be the guests of honour at the Kingdom party.
The point is that the ones who big themselves up before God get sent to the back of the queue for the buffet. And the ones who thought they weren’t worth inviting in the first place are called up to the front, seated at the top table and waited on. The ones who are left out and left at the bottom of society’s heap, the ones who are debarred from contributing to the economy and from full participation in religious life, are invited to be the life and soul of God’s party.
Sound familiar? It’s part of the great overturning signalled at the start of Luke’s Gospel when Mary sings her great song of praise.
The stories we heard today are about more than food. They’re about more than where you sit at a dinner party. They’re about more than who you eat with day to day. At heart, they ask:
- does what and who you value line up with who and what God values?
They show us what God’s values are and what a community that lives by those values looks like.
Well, does it line up? We welcome all to eat at Christ’s table in the Eucharist, but do we live up to that outside of the service in our interactions with others? Does the way that we treat people say that they are welcome to the party, even though they might be excluded, regarded by society as the lowest on the heap?
Of course, we might not personally know anyone whom we’d class as poor. But we need only go a matter of metres to find someone begging on the streets around us so maybe the first thing we need to do is to take the time to speak to them and get to know the people behind the appearance a little.
Not all today’s poor are homeless, though. Increasing numbers of people are a food parcel or two away from destitution and their situations can be hidden behind seemingly cosy front doors. So sharing our bread with the poor might legitimately include donating to a food bank, but Jesus’ words still challenge us to take the next step and build relationship between the haves and the have-nots. This means applying our creativity to find ways to overcome the fragmentation of our society.
Not all the poor whom our actions affect are local, either. I mentioned at the start the global perspective. We must not forget how well off we are in the UK. For all the anxieties about possible shortages of in the event of a no-deal Brexit, we are a rich country, globally speaking, and unlikely to starve. It is not possible simply to sit down and eat with poor people who live on the other side of the world, but we can certainly use our buying choices and campaigning voices to increase justice and fairness for them. The cathedral’s One World Stall is a good place to start, but this also includes how we as a community and as individuals use the planet’s resources wisely and making changes where they are needed.
Nor are all the excluded are poor either. Is there space at our table — space in our lives — for people who are harassed or pushed out because of their ethnicity, their gender identity, their autism or a disability, for example? And this is where it gets even more political. For if we are to be a community of welcome, we must think about what that means in a society where, as many of us will have read this week, a woman who has lived in the UK for 55 years, who was educated here, married here and has spent all her working life here has been refused settled status by the Home Office.
For, at the end of the day, we are all poor before God. What we have to offer is only what God has given us. And it is only through God’s gracious, loving invitation that we have a place at the table. We can serve only because God has served us. So, friends, come up higher.