“Grace works, in short, by raising the dead, not by rewarding the living”

Jesus proceeds straight to the losers and the dead ducks who form the heart of the parable of the Great Banquet [Luke 14:15-24]. Here are people who are having the time of their lives—free food, free drinks, free costumes, a Peter Duchin orchestra to dance to—all on a day when they woke up expecting nothing, if not worse. There was no way they could even imagine themselves as they are now, the social equals of the winners the host first invited. They don’t drive BMWs, they don’t own Dior gowns, and they don’t tear open their mail in breathless anticipation of yet another gala. These people walk (some of them); they drive, if anything, shopping carts; and they don’t get invited anywhere for one simple reason: they are a disgrace to polite, successful society. It’s crucial to notice this point, because Jesus is not telling the parable to enforce a moral about being nice to those less fortunate than ourselves. We already knew about that obligation. Rather, he is telling the parable to stand all known values on their heads: hence this bizarre story in which a well-known socialite throws a party for people he found sitting in doorways drinking muscatel out of brown paper bags.

Do you see? The point is that none of the people who had a right to be at a proper party came, and that all the people who came had no right whatsoever to be there. Which means, therefore, that the one thing that has nothing to do with anything is rights. This parable says that we are going to be dealt with in spite of our deservings, not according to them. Grace as portrayed here works only on the untouchable, the unpardonable, and the unacceptable. It works, in short, by raising the dead, not by rewarding the living.

And it works that way because it has no reason outside itself for working at all. That, I take it, is the point of the two frenzied searches for extra guests (one into the “streets and lanes” and one into the “highways and hedges”), on which the servant in the parable was sent. They establish that the reason for dragging the refuse of humanity into the party is not pity for its plight or admiration for its lowliness but simply the fact that this idiot of a host has decided he has to have a full house. Grace, accordingly, is not depicted here as a response; above all, it is not depicted as a fair response, or an equitable response, or a proportionate response. Rather it is shown as a crazy initiative, a radical discontinuity—because God has decided, apparently, that history cannot be salvaged even by its best continuities. The world is now so firmly set on the wrong course—so certain, late or soon, to run headlong into disaster—that God will have no truck with responding to anything inherently its own, whether good or evil. The ship of fools is doomed: if its villains do not wreck it, its heroes will. Therefore there is no point in any continuance, whether of punishment of the wicked or reward of the righteous—no point, that is, in further attempts to redeem the world by relevancy. And therefore in the parable, Jesus has the host make no relevant response at all to the shipwreck of his party; he has him, instead, throw a shipwreck of a party.

In other words, just as the only constant factor in the whole story is the host’s monomaniacal determination that his house be full (a determination, please note, that leads him into the curious folly of trying to get even with his first guests by jury-rigging a party they wouldn’t be caught dead at anyway), so also the only constant factor in the history of salvation is God’s equally monomaniacal commitment to grace. It is precisely that commitment that leads him into the corresponding weakness and foolishness of insisting that being caught dead is the only ticket to the Supper of the Lamb.

Robert Farrar Capon

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4 Responses to “Grace works, in short, by raising the dead, not by rewarding the living”

  1. Janine says:

    Except in Matthew’s version of this story, those without a wedding garment (notably traditionally provided by the host), are also thrown out of the party.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Capon has an interesting reading of the Matthean version, but it would have required a much longer citation and thus more typing on my part. 🙂


  2. Dan says:

    Capon’s books on the parables were required in my first Lutheran homiletics course in the early 90’s. They should be still for every beginning preacher.

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