An Engraved Life
Text: Luke 14:1, 7-14
The story begins with a leader of a major religious party in Judaism inviting Jesus to his dinner table. Just when it is time for the meal to be served, Jesus decides to do some table talk.
He talks about a table set for a wedding feast. There are ornate place cards adorning each dinner setting. Caterers and florists scurry about attending to last minute details, and on the hour, guests arrive, smartly attired, holding their elegantly engraved invitations. This is a sought-after invitation to a no-holds-barred affair.
That is the setting and the beginning of the text from Luke today, but before we continue with this story, some back story might be helpful. By the time of Jesus, the image of a “wedding banquet” had little to do with hungry stomachs and a delicious fare. The “banquet table” had become a common metaphor for God’s final heavenly feast, a feast to which everyone wants an invitation. It an image that had far less to do with food than with fitness – who was fit to attend this divine feast, to sit at the heavenly banquet table and who was not?
In chapter 13 of Luke, a person asks Jesus, “Will only a few be saved?” It has been my experience that those who ask such a question feel that they already have their engraved invitation in hand and are worried most about the future company they might have to keep. Typical of how Luke tells a story, Jesus does not answer the question directly, but points toward that final heavenly feast and says, “People will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God” (13:29).
Some groups among the Jews of Jesus’ day “had definite notions about who would be invited” to the final banquet table, writes Patrick Willson. He says: “When scholars unrolled the Dead Sea Scrolls . . . they . . . found what one group understood to be the invitation list for that great banquet: ‘All the wise men of the congregation, the learned and the intelligent, men whose way is perfect and men of ability . . . the men of renown’.
“That’s who is invited, but:
‘No man smitten in his flesh, or paralyzed in his feet or hand, or lame, or blind, or deaf, or dumb, or smitten in his flesh with a visible blemish; no old and tottery man unable to stay still in the midst of the congregation; none of these shall come (“The Messianic Rule,” The Dead Sea Scrolls in English). Patrick goes on to conclude, “There is no room [at the heavenly banquet table] for those who have been wounded by life; no room for those who have been broken by the journey” (Patrick Willson, The Christian Century).
These two Dead Sea Scrolls’ lists of “invited” and “uninvited” sound remarkably current. Our culture is one that adores perfection; it idolizes the best singers, dancers, chefs, and it spends massive dollars trying to disguise any imperfections. The invitations for our great and perfect society are not for the old with weak bladders or the young who suffer from attention deficit disorder. They are not for anyone living below the poverty line or has even been in prison or has flunked a college course or has been laid off a job or has signed divorce papers or has tested positive or has needed to use a cane or crutches or wheelchair.
The “invited” list for our great and perfect society is only for the fit, the prosperous, the pure, the movers and shakers in society and the church, people who are in charge and are always right or at least never admit when they are wrong. That is some back story about who was thought to belong at the final heavenly banquet in Jesus’ day and who our society would nominate today. Jesus, though, decides to tell a different story, for then and now.
Sitting at table with the leader of the Pharisees, Jesus decides it is time to talk first about table etiquette. It is not long before the Pharisee realizes that Jesus is talking about something different from which fork you use to eat your salad.
Part of table etiquette, says Jesus, involves being humble enough not to assume that you deserve more than you actually do. He tells the story of a person who took the best seat at the table, only to be asked to move to a lower seat by someone who arrived late, but who had more frequent flyer miles. The Apostle Paul will later suggest that Jesus embodied what he taught here in Luke. Paul will write to the Philippians: “Jesus humbled himself . . . Therefore, God also highly exalted him” (Phil. 2:11).
Before this leader of the Pharisees can check his smart phone to see how his stocks are doing, Jesus moves from story to instruction. Jesus gets right up in his face and says, “You know the Dead Sea Scrolls’ invitation list to God’s great banquet table, well, pay it no mind. Instead, invite those to your table who would never dream of receiving such an invitation and who could not possibly throw a feast for you. Then, it may dawn on you, that we all come to the table, to God’s great feast, by invitation only and not by family name or educational credentials, not by religious standing or financial holdings, not because we deserve to be there.”
Luke does not say it here, but I am convinced that Jesus loved this Pharisee too much to let him drown in the deceit of “entitlement.” Jesus knew that if you wake up thinking that you belong at God’s table, that you are entitled to premium seating at the banquet table by birthright or hard work, by race or social standing or religious piety, then it will not be long before you start thinking: “If some are entitled to be at this table, then some are not.” In fact, some must be fenced off, whether in Gaza or in obscure, isolated American locations that are euphemistically called: “reservations” or along our nation’s Southern border or even in the church for those who do not believe the way we do. How easy it is to think “some belong at the table – like us – and some do not.”
Now, to be fair to the leader of the Pharisees, not many of us see our own sense of “entitlement” either. Entitlement is almost always someone else’s issue, it is for the other race or the other gender, the other sexual orientation or the other denomination or the other political party or the other, the other, the other. The dinner gift that Jesus gives this Pharisee is a mirror to look at how easy it is to drown spiritually in our own sense of entitlement.
So, the next time you are tempted to think that you deserve a personally engraved invitation to this feast, that you have earned your way into God’s good graces, think again. You and I do have an engraved invitation to this feast, but not for who we are and what we have done, but because of who God is and what God has done for all of us.
Be careful then, when you look twice at who is standing in front of you or waiting behind you for a piece of bread or taste of the cup, wondering what “they” think they are doing here or thinking that “they” would be so much happier with their own kind. As soon as you think that, turn back around, read this story again, and then get back in line.
Hopefully, on your way back, you will notice that every single person is also holding an engraved invitation, given by grace, and engraved by the very heart of Christ.