27 July 2009

Gospel and Invitation

Through a series of three parables Jesus outlines a vision of social justice and redemption centered on the concept of invitation. The Gospel of Luke introduces the scene. “Now it happened that on a Sabbath day he had gone to share a meal in the house of one of the leading Pharisees; and they watched him closely.”[1] The reader should not mistake the concrete difference between “leading Pharisee” and “high priest.” To be a Pharisee is to be part of a particular Jewish reform movement. It’s not an official clerical position. Pharisees aren’t quite the establishment. But neither are they “with the people” so-to-speak. A man is present at the gathering who is afflicted with dropsy. Jesus addresses his other guests the question “Is it against the law to cure someone on the Sabbath, or not?” When they don’t have an answer for him he goes ahead and cures the man. He then addresses them again. “Which of you here, if his son falls into a well, or his ox, will not pull him out on a Sabbath day without any hesitation?” Once again, they have no answer for him. Jesus follows this with three parables each centered on the invitation of guests to a banquet.

In the first parable Jesus takes up the way people choose seats for themselves at dinners. The Gospel of Luke notes that Jesus “had noticed how [the guests] picked the places of honour.” He advises his listeners not to take seats of honour when they sit down. He states: “A more distinguished person than you may have been invited, and the person who invited you both may come and say, ‘Give up your place to this man.’ And then to your embarrassment, you will have to go and take the lowest place.” Instead, Jesus advises that a guest should seek out the lowest place so that the host might say, “my friend, move up higher.” Jesus recapitulates the parable with his signature promise: “For everyone who raises himself up will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be raised up.” With this parable Jesus highlights the spiritual danger of trying to exalt oneself in the eyes of others.

He continues this same theme with a second parable in which, this time, the listener is placed in the position of the host. Jesus begins: “When you give a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relations or rich neighbours, in case they invite you back and so repay you.” This last part is the most striking. The problem that would arise from inviting these people is precisely that they might invite the listener back. By repaying their host, the occasion becomes a package of goods and services that are exchanged for others. It is not a free gift from one’s generosity. It is just another way of working oneself up the social ladder. In place of this Jesus advises: “No, when you have a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; then you will be blessed, for they have no means to repay you and so you will be repaid when the upright rise again.” The element of exchange is retained. By inviting the downtrodden the host is repaid, but not with goods and services circulating within society. Instead, the host is redeemed on the Day of Resurrection. Jesus expands the scope of exchange beyond the confines of the world’s material dimension. In so doing, he opens up a vision of social action based squarely on the power of free generosity. Because one who lives by the Gospel is not motivated by material means, the social incapacities of the poor are no barrier to doing the right thing. In a world today where money secures a person’s ability to accumulate even more, and upward mobility is increasingly cut off by the very limitations one hopes to surpass, these are words to act by. Self-interest is inadequate to promote economic equality. The power of free-giving is essential to any pursuit of a more just society. Direct financial donation, is for a number of reasons, not the best way. But certainly, the gift of one’s creativity and sacrificial service in pursuit of new patterns of collective life can achieve a great deal. O Son of Man! Bestow My wealth upon My poor, that in heaven thou mayest draw from stores of unfading splendor and treasures of imperishable glory. But by My life! To offer up thy soul is a more glorious thing couldst thou but see with Mine eye.[2]

Jesus then offers the other guests a third parable. In this final parable he places God in the place of the host. A man has a great banquet and invites a large number or people. He sends his servant to gather them in. But rather than responding enthusiastically, they make excuses.

The first said, “I have bought a piece of land and must go and see it. Please accept my apologies.” Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen and am on my way to try them out. Please accept my apologies.” Yet another said, “I have just got married and so am unable to come”

Instead of waiting until the next day to take care of their personal material affairs, the invited guests reject the generous offer. The host was by no means pleased to hear this. In a rage he instructs his servant: “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in here the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” His servant tells him that even after this has been done there is still room. The host then states: “Go to the open roads and the hedgerows and press people to come in, to make sure my house is full; because, I tell you, not one of those who were invited shall have a taste of my banquet.” Though at first they were the recipients of a privileged invitation, the host now ensures that as many people will enjoy the gifts they apathetically disregarded.

Give without hope of personal benefit. Look rather to God’s generosity, rejoicing therein.

[1] Lk 14.1-14
[2] HWA 57

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