The guests at the party had their heads spun by more than alcohol. Michael, the pampered son of a local judge, plied them with a New Brunswick version of an Indian ashram utopia. He hoped that by creating an equal community the social dislocation between himself and his friends down-river would end and he would truly feel at home. Everett was chafing from his recent confinement, and with the perception of a viper, took over Michael's scheme. He suggested that every member of the group contribute money whenever they wanted, placing it in a glass jar community trust. Every contributor owned the proceeds and could use it as they pleased. Behind this communal formula was Everett's criminally motivated, mercantile desire; he intended to use the money to fund his drug smuggling with the help of Michael's father-owned sailing boat. Profits from the scheme turned scam, Everett thought, would even out the bad hand Fate had dealt him.
The two visions melded like well-suited self-centered partners. The other partygoers fully believed that their individual dreams would be furthered by this tit-for-tat arrangement. Madonna Brassaud and her brother Silver planned their escape from rural poverty by means of the suffered terribly from the machinations of Michael and Everett as their utopia became a violent apocalyptic nightmare. We are left wondering exactly how did Michael's party dream go wrong. How do parties, those inspirational communal gatherings of shared hope and joy, go wrong in general?
Jesus' party was situated in an equally rural setting full of haves and have-nots who dreamed of better lives than the ones they were living. The rich and the poor lived under Roman oppression. The utopian conversation that plied their dreams was political, social and religious liberation ushered in by God and his holy warriors on the eschatological Day of the Lord. What a genuinely kick-ass party that would be – to see the Roman occupiers defeated by Israel, God's people, and angel commandoes.
The host of Luke's gathering knew Jesus was a great conversationalist and dreamer of dreams. He'd enliven the party and give them all something to think about. He did! He dashed the expectations of almost everyone. After telling them that they weren’t going to get a buzz off being recognized for all their spiritual and social accomplishments, he made them very uncomfortable about who was going to crash the party. Then he topped off his bad news/good news with satire, suggesting that if they thought they were going to get into the banquet with their current attitudes about partying, then they had another thing coming.
Jesus’ parable was prompted by some guy in the back of the room who screamed out, "Hey, wouldn't it be great to eat bread at the feast that God is going to prepare for his chosen ones?" Jesus responded with a real twist. The Great Banquet would be great for all the wrong reasons. It would be great because it would be a great disappointment to its host and to those initially invited. A lot of work went into this party but most people didn't catch the theme very well and decided for some reason to avoid coming. They used the excuses that are common: finance, work and marriage. Love to come but we’ve got laundry!
The excuses sound illegitimate but a clue might be that these very excuses were given in Deuteronomy 20 for military exemption. Could they have been reading the party invitation as a draft card? Read between the lines and I think you might find that the guests in Jesus’ day associated the banquet as a victory banquet after a war, and it was the war part they wanted to avoid. Nobody wants a war, a literal one or a metaphorical life struggle sort of war, but Jesus was promising a sort of war that would end in a cross, one way or another. To celebrate his kind of victory was to endure suffering shoulder to shoulder with all who took up the challenge. Your fellow guests were fellow conscripts no matter what side of the tracks they came from.
Whether you are a golden-haired townie like Michael Skid or a down-river redneck like Everett Hutch, you have to leave behind your own ego, and your status or lack of it, in order to celebrate in this community. Unlike the glass jar community trust, we don't contribute and dip into the jar at our convenience. We are unified by something much deeper, by a master of ceremonies who has meticulously prepared a world made whole by his grace. The gospel story tells us that to enter this party we leave behind our silly distinctions, our worthiness or holiness codes, and attend dressed in humility. We count the cost of discipleship, and we recognize that we share equally in the death and resurrection of Christ. Because only the humble can join, it is likely the crowd will be stacked in favour of the lowly, the inept and the impure. They receive the invitation because they have been living a life something like this all along.
In The Bay of Love and Sorrows, the mechanic farm hand Tom spotted something strange about Michael Skid's improvement package for the down river gang. He asked, "Did you have to go away to private school and travel the world to come to the realization that we need to share with one another? Don't know if you noticed, but we've always shared." In effect Tom was rejecting the utopian dream, settling for a life of unity in the context of love and sorrow.
