Widen Your Circle

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Throughout Lent, we’re exploring the parables of Jesus – the two dozen or so stories that were his chief means of describing the reality of God’s rule on earth. 

Believe it or not, the excruciating drama of Who’s In and Who’s Out didn’t start when you were in middle school.

People in the ancient world – especially religious folks – were obsessed with the matter of who really mattered to God, and who therefore deserved a ticket to Paradise.

What will heaven be like?  The picture that emerges most frequently in the teaching of Jesus is a party – a celebration not unlike the weeklong feasts associated with first century Jewish weddings.  Those who enter the kingdom of God will find themselves kicking back with the saints of previous ages. 

So who gets to attend that party?

Members of the religious Establishment were certain they were on God’s primary invitation list.  As a public service, they went ahead and identified some of those who would definitely not be gathered around God’s table in the next world.  Members of the separatist Jewish movement called the Essenes, for example, declared:  “No madman, or lunatic, or simpleton, or fool, or blind man, or maimed, or lame, or deaf man, and no minor, shall enter into the Community.” 

A holy God would unquestionably enforce minimal entrance requirements for getting to experience the Show.  The lame, the crippled, and those with any kind of blemish need not apply.

If that sounds harsh, consider the perspective of Peter Singer, professor of ethics of Princeton University, a man whom some identify as the most influential contemporary American philosopher.  According to Singer, parents should have the right to kill their less-than-perfect babies so they can replace them with much-closer-to-perfect babies, whom he believes would have a greater chance of experiencing happiness. 

In both the first century and the twenty-first century, beautiful people are celebrated above those who are homely, capable human beings are more highly valued than the incompetent, and those who seem to be pure are thought more deserving of fellowship than those who are not.

The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day – and not a few church leaders of our own day – have come to the conclusion that the more faithful one is to God, the smaller one’s circle of care should become.  If you really love God, then you’ll starting limiting the categories of people with whom you sustain contact.  You’ll no longer feel led to spend time, for instance, with those who vote for the wrong political party, or who act out sexually, or who fail relationally, or who flunk particular cultural values tests.

Faithful people, in other words, should be all about subtraction and division.  We should get tough…purge the sin and the sinners…surgically removing unhealthy cells from the body of Christ. 

That’s a heartbreaking perspective for Christians – especially because Jesus himself, as reflected in his stories, is clearly into addition and multiplication.  That’s apparent in the Parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14:15-24):

“A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests.  At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’But they all alike began to make excuses.  The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it.  Please excuse me.’  Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out.  Please excuse me.’  Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’

“The servant came back and reported this to his master.  Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ ‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’

“Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full.  I tell you, not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’”

In the ancient Middle East, preparing a feast or banquet was a two-stage process.  First you confirmed your guest list.  Weeks in advance you found out which of your neighbors intended to come to your party.  Then you would go prepare the food. 

There was no set time for the kickoff of such an event.  The host would never say, “Appetizers begin on Friday at 5:45 p.m.”  The party began when the food was ready, and everybody in the village would know generally that the time was approaching.  All that was required was a servant walking from house to house announcing, “Everything’s ready.  Please come!”

In Jesus’ story, however, the guests who have already agreed to attend a particular banquet start to beg off. 

Their excuses are entirely lame – and Jesus’ listeners would know this.  Saying, “I just bought a field and I have to check it out,” would be like saying, “John Denver’s greatest hits have just come out in a boxed set, and I have to stay home and listen to Rocky Mountain High for the 500th time.”  It would be inconceivable for someone to have bought a field without first having examined every inch of it. 

People who have already RSVPed are insulting the host.  In our day this would be like saying, “Of course I’ll come to your graduation open house, I wouldn’t miss it!” but then concluding that only the losers will probably show up.  The Pharisees honestly thought that heaven wouldn’t be heaven unless they – the right people – were in the mix.

Instead of feeling humiliated, the master of the banquet becomes enraged.  He will not allow all this food – all this grace – to go to waste, just because the religious elite doesn’t feel the need to attend. 

He says to his servant, “Go out quickly – right now – and fill the places at my table.” This is an urgent summons. 

Since all the beautiful people were on the original guest list, who gets an invitation now?  The master says, “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.”   This is outrageous.  What do the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame have in common?  All of them were on the salvation reject list as conceived by many of Israel’s rabbis. 

Jesus is saying, “God has opened the doors of heaven to the very people that others call ‘losers.’” 

The servant says to the master, “Sir, all the ‘uninviteds’ have shown up and there’s still room at the table.  Now what should I do?”  The master says, “Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come, so that my house will be full.” 

The expression “roads and country lanes” was a Judean catchphrase.  It referred to “the people who live outside our community” – in other words, those unwashed, unchosen, unspiritual Gentiles who aren’t like us.  How low will the master in Jesus’ parable go? 

And what does he mean when he says, “make them come”?  This is not a reference to force, but indicates an assurance that this invitation is not a fraud.  In the ancient world, a crippled beggar or a prostitute or a Roman solider far from home would assume that a huge mistake has been made.  I’m not supposed to get this invitation.  Or maybe the master is simply being polite.  Etiquette would dictate that you thank the servant a thousand times – or as author John Ortberg puts it, “Gee, could I at least have a copy of the invitation so I could frame it and put it on my wall?” 

To save face both for yourself and the master, however, there’s no question what you have to do:  You must decline the invitation.

But the master tells the servant, “Be persuasive.  Be compelling.  Don’t take no for an answer, because they will think they don’t deserve it.” 

Who’s In and Who’s Out? 

God’s ideas are different from our ideas. 

Is the circle of those around you – those to whom you are regularly extending, on God’s behalf, arms of grace and love – getting smaller or larger?

The wonderful news is that God’s circle is as large as the whole world.