Somewhere in the process of planning our wedding a bit more than 13 years ago, Carrie and I were introduced to the concept of the B-list. I did not know this was a thing, but I remember a friend saying to us, “Here’s what you do. You have the A-list, the first group, once you figure out who you want to invite and how much things cost. Then, you have a B-list ready to go, of folks who wouldn’t normally make the cut but you feel like you need to invite. And, if you have enough folks from the A-list decline, then you can quickly put another invitation in the mail.” I remember being both appalled and intrigued. Anyone who had planned any sort of gathering is familiar with the troubling reality of the guest list. It was the same for us – Carrie and I were footing a chunk of the bill and were having our wedding on our home turf, in Atlanta where we were finishing seminary, versus at her home, or mine. Somewhere in between me accusing Carrie of inviting everyone who has even been related to her to our rehearsal dinner, and her wondering if the entire town of Black Mountain really needed to come to our wedding, a friend decided to try and help.
Guest lists are tricky. Whether we like it or not, they reveal something about who we want to include and, either blatantly or more subtly, who we don’t want to include. Who do we want to be with, and who do we not want to be with, at least on that one occasion, of course. Who matters more to us, and who matters less.
In Chapter 14, Fred Craddock reminds us, Luke gathers four units of material in the context of a meal. These four stories do not depend on each other for meaning, but they all occur “at table.” Table talk was not only a common literary device for piecing together discussions on a range of topics, but banquets provided occasions for philosophers and teachers to impart their wisdom. For Judaism, for Jesus, and for the early church, table fellowship was also laden with very important meanings, religious, social, and economic.1 When you ate, and where, and with whom, mattered. We’ve lost a bit of this in our “let’s pull through Chick-Fil-A between soccer practice and a meeting” eating culture.
Chapter 14 begins with Jesus going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees for a meal on the Sabbath. On the way he heals a man, debating the related law with them. As he arrives to the dinner party, Jesus notices the jockeying for position, everyone trying to make sure they are seen by the right people. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted, he says. He walks up to the host of the affair – and this is bad manners – and says not to invite the rich, your family or neighbors. Don’t invite anyone who could return the favor. When you throw a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. THAT is what the feast looks like in the kingdom of God.
Today’s text is the fourth and final scene at table, and Jesus is again provoked by someone there. One of the guests raises a glass and says, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” It’s hard to tell how to interpret this, but I lean towards thinking the guest who speaks is that person at the party who has had a bit to drink and is aware Jesus is ruffling feathers. Just before this Jesus told the guests that their behavior is nearly the opposite of how people relate to each other in the kingdom of God. Then, I imagine, this guest who wants everything to be okay awkwardly raises his glass with the equivalent of, “Alright… well… it’s great you are all here, let’s have a lovely evening!”
But Jesus doesn’t bite. He never does. Some gave a great dinner party and invited many, he says. Custom dictated that an original invitation to an event scheduled for a future date would be repeated when the party was about to begin. Guests could show up any time up to the end of the first course and expect to be welcomed. The first two excuses – buying land, buying oxen – seem to say they’ll be late. The third excuse seems to imply that they won’t make it.2 These excuses, while excuses of a busy, privileged people, aren’t all that reasonable. I would have liked the guests to have planned better, but being thorough in their purchases doesn’t seem like the worst thing.
The master gets these last minute regrets and is angry. He surprises us with his instructions: Go out AT ONCE into the streets and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame. Some come. There is still room, and the master sends the slave out again, go grab whoever is walking by, yank them out of their cars, pull them off the bus, COMPEL people, force them, make them come in! For I tell you – and the Greek YOU here is plural, so he’s not just talking to the slave, he’s announcing to the crowd3 – for I tell you all, the master says, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’ Scene ends. Party over.
Jesus, like with most parables, doesn’t directly tell us what he means. He tells it, and lets it sit. It doesn’t seem that strange at all that once some of the original guests – the ones the master wanted to attend, who can buy land and oxen and get married – decline he shifts quickly to his B-list. It is the nature of the B-list that is surprising, and beautiful, and hard. The guests who are invited, Jesus says, are the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. The people who no one invited to the party then, and no one invites now. And the C-list is, if you can believe it, WORSE. Just anyone walking by, grab them by the arm, force them to come in! Who has those kinds of standards?
Today we will ordain and install an extraordinary group of folks whom God has called to lead us as elders and deacons these next three years. God has given this church such a deep bench of talented and willing and faithful people. They’ll come up, answer the questions, we’ll pray over them. As we pray, and even more importantly as they begin their work, it is my hope we’ll listen to how Jesus is challenging us to assess the guest list for the feast. Our world is content to divide and categorize, assessing value based on where you live and what you look like and who you love and for whom you will vote, with an eye towards professional and educational credentials. The guest lists we make in our homes and our friendships are too often set by these same criteria and others, consciously or not. The guest list in our churches, in this church, is too often set in the same ways. Yet Jesus looked at the gathered crowd at the fancy dinner party and said to them, do you think you are the only people who get invited to the feast in the kingdom of God? Check your guest list again. Check it again.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Fred Craddock, Interpretation: Luke, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), p 175.
2. Sharon Ringe, WBC: Luke, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995), p 198.
3. Ringe 199.