What Jesus Really Said: Party Parables

Young blond man reading the Bible with bright green background

14:12 He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. 13 But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”

15 When one of those who reclined at table with him heard these things, he said to him, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 16 But he said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. 17 And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ 19 And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ 20 And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21 So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ 22 And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ 23 And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’” i

This month, we have been looking at a few of Jesus’ parables that deal primarily with the grace of God – God’s one-way love of the last, the least, the little, the lost, and the dead. Last week, we examined the parable commonly called the Good Samaritan parable (the Mugged Man parable) to see how the hero of the story was the mugged man – the man beaten, stripped, and left for dead outside the walls of Jerusalem.

Luke places that parable in the context of Jesus setting his face toward his death and resurrection in Jerusalem. By the time we get to Luke 14 and 15, we see an even more deliberate Jesus closer to the time of his passion. In spite of the coming death, these two chapters present the upside-down theme of a party, a celebration of found-ness through lostness and death.

INTRODUCTION

Jesus for Dinner

Luke 14 opens with Jesus at a dinner party where the Lord does some strangely

offensive things: he heals a fellow guest during dinner (and on the Sabbath, no less!); he criticizes the social behavior of everyone there; he offers strange advice on how to throw a party; and he ends by confusing everyone at the dinner party with a parable about a Great Banquet (which we just read).

After his performance at the Pharisee’s dinner party, he warns the crowds following him about the cost of the great party – it’s about death and resurrection. Then, in chapter 15, he tells three party parables: The Lost Sheep; The Lost Coin; and, The Lost Son (or the Prodigal Son, or “The Prodigal God.”) – all of which end in a party foreshadowing the great Wedding Feast of the Lamb Slain in John’s Revelation.

Admission Price

The two party parables which frame these two chapters are the Great Banquet parable (Lk. 14:12-24) and the Lost/Prodigal Son, or, The Prodigal God (Lk. 15:11-32). We will look at both of these parables this morning as they relate to the grace parable themes of lastness, leastness, littleness, lostness, and death. Death is the price of admission to these two great pop-up dinners Jesus describes.

THE GREAT BANQUET (Lk. 14:12-24)

A Rude Guest

Jesus tells the Great Banquet parable while attending a Sabbath dinner thrown by a Pharisee. Picture it: there’s a large banquet room in a nice home. There are about 15 or 20 important people seated – all good, upstanding Presbyterian bible students and amateur theologians. They’re pleasant enough if just a bit stodgy and proper. The conversation is polite and the multiple courses of food are served on fine Sabbath-worthy dinnerware. Everyone is dressed in their best Sabbath “go to meeting’” clothes.

But then there’s Jesus. He makes it through the salad and soup courses without incident. But he notices a man at the party suffering from an obviously painful condition. Jesus impolitely and publically calls attention to the illness and has the nerve to heal the man right there at dinner before the pot roast and mashed potatoes can be served.

It’s not just that Jesus technically violates the Sabbath by performing a work, he also violates the rules of dinner party civility and decency. He drops a theological and social cow pie on the table. The dinner guests are mortified. And Jesus responds by asking which one of them wouldn’t do the same if it was their child or their favorite animal.

It’s not so much the actual healing of the sick man that stinks up the dining room, it’s Jesus’ sideshow of bad manners. If this Sabbath supper is an afternoon meal, all Jesus would have had to do was wait a few hours until sundown, until after the dessert and brandy and cigars. Jesus, in other words, is not safe company for a dinner party.

He’s certainly not pleasant company for this party; he goes on to insult his fellow guests for jockeying to take the best social position at the table. He insults the host by telling him he invited the exact wrong kind of people over to eat. All of which tends to make us see Jesus as instructing how to act humble and be nice to poor people, rather than Jesus teaching about death and letting go of our desperate desire to manage our hopeless lives.

So to emphasize his point is more than a morality lesson, Jesus tells the parable of the Great Banquet. Look at Luke 14:15-16.

An Upside-Down Banquet

15 When one of those who reclined at table with him heard these things, he said to him, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 16 But [Jesus] said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many.ii

After Jesus has insulted the host and all his guests, some well-meaning soul fills in the awkward silence with a declaration of blessing upon all who will one day dine with God. It’s likely this man had taken Jesus’ instruction as a means to achieve justification by serving the poor, rather than instruction to BE poor in spirit, to die to self-righteousness.

Do good to get good,” shouts the guest. “Blessed are those who work to earn a place at God’s table” in the very same way the dinner guests had all body-checked one another for the best seating at their Sabbath dinner. Karma. Salvation through winning. The price of admission to the Great Banquet is being a little better, achieving a little more than the adulterer, murderer, or tax collector next door.”

You need to sit in a greater place of honor than the person seated next to you if you want to be a 1st-century Jewish winner. “I don’t need to outrun the bear; I just need to outrun YOU. I can do that with a just little more occasional humility, putting a little more money in the poor box every now and then, handing out my leftovers to the homeless beggar on my way home from Sabbath dinner when I think of it. Being the very best ‘Martha’ I can be will put me in a position to receive the grace of God’s Kingdom.

