The Dinner Party

Luke 14:15-24

The parable of the wedding celebration appears in three versions: Matthew 22:1-14, Luke 14:16-24, and Thomas 64:1-12 (see The Five Gospels).  Matthew’s version is the most elaborate, and the most compromised with contemporary First Century Christian concerns.  Jerusalem has been destroyed, along with Jewish temple-centered religious practice; the Romanization of society has brought systems of patronage and collaboration.  Anyone who isn’t properly dressed, who doesn’t fulfill the proper qualifications, is subject to exclusionary judgment.  Only the elect can be trusted to be part of the community.

The version in Thomas, found in The Five Gospels, is much simpler.  Here, a person is receiving guests, and has prepared a dinner party, not a wedding party.  Thomas has no reference to invading armies that destroy the city.  But the party-giver is frustrated when four invited guests turn him down.  He has his slave go out and “bring back whomever you find to have dinner.”  Then the transcriber of the sayings collected in Thomas opines, “Buyers and merchants [will] not enter the places of my Father,” (The Five Gospels, p. 509), which puts a very different spin on the story.

The third version in Luke is not included in any of the Revised Common Lectionary readings for the three-year cycle.  Apparently the Elves decided that Matthew’s version is the definitive one for Christian theology and practice.  However, the Jesus Seminar scholars point out that the version in Luke is likely the closest to what the historical Jesus would have told, although it too is permeated with early Christian piety.  Imagine the scene, based on the stripped down version in Thomas, with a nod to Zacchaeus, who only appears in Matthew:

When Jesus was in Jericho, he encountered a head toll collector – a rich man named Zacchaeus.  Later that evening, Jesus arrives for the banquet at Zach’s house.  After the meal, as the wine jug is passed among the reclining guests, Zach asks Jesus what is the Kingdom of God?  What is it like?  How do we find it?

Jesus says, “There was a man who held an important position in Herod Antipas’ administration.  He wanted to give a dinner party for some local businessmen so that he could recruit them to act as liaison with the Roman proconsul.  But they declined the invitation for perfectly good reasons – don’t forget, it’s the law that if the Romans draft you for some project, you can finish your own work first.  So later, this guy sends his servant around again telling his cronies that the feast is ready, but they all refuse to come.  In a rage, now, the host tells the servant to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. . . .”  Jesus looks around at the group, but they don’t seem to get it.  He goes on: “When he sees that there is still room in his banquet hall, he sends his servant out into the countryside to round up people at sword-point.”

This parable is a huge joke, which does not translate well in a 21st Century world where the Roman patronage system no longer is in force.

In First Century Rome, everyone participated in the patronage system, from God to the Emperor, to the noble classes, to the merchants, the traders, the military, servants, slaves, and the totally disenfranchised.  Everyone was either a patron or a client, and everyone had both patrons and clients, people to whom and from whom favors or commercial debt was owed.  The way to repay the debt among the upper classes was to hold a banquet, usually a sacrificial banquet, in which an animal (or several) were slaughtered in the temple, the blood poured out for the gods, and the meat shared among the guests – all of whom were clients of the one giving the feast.  For a guest to refuse to attend would be social, political, and commercial suicide, regardless of where one was in the social strata.  For a host to then fill the banquet hall with people with whom one did not and would never do business would be ludicrous.  There would be no possibility of ever receiving an invitation or favor in return.

But of such is the Kingdom of God.  This story is about grace, not apocalyptic judgment, despite Luke’s pious set-up in 14:7-14.

The U.S. Thanksgiving Feast is just days away, although it is nearly eclipsed by the Christmas shopping season.  In recent years, admission to the national dinner party has been earned by doing some kind of community service.  Typically, and appropriately for the day, such service means volunteering at the local soup kitchen to help serve the Thanksgiving Day Feast to the homeless. Luke’s call for taking the lowest place at the table, and for inviting “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” who cannot reciprocate seems as relevant today as it did for Luke’s Roman community.

And therein lies the joke for 21st Century would-be followers of the Way.  The joke is not that the dinner party guests come at sword point; the joke is that before attending the Feast, the ones who are invited serve the poor at the shelter.  Just like the First Century, anyone who isn’t properly dressed, who doesn’t fulfill the proper qualifications, is subject to exclusionary judgment.  Only the elect can be trusted to be part of the community.  The homeless poor are not only not invited.  The world they live in has nothing to do with the world where the Feast is taken for granted.

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