How would you describe the ideal Thanksgiving dinner? I don’t just mean what types of food you would on the table, although that is important. Who would you want to be there?
The joy and pain of Thanksgiving comes from the same place within us, the longing to be with those we care about. For some people Thanksgiving is a time with friends and family and it is an absolute delight. For others, Thanksgiving is difficult. It may be a reminder of broken relationships or family members that are no longer with us.
I suspect our ideal Thanksgiving would be a good meal with a certain group of people. That ideal may be possible or unlikely, depending on our situations.
What does this have to do with our experience as a church? It has almost everything to do with it. The idea of eating a meal together is a universal image of fellowship. People across cultures and across generations have gathered around the table. The purpose is not just to receive physical nutrition from the food but to share life together around a meal. In many cultures, hospitality is the highest virtue. This was true in ancient times as well.
As Jesus explains the nature of the kingdom of God, he looks to a great banquet. People understood the setting and could see clearly what God desires for his family. One of the questions that is answered in this parable is about who is welcome in the family of God. The church has not always done well with this but this parable can help guide us.
The story begins normal enough. A great banquet is being prepared. The food is bought, the tables are set, it is all rather exciting. All we need is some people. Have you ever planned out a dinner party? Have you had specific people in mind of who you wanted to be there? There may be people who are like us or people whose company we enjoy. Not only can we anticipate the taste of the food, we can anticipate the quality of fellowship. It is going to be so good.
The night has finally come and so the master sends out the servants to all the people who had received the invitations to let them know everything is ready. But the servants do not receive the expected response. There is no eagerness on the part of the invited. One by one, they all give their regrets. If you look carefully, there are no evil excuses. There is no demonstration of hatred or anything else. They are simply busy. The routine needs of life have distracted them and they just can’t pull away to enjoy what the master has to offer. Have you ever planned something and everyone pulls out at the last minute? It is frustrating, especially when much work has been done of the event.
Of course, the purpose here is not to entertain or even advice for meal planners. Jesus is talking about the family of God. God is the master and he is the one who is planning a great banquet. The family of God is not meant to be a dreary religion and but an enjoyable party. It is a place of fellowship and community. It is something that everyone should want to be part of. So God has sent out the invitations by the prophets and apostles and Christian witnesses. Everyone should be excited to get in with the party.
But that is not what we see. Before getting into our contemporary context, I need to address something. Some have interpreted this as God’s rejection of the Jewish people and the replacing by Gentiles or non-Jews. That is not what this is about. This part of the story is simply about those who reject the invitation. None of the original audience would have understood this as Jesus bidding farewell to the Jews.
The truth is that there are many Gentiles, many church goers, many religious people who reject the invitation. The invitation is not just be a good person or even respectful toward the master. The invitation is to stop what we are doing and come to the banquet. Like this parable, the rejection of the invitation is not necessarily a bent toward evil or a hatred toward God. For many people, everyday life is so distracting that giving the master our full attention seems like too much work. I can’t worry about God or Jesus or heaven because I need to pay my bills and fulfill my obligations and just be a normal person.
In the parable, the master doesn’t make the people come against their will and neither does God make the invited come when they don’t want to. But that doesn’t mean that God has given up.
In our story, there is still is a banquet hall full of food. Just because the invited are too busy is no reason for this food to go to waste. So the master sends the servants our to bring in the poor and disabled. When there is still plenty of room, the master sends them out again to bring whoever they can find.
What does this mean for us as a church? It doesn’t mean that only the poor and disabled are welcome in the family of God, although they are an important part. Hopefully we have a better respect for differences in economic and physical ability. But in that culture, Jesus was being radical. They would have seen the poor and the disabled as not being the ones who would be invited to the banquet. They are the wrong kind of people. But the family of God is inclusive.
There is not a one kind of person who is welcome in the family of God. Who is our target group? The Psalms tell us that everything that has breath should praise the Lord. So our target are all those who are breathing. It doesn’t matter the level of income or the race or language or age or gender. Who is welcome in the family of God? Everyone!
But this is not a feel-good universalism that Jesus is presenting. Nor is this an excuse for Christians to just sit back and relax. In fact, it is the opposite.
There is sense of urgency in this parable. Who are we in the parable? Not the ones sitting at the table with full bellies. We are the servants who are being sent out to compel the people to come to the banquet. Notice that the servants in the story go out in two waves. It is because the master really wants as many people as possible. Empty tables and chairs are not an option.
The beautiful thing about this story is that it is not guilt-ridden activity of scaring people into Christians. The family of God is a party that God want people to come and enjoy. Yes, there are responsibilities for those who are sons and daughters of God, but joy is the primary image.
The truth is that an invitation that is motivated by joy is the most attractive message that we can give. We are inviting people to a great banquet, one that is as far and possible from a dreary religion.
We state in our church mission statement that we are a welcoming community. But why are we a welcoming community? Is it because that is how you grow a church or because we are nice people? Hopefully both of those are true. But the primary reason, the foundation for why we do what we do is because God is a welcoming God. Who is welcome in the family of God? Everyone.
This means two things for us. One is that we are the servants who invite people to come to the great banquet. There are some who refuse the invitation but many others who will respond if only they knew the invitation was available. Feel the urgency in this story as the table is set and the master is waiting. The other is that we need to be fully welcoming to those who respond. There is not a right or wrong kind of people that are welcome. There are just people. Our job is to make sure everyone feels welcome, no matter who they are or what they have experienced. Not every church does this well. Although I see this as one of our greatest strengths, we must never stop striving to welcome everyone into the family of God.