The parable from Luke is the last section in three short teaching passages spoken by Jesus when he was a guest at the house of the leader of the Pharisees. They're all about dining, on the face of it. The first is about where to sit when you are a guest at a wedding banquet, about humility, and not thinking of yourself as being more important than others. It repeats the familiar theme of those who humble themselves being exalted, and those who exalt themselves being humbled. The second is about who to invite to your own dinner parties, suggesting that instead of inviting those who may well repay you with a return invitation, you should invite those who have no way of paying you back. God will then repay your charity, in the last days. The third passage, which we've just heard, neatly wraps up both of the previous passages in a parable about the kingdom of God, as well as strongly hinting at many other themes. It captures an awful lot within a pretty short passage, and even manages to do it within quite an entertaining story.
The first people we really hear any detail about are the people who were originally invited to the dinner. All we actually hear about them is their excuses, in fact. Luke is often interested in marriage and wealth as sources of distraction from God, and this passage is no exception. It's important that we don't take away the wrong message here, though. The problem with these people isn't that they've just bought some land or animals, or that they've just got married. The problem is that they've let those get in the way of the more important event. Now in real life, of course, I think most of us would agree with the chap who'd just got married - I don't think many people would cut a honeymoon short just to get to a dinner party. When we put things into the context of the kingdom of God, however, the perspective changes somewhat. We can probably all agree that God and heaven are more important than possessions or even the people we care most deeply for.
The difficulty, of course, is that even if we agree on that, it's difficult to put it into practice. The promise of heaven is rather less tangible than the promise of a sun-drenched holiday in the Caribbean, for instance. That's why parables like this one are important - not just because they can tell us things we don't know, but also because they can remind us of things we already know. (If any of you are thinking that preaching is much the same, I quite agree with you. I know I'd be in trouble if I thought that everything I said had to be something you'd never heard before.)
So in order not to get distracted by possessions and the like, we need to remember passages like the parable this morning. We usually think of possessions as being things which enable us to do stuff, and I think that's fine. We just need to think about whether or not they're stopping us from doing God's will and listening to his voice, because we're concentrating too much on them. When the invitation to God's party comes, we've got to be ready and able to accept it.
Anyway, keeping in the back of our heads the things to avoid, let's talk about the more positive stuff - the people who did get to the feast, and what that means for us. First, the owner of the house sends out his slave and asks him to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. Those who would normally have been considered some of the lowest in society are the most important to the host. After that, it turns out that there's still plenty of room. The slave is sent out again, this time to everyone: "Compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled." And that means you and me.
The tone of the host reminds me quite strongly of a time when I was rehearsing for a Greek play at university. My character was telling a story about a man inviting people to a wedding feast. We were rehearsing in some college gardens, just the director and me, and every time I did the speech she would tell me it needed to be "more Mediterranean". It took me quite a while to get the feel of it, but I'm sure it's the feeling of this passage too. The first couple of lines went something like this: "Hoppos parasei moi, kai tu kai ta paidia, lusamena pro." I can't remember what those lines actually meant - I never did any Greek, other than for this play - but the feeling was very different from way I normally set up a dinner party. This isn't a case of "Right, when can you make? I'm afraid I'm busy for the next three weekends..." Instead, it's "Come on in! Bring your children - you're all very welcome! Forget appointments - they can wait. Come in, have some wine!"
Isn't it marvellous to think we're invited to God's home in that way? What's important to the host in the parable was that his house is full - that people are eating, drinking, enjoying themselves. That those in need are being fed. I suspect that sometimes when we hear of heaven being likened to a dinner, we imagine it being quite formal. Not dressy, but somehow subdued. Maybe it's just me - but I get a very different picture from this parable. I imagine that when the feast gets going, it's noisy. Not raucous, but lively. Full of laughter and companionship. And we're all invited.
We're all invited - and everyone else is, too. We've imagined ourselves as the original guests, and we've imagined ourselves as those who made up the final party, but there are two other characters to think about, too: the host and the slave. Both are roles I believe we need to take, in one way or another, and they're fairly closely connected.
Let's look at the slave first. I'll let you into a little secret - I'm not terribly comfortable talking about evangelism, which is the role I see the slave playing. I think it's because it's such a difficult one to do well. To think about the parable literally, can you imagine if someone came down the street now, saying, "Please, come to my employer's house! He's throwing a party, and you're all invited - right now!" I know I'd think something rather strange was going on, and probably give it a miss. Unfortunately, I suspect that in some cases that's what happens when we try to evangelise the Good News of Christ today. In a way, that's perfectly understandable, as the message we're giving is rather strange, when you look at it from the "normal world" view where everything has a price, nothing comes free, and looking after number one is the most important thing. It's persuading people that this "something rather strange" is also wonderful, and is theirs for the asking which is the difficult bit.
So no, direct flat-out evangelism isn't something I do, myself. I admire the courage of those who do it, and I have a huge amount of respect for those who with God's help do it well enough to bring people into a deep relationship with Christ. But if I don't do that, what message does the slave's part have for me? It's quite simple: make the church as welcoming as possible, to everyone who might be interested. Make those who can't find respect and understanding in society feel they will get it in the church. Make people aware that we believe Christ is a refuge for them, whatever their problems are.
Here's a challenge for all of us: is there any class of person who you would feel you really couldn't share the Good News with? Who you feel is beyond redemption? If so, ask yourself whether the host in the parable would have turned them away. The slave wasn't told to bar anyone from coming to the feast. Are we keeping the Good News from some that we feel it's too good for? It's something that troubles me, certainly. It's easier to accept that we're not worthy of Christ's forgiveness and grace if we don't have to think about who else can receive them.
So, in whatever way you evangelise, whether you preach on a street corner or just make sure that people know you're a Christian, think about being the slave inviting others to God's banquet: and everyone's invited.
Finally, the host. I think it's clear that on at least one level, we should view the host in the parable as God. But given the passage that precedes the one we heard, I think we should also view the behaviour of the host as behaviour to emulate. Words are turned into actions: those who could never repay him are brought into his party, and he brings them in without holding back. Until his house is full, he's happy to accept more in. How can we bring an element of that into our lives today? We don't need to restrict this to dinners, or even anything directly to do with the church. For me, it's about being all inclusive, about giving without counting the cost - not for some reward, but just because it's the right thing to do. We can all give of ourselves in different ways - and however hard it is to do, God will be with us every step of the way. As the ultimate host, and as the father who made the ultimate sacrifice, he knows how difficult it can be, and if we listen for his guidance and comfort, he can help us fulfil his will.
As I said at the beginning of this sermon, this parable has lots of themes running through it, and I've no doubt that there are plenty you'll have picked up on which I haven't mentioned. The most important point for me, however, is the one which I find so amazing: God has invited us to his party. It matters to Him that we come, and that we find nourishment with him. All we have to do is accept his invitation - so don't forget to RSVP and say you're coming.