How do we apply bad news and good news about party expectations to our lives? James A. Sanders' God Has A Story Too: Sermons In Context tells how he applied Luke 14 in his Rochester, New York context during the 1964 race riots. Stressing the bad news, James Sanders allowed the text to sting the consciences of his affluent congregation by pointing out that those they most mistrusted and were afraid of, the black rioters, were loved deeply by God and were the conduits through which they were to hear the Word of God. The good news came later in the sermon but before Sanders relieved the tension he reminded his hearers how to hear Scripture accurately:
One hermeneutic or interpretation rule that one can always with confidence follow is the one that stresses that whenever our reading of a biblical passage makes us feel self righteous – we can be sure that we have misread it; and the concomitant rule is that whenever our reading of a biblical passage brings home to us the poignant judgment and the salvation of God’s humility – we can be sure we have read correctly.
The habit of reading the Gospel exclusively from the vantage point of God or Jesus can lure us into self-righteousness. If we read the text from the host's point of view we might stress the work that God went to get the party ready, the ingratitude of those who made excuses, his preferential option for the poor, and God's exclusionary judgment. But do we need to hear the story who overheard Jesus and were deeply offended by his ideas. We need to restore the parable's offensiveness. Reading our text alongside the movie The Bay of Love and Sorrows helps to draw out the parable's offense for us.
Jesus tells us that parties go wrong when guests think more highly or lowly of themselves than they ought to. Like the down-river folk we're convinced that life is better on the other side of the bay. We encourage each other to strive for a sociological or a spiritual lift. We want to transform ourselves from our dullness, ineptitude and inferiority by becoming one of the beautiful people like Michael Skid: respected, attractive, exciting, educated, independent and socially secure. We don't want to allow Jesus or anyone else to dash these utopian promises, to take away our hopes of becoming more than nobodies. We have become attached to our self-definition and are convinced that we need to atone for not adhering to our society’s worthiness code. It offends us that we must come to the party as ourselves – unchanged and totally dependent on the host’s graciousness. It offends us to think that we can't make ourselves more acceptable or holy.
Of all the characters in The Bay of Love and Sorrows, only Tom Donnerel and his brother Vincent manage to avoid the trap of self-improvement. At first Tom tried to become more winsome in the eyes of his fickle, Michael-besotted, girlfriend Carrie but in the end he gave up trying to compete. How excruciating this was can be observed by the scene where he wraps some apples in a shirt and offers them to Carrie only to cast the shirt and apples aside. Learning to accept himself, weakness and all, was the hard won prize earned by the suffering love he had for his brother Vincent, a mentally challenged outcast even down-river. Tom learned to love naturally not based on potential or on dreams but on actualities through love and sorrow. This kind of love offends those of us who are keen on self-improvement. We poor souls are not unlike Silver who dragged himself though drug-induced mists in order to maintain the deluded hope he would "succeed" someday. He never did.
We encounter offense of a different order when we filter Jesus' words through the window of Michael's urban photo-viewing townies. For all their pretension they recognized the simple beauty of the down-river people. Like the listeners at Jesus' gathering they knew that there was something to be envied, something they felt disconnected from as they watched the lives of Tom, Carrie, Vincent, Everett, Madonna and Silver from the safe distance of Michael's camera. They likely yearned for the sense of community, maybe even the humility, of these outcasts. These privileged sufferers couldn't connect because of their pride and their need to distain anyone other than their own kind. Being told that those whom we intentionally distance ourselves from have much to offer, and knowing this in our hearts, is truly offensive and discomforting.
Watersheddians are an amalgam of townies and down-river people. Like townies, we live in a local community where we are daily surrounded by the likes of Everett and Madonna. Even if only through the lens of our cameras, we have begun to see their value in God's eyes. Our Lord's Prayer in the West End video reveals as much. We are them both in sinful solidarity and through sharing with them the image of God in Christ. Our fear and mistrust of them, of their incompleteness, unworthiness and impurity, needs to be overcome.
Watersheddians also identify with the down-river people. We feel deficient. In our inferiority and oversensitivity we rage and struggle to earn respect by becoming noticed as people of dignity. We mistrust those who appear to oppress us; we place them on our hit list of prejudice. We find fault in them, we criticize them and love to hear when they are shamed. We forget that they too can be moved by the Spirit of God's grace towards Christ's life. Their pride like our own can be overcome. Recognizing this redemptive reality we are invited to join them in the life of suffering and loss, love and sorrow, in cross and in resurrection. We are called to celebrate a party that neither disappoints or misleads us.
Blessed are those who eat bread in this kingdom... there is still room.