Jesus is dining with a leader of the Pharisees, and it is this dinner that provides the occasion for Jesus to share his Parable of the Great Banquet:
Now it happened that, as he went into the house of one of the chiefs of the Pharisees, they were observing him carefully. And look: Before him was a certain man with dropsy. And speaking out, Jesus addressed the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to heal or not?” And they were silent. And laying hold of him he healed him and sent him away. And he said to them, “Who is there among you whose son or ox will fall into a pit, and he will not immediately pull it up again on a Sabbath day?” And against this they were powerless to return an answer.
And taking note of how they were choosing the chief places at the table, he addressed a parable to those who had been invited, saying to them, “When you prepare a luncheon or dinner, do not call to your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your rich neighbors, lest they invite you in return and it becomes a recompense for you. Rather, when you prepare a celebration invite the destitute, the crippled, the lame, the blind, And you shall be blissful, for they have nothing to repay you with; for it will be repaid you in the resurrection of the just.”
And, hearing this, one of those reclining at table with him, said to him, “Blissful is he who eats bread in the Kingdom of God.” And he said to him, “A certain man prepared a great banquet, and invited many, And sent out his slave at the hour of the banquet to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, because it is ready now.’ And as one they all began to decline. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and am forced to go out to see it; I ask you, have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I bought a yoke of five oxen, and I am going to make a test of them; I ask you, have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have married a wife and therefore cannot come.’ And, approaching, the slave reported these things to his lord. Then, enraged, the master of the house told his slave, ‘Go out quickly, into the streets and alleys of the city, and bring in here the destitute and crippled and blind and lame.’ And the slave said, ‘Lord, what you commanded has been done, and there is still room.’ And the Lord said to the slave, ‘Go out to the roads and palings and force them to come in, so that my house may be filled; For I tell you, not one of those men who have been invited shall taste of my banquet.'” (Luke 14:1-24)
“Blissful is he who eats bread in the Kingdom of God,” one of the fellow diners remarks, which in turn elicits one of Christ’s most famous stories. But what about the remark? Robert Capon imaginatively enters the scene:
Note how it begins. “When one of those who sat at table with him heard this, he said to him, `Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!”‘ As I read them, those words are pure gush. The gentleman in question has been just as mystified as everyone else by the idea of giving dinner parties for the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind. But since Jesus ends his remarks with a reference to the “resurrection of the just,” this fellow does what so many of us do when confronted with paradox: he takes the first spiritual bus that comes along and gets out of town. In effect he says, “Ah, resurrection! I can’t say that I follow your odd little ideas about dining with cripples, but I do agree with what you say about heaven. It’s so comforting to hear that everything’s going to work out perfectly in the end.” (Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, pp. 286-287)
Rather than letting the good fellow off the hook, Jesus throws at him and all the other respectable folks a story intended to shock. Or as Capon puts it: “He launches straight into a story that bumps his hearers off the bus bound for the heavenly suburbs and deposits them back in the seediest part of town” (p. 287). Jesus will not allow his fellow diners to think that because they are faithful observers of Torah they are guaranteed a seat in the Kingdom. On the contrary, “he portrays the pursuit of a sensible, successful life as something that will keep them—and us—out of the party altogether” (p. 287). Admission to the eschatological banquet is by unmerited, scandalous grace, not by the works of the law.
The householder invites all of his respectable friends, associates, and acquaintances to a grand party he has planned. Great food, great music, great everything—no expense spared. A glad time will be had by all. Yet to his shock, all decline the invitation, each offering a reasonable excuse.
- “I have an important business matter to attend to, but thanks very much.”
- “My new wife and I have plans, but thanks very much.”
- “I’m off on a long-planned holiday, but thanks very much.”
- “I’m bingeing Game of Thrones, but thanks very much.”
The householder is furious, and it is this fury and anger that drives the story and the banquet that finally takes place. What are we to make of this? asks Capon:
Well, my disposition is to take the vehemence of this party-giver as Jesus’ way of dramatizing the futility of “living” as a way of salvation. He is saying that God works only with the lost and the dead—that he has no use for winners. Therefore God will be as furious over legitimate excuses as he would be over phoney ones, since in either case the net result is the same: we keep ourselves out of reach of his gracious action. (p. 288)
And so the householder sends his slave out to invite the broken and infirm to join the party, yet still there isn’t enough. “Go out to the roads and palings and force them to come in,” he commands the slave, “so that my house may be filled.” I don’t expect Jesus is actually suggesting that folks should be bound and carried to the party against their will, but perhaps some gentle arm-twisting is in order. The householder will have his feast, come hell or high water. “All you have to be is a certified loser and God will send his servant Jesus to positively drag you into his house” (p. 292).
Who’s in and who’s out? Capon acknowledges that many have interpreted the parable as intimating the Jewish rejection of Jesus, thus opening the salvific doors to the Gentiles. For various reasons Capon disagrees with this interpretation. “To me,” he writes, “the fundamental distinctions in Jesus’ parables are loser/winner, last/first, dead/alive—not Jew/Gentile” (p. 288). The point of the Parable of the Great Banquet, he argues, is the admission into the Kingdom of those who have no “right” to be there:
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 “high ways and hedges”), on which the servant in the parable was sent. They establish that the reason for dragging the refuse of humanity into the parry 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 by 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. (pp. 289-290)
All is prepared. The invitations have been sent. The table is laden with an extravagance of culinary delights. Our host does not care what sins you have committed nor what your infirmities may be.
Come, come. The music has started. Surely you must hear it.
Do not delay even one second.