So, Jesus tells a story about a man whose invited dinner guests refuse to come to his party. The host has his servants go out into the town to invite “the poor and crippled and blind and lame.”iii But still, his house is not full enough. So he sends the servants out to the Interstate and the service roads to grab even more folks and drag them into the mater’s house.

Before the dinner party Jesus attended had started, Jesus saw his fellow dinner guests jockeying for the best seats at the table and he rebuked them for spoiling the party with their shameless efforts to be “winners.” Now, in the Great Banquet parable, he pictures the pursuit of a sensible, successful, winning life as something that will keep them (and us) out of the great party.iv

In the Banquet parable, all of those on the original guest list have sensible, legitimate reasons they cannot attend. Inspecting newly-purchased property is good business practice. Test-driving your new fleet of oxen is important. Being on your honeymoon in San Francisco is a very reasonable justification for declining a party invitation back home in San Antonio. But Jesus says, “the master of the house became angry….v

The host is angry because this just isn’t ANY old party. This is like an invitation to dinner at the White House plus a night at the Academy Awards followed by the Governor’s Ball, plus a dinner-dance with all the world’s kings and queens in attendance. It’s the kind of party any of the people shoving each other out of the way for a good seat at the Pharisee’s table in a tiny Palestinian town would literally kill to attend because, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!”

But those invited in the Great Banquet parable are way too busy living their reasonable lives to even consider dying to their plans in order to join the real party. The worthiness (or worthlessness) of the alternate guest list (poor, crippled, blind, and lame) doesn’t drive the invitation; the host’s compulsiveness to fill up his house is his sole motivation.

“…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 …is not depicted here as a response; above all, it is not depicted as a fair response, or an equitable repose, or a proportionate response. Rather it is shown as a crazy initiative, a radical discontinuity.”vi There is no right-side-up solution that will do to salvage the party.

The host’s plans for his great party have been shipwrecked by a list of reasonable responses by reasonable, right-handed people refusing to die to their reasonable plans for successful living. The host instead chooses to throw a shipwreck of a party. He creates the kind of party his initial, reasonable guests wouldn’t be caught dead attending. The kind of party a respectable older brother refuses to enter because being “caught dead is the only ticket to the Supper of the Lamb.”vii

Following this parable Jesus rather flatly states the ticket to the party is death. “26 If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.viii

Following all the party appetizers of Luke 14 and 15, Jesus serves up the main course with the party parable we know as the parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk. 15:11-32).

THE PRODIGAL PARTY (LK. 15:11-32)

Interruption

The parable of the prodigal (wasteful) party follows on the heels of two other party invitations: a celebration over a found coin and a celebration over a found sheep. Neighbors are asked to interrupt their reasonable lives of housework, gardening, laundry, and farm work to join in the joy over found things unable to “find” themselves. “…it turns out that what makes history come out in triumph is some dumb sheep that couldn’t find it way home.”ix

But after a party for the poor, the blind, the lame, and parties for a lost coin and a lost sheep comes the most wasteful and tacky party of them all. The Prodigal parable is chocked full of one-way love imagery, rejection imagery, and death imagery.

1st Death

The first death in the story is the virtual suicide of the father. The younger brother comes to the father and says, “I want you to die. I want my inheritance now!” The Father’s response to his youngest son’s demand is to legally drop dead.

He is “DRT” – dead right there. He gives up a third of his estate in cash to the younger brother and, presumably, the rest of the ongoing business and the land to the older brother. Younger brother gets a fat wad of cash. Older brother gets everything else. Daddy commits social, familial, and financial suicide.

Start of the 2nd Death

Next, Jesus tells us, the younger brother goes out to live aggressively. We’re free to assume he’s spending daddy’s money on booze, gambling, and sporting women (his older brother certainly assumes that). But he may just as easily have lost his nest egg on bad business deals in failed attempts at billionaire stardom. Instead of cornering the pork market and becoming a meat-packing mogul, he’s left slopping the hogs for beggar’s wages. He’s starving.

Whatever way the younger brother chose to arrange his life, one morning he wakes up mostly-dead. He realizes that whatever life he had is over; the substance or being [οὐσία, v. 12], he demanded from his father has been squandered away. In the face of the end of everything that could possibly be called a life, the younger son decides to return hat-in-hand to his father.

18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” ’x

Now, can you see why I said the younger son was “mostly dead?” He’s returning home with a grace + works proposition. “Extend me the grace of letting me work to rebuild some kind of life for myself,” says our would-be Semi-Pelagian. Though he wants to be a hired servant, all he can truly be is a dead son. Instead of admitting his death and his bankruptcy, he is going to propose a life of shoddy bookkeeping to his father. Bookkeeping is the one amusement and consolation the truly dead, who refuse to admit their deadness, have.xi

If he can no longer claim sonship, at least he can claim hired handship. Maybe his old man will be soft-hearted enough, or soft-headed enough to take the deal. Maybe the old man is as bad a bookkeeper as the Unforgiving Servant presumed his king to be.

