Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Parable of the Dinner

In Luke 14:16-24, Jesus offers an interesting parable, “A man was giving a big dinner, and he invited many; [17] and at the dinner hour he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ [18] But they all alike began to make excuses. The first one said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land and I need to go out and look at it; please consider me excused.’ [19] Another one said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please consider me excused.’ [20] Another one said, ‘I have married a wife, and for that reason I cannot come.’ [21] And the slave came back and reported this to his master. Then the head of the household became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the city and bring in here the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ [22] And the slave said, ‘Master, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ [23] And the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the highways and along the hedges, and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled. [24] For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste of my dinner.’”

This is a message particularly relevant in today's church culture, and I believe it is being altogether missed. To understand it though, we need to realize who Jesus is talking to … and about. According to Luke 14:1, Jesus “went into the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees on the Sabbath to eat bread.” So His discourse was with those who were considered the religious people of the day. In fact, He was in the home of a religious leader.

Within the parable, Jesus references a dinner … but not exactly like the one He was attending. It is commonly accepted that the Lord is speaking about heaven. Christ invites us into fellowship with Him. Some make excuses for not entering into that fellowship, therefore He extends an invitation to everyone else. But I believe there's more to the story, so to speak.

Again, it has to do with following the flow of the parable and the context of the passage. During the dinner party He was attending, Jesus “noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table” (Luke 14:7). The guests were arranging themselves not according to how the host saw them, but according to how they perceived themselves. So the problem of self-importance was evident to Jesus.

Also evident to the Lord was an attitude of favoritism and partiality. He recognized quickly that those who had been invited to this dinner were hand-picked. Thus He says, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, otherwise they may also invite you in return and that will be your repayment” (Luke 14:12).

So in attendance were the regulars … the favorites … the clique. To those people, Jesus offers His parable about another dinner … a more important dinner. Following the flow of what has already occurred at the religious leader's party, I believe the parable holds a slightly different message than is normally offered by preachers and teachers today. I have always heard this passage taught to mean the some make excuses for not coming to church, therefore we extend the invitation to those who don't come to church. Personally, I see that as a pretty weak and self-serving interpretation of the parable.

In keeping with the context of self-importance and favoritism and cliquishness, I believe that Jesus extends that attitude into His parable. Consider who would have been invited to the heavenly dinner in the parable using the same logic as that of Jesus' host. Those invited were the religious people of the day, and specifically the religious leaders. It was the “friends,” “brothers,” “relatives” and “rich neighbors” ... the same ones John referred to when he wrote, “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11).

Again, Jesus is trying to get a message across to the dinner guests. He isn't switching subjects. He isn't trying to lose them. He wants them to clearly understand His message. If they don't see the point, it's because they don't choose to see it. Jesus is suggesting something that naturally occurs within society, the refusal of an invitation not because you have a legitimate excuse, but because you don't consider the event worthy of your attention.

The people of whom Jesus speaks in His parable are important people … favorites … key members of the clique. They were the people who were expected to be invited … and expected to normally be in attendance. But in this case, their personal plans were more important than the dinner party to which they were invited. If this would have happened in Jesus' day, the one throwing the dinner party would take it as a personal insult. And an insult it was! To refuse such an invitation while offering such lame excuses would be the invited's way of saying that the host wasn't worthy of their presence. It was a statement to all the movers and shakers among society that the party wasn't worth attending.

So how then do we apply this parable today? Who are those who have been invited? It has to be those within the church in order to fit Jesus' context. It has to be those who are our “friends,” “brothers,” “relatives” and “rich neighbors.” The Lord is still addressing issues of favoritism and cliquishness. He is still speaking to religious people, and religious leaders in particular. He's speaking to the elders and the deacons. He's speaking to exactly the kind of people that are sitting in the pews today.

The difference is, Jesus is not talking about inviting people to church. This is about an invitation to heaven. The modern church is full of favorites. They are doing exactly what they feel is expected of them … by society and their peer group. They attend church. They listen to the messages. They drop a check in the plate. But that's not why they are really there. It's about their “friends,” “brothers,” “relatives” and “rich neighbors.” It's about the clique. It's about fellowship with their own kind.

Meanwhile, the real invitation is being ignored … the invitation to fellowship with the Lord. How many in your congregation would you truthfully describe as “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6)? Or would the better description of your congregation be found in Hebrews 5:12? “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.”

I believe it is the religious people – the so-called “church” people – we are being told to turn away from. Jesus did the same thing in His day, saying, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). When Jesus says, “Go out” (vs. 21, 23), I believe He really means, “Go out!” It's time to stop throwing pearls before swine and giving what is holy to dogs (Matthew 7:6). How many preachers get up in the pulpits week after week, year after year, and see NO CHANGE within the congregation and NO CHANGE within the leaders? When is time to say enough is enough and extend the message to those who WANT to change?

It's time to stop feeding the monkey. Our “friends,” “brothers,” “relatives” and “rich neighbors” have heard the message of Christ on a regular basis and apparently have better things to do than let it change them. Aren't you tired of the lame excuses for why church people aren't learning and growing? Aren't you sick of leaders standing before their congregations and making excuses for their sinful behavior? We need to reach out to “the poor and crippled and blind and lame” ... to those who realize they need help ... not to those who blindly believe themselves to be the righteous.

On your way out the door, share with them Jesus' message from Matthew 21:31-32, “Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you. [32] For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him; and you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterward so as to believe him.” 

If you do not believe that Jesus truly sees the contemporary church for what it is, you are wrong. He knows the hearts and the minds. He has identified the sheep and the goats. He already knows fact from fiction. Now we just need to get everyone else to see it.

What excuse will the supposed saints offer next for not acting like saints? Week after week the worship services do nothing but insult the Lord as we turn away from the real invitation to know Him and fellowship with Him. “How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? [30] For we know Him who said, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY.” And again, “THE LORD WILL JUDGE HIS PEOPLE.” [31] It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:29-31).

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