Final Breath of the 2nd Death

If the youngest son’s dying started in the far country, the final gasp of life comes as he tops over the valley on the roadway down to the farm where his father sits watching and waiting. Listen to Jesus, “20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.xii

This is the moment of grace that wails with a father’s joy drowning out the son’s pathetic attempts to propose some shoddy bookkeeping arrangement of grace + works = life. “The father simply sees this corpse of a son coming down the road and, because raising dead sons to life and throwing fabulous parties for them is his favorite way of spending an afternoon, he proceeds straight to hugs, kisses, and resurrection.”xiii

The father’s grace forces the son to see he is utterly dead to his life of bookkeeping and he always and forevermore will be. He understands, in his father’s embrace, he is a dead son who is alive again only because his father was willing to become dead in order to raise up his son.xiv

The son mutters no promise of hired-hand-work. Instead, he simply says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”xv He confesses his deadness. That, after all, is true repentance; it not the admission of guilt or the acknowledgment of fault, but the confession of death to bookkeeping and self-justification and to sad attempts at jockeying for an honorable position at the world’s dinner table.

Do you hear what Jesus is saying? He is saying that real confession is not a fudging of our assets and liabilities, but an admission that our books are only worth damning – no assets at all, only huge and eternal and unpayable liabilities. It’s surrender to death.

Confession is NOT a transaction. It has nothing to do with getting ourselves forgiven. There is no negotiation to secure forgiveness. It’s the last bit of air expelled from a corpse squeezed by the Father in a joyous, gracious hug.

“Forgiveness surrounds us, beats upon us all our lives; we confess only to wake ourselves up to what we already have.”xvi We are forgiven already; and only for one reason: because the One telling this parable set his face toward Jerusalem to die and rise again.

We’re not forgiven because we make ourselves forgivable, or because we make a decision to trust Jesus (this is why a large portion of Jesus’ Church still baptizes infants, by the way). We are forgiven because there is a Forgiver, and he loves to throw parties!

There is no subsequent forgiveness, no additional act or sign. Nothing new needs to be done because EVERYTHING was done, once for all, by the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world. Or, in the parable, the slaughter of the fatted calf represents the death that celebrates death and resurrection; the veal is the Christ figure; this is the third death in the story and it’s the one death that makes the party possible.xvii

Pure Bookkeeping

At this point, you might be awake enough to wonder, “What about the older brother who refuses to enter the party?” It is, after all, a shamefully-wasteful (prodigal) party. That milk-fed veal should have been saved for a great feast day, or some promotional sales event for the farm’s customers. How can the older brother possibly justify this expense in his books?

We’re tempted to see the father’s coming outside to the old brother as an act of grace. But grace only works on the dead, not on those frantically trying to hold on some form of life. What’s happening in this final part of Jesus’ story is judgement, as the father holds up free saving grace and resurrection as a condemnation of all the older brother’s exhausting attempts to live.

The older brother says to his father, “when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property….”xviii The older brother refuses to see his father’s death at the beginning of the parable. He fails to see what his brother wasted was his brother’s to waste – his own substance, his own life.

The father says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.xix In other words, “Why are you so smug about not wasting what was yours all along? If you were dying for veal, much less cabrito, you could have had it. In fact, if you craved veal so much, you could have raised a dozen fatted calves.

What really matters, says the father to his desperately-living son, is not fun or no fun. It’s not waste versus frugality. What matters is death and resurrection. “32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’xx

We’re all dead here,” says the father. “And we’re having a wonderful extravagant party. So do yourself a favor and drop dead. Put on a party hat. Go inside and grab some of that 18-year-old single malt, small cask Scotch.

Grace operates ONLY by raising the dead. The judgment pronounced will be based only on our acceptance or rejection of our resurrection from the dead. Everybody will be raised up in the final judgment and nobody will be kicked out for having a rotten life because, then, only the life of Jesus will matter.xxi

Of course, tragically, there will be plenty of older brothers waiving their books around and trying to prove they never died in the first place. “…there is a place for such party poopers. God thinks of everything.”xxii

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.xxiii

i The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk 14:12–24.

ii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk 14:15–16.

iii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk 14:21.

iv Capon, 286.

v The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk 14:21.

vi Capon 290.

vii Id.

viii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk 14:26–27.

ix Id., 293.

x The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk 15:18–19.

xi Capon, 295.

xii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk 15:20.

xiii Capon, 296.

xiv Id.

xv The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk 15:21.

xvi Capon, 297.

xvii Id.

xviii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk 15:30.

xix The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk 15:31.

xx The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk 15:32.

xxi Capon, 301.

xxii Id.

xxiii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Eph 1:7–12.