Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Amending Our Guest Lists

When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. (Luke 14.13-14)

Making Memories and Wrestling With Them

Feast season is upon us. Here in the States, we’re eight days from Thanksgiving, the big event that ushers in six weeks of parties, dinners, and get-togethers celebrating the birth of Christ, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and the New Year. Similar fêtes are in the planning stages around the world. We’re compiling guest lists, sending invitations, preparing menus, and coordinating dates and tasks to ensure family and friends enjoy longstanding traditions that make this time of year unlike any other. If we’re not already in the throes of these activities, we’re about to get real busy, throwing enormous energy into making memories that will live up to—and, hopefully, surpass—those we’ve accumulated in the past. We’ll submit to high pressure and expense to make these events perfect. Many of us will succeed, or come so close our guests won’t know the difference. At the end of the season, we’ll pack up our decorations, fancy table linens, chafing dishes, punch bowls, and whatnot, and store memories of another perfect holiday.

Meanwhile, there are people we know who will spend this season wrestling with memories. They will remember these feast days before their lives crashed on unforgiving rocks—before losing life partners, parents, or children; before losing jobs or homes; before addiction; before sickness and debt; before families turned them away; before prison; before betrayal; before tragedy; before crossing borders in search of elusive dreams; before… before… before. There will also be many who will wrestle with having no happy memories at all. For them, these days are traumatic anniversaries of family dysfunction, scarred psyches, disappointment, wounded bodies, broken spirits, anger, hatred, and violence that hobble them with harrowing fear. Some of these tender souls will be tended to. Boxes of food, cast-off clothing, and anonymously wrapped gifts will find them. Well-intentioned folks will sacrifice a few hours to cook and carol in nursing homes, hospices, and shelters. In exchange, the dispossessed and dismayed will politely take their leave on the actual feast days—so the more fortunate can frolic with family and friends. With them out of sight, we won’t notice that their absence at our tables, their discrete distance from our touch, mars our celebrations’ perfection.

The Bigger Picture

In Luke 14, Jesus tells a famous parable about a generous man who plans a great banquet and invites a lot of friends. The big day arrives. He sends his servant to tell those he asked, “Dinner is ready!” But everybody’s got a last-minute excuse for not showing up: I just bought land I need to see; I need to try out oxen I recently purchased; I’m a newlywed. The host is so angry, he commands the servant to invite those he excluded from his guest list: the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame—i.e., people outside his social circles whom he’d typically not dine with and who haven’t means to repay his kindness. The servant obeys and after the newly invited guests arrive, there’s more room and food to spare. So the host orders the servant, “Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.” (v23) In his pique, he adds that should any of the original guests trickle in, they’ll find nothing left over for them. (It’s a sort of “serves-‘em-right” tactic.)

The parable is obviously a metaphor for inclusion, contrasting the original guests’ disregard for the host’s graciousness with his boundless generosity for anyone, regardless of social status, who responds to his kindness. Because Jesus offers it after another guest at a dinner He’s at comments on “the feast in the kingdom of God” (v15), there’s no mistaking His message is, “God’s grace is free to all who accept it.” But the parable comes after a straightforward statement Jesus makes that can’t possibly be misconstrued as metaphor. Jesus looks around and sees the seating meticulously arranged by social rank. The most influential guests assume places of honor. The least important hang on the fringes. Although this is customary, it disturbs Him as a breach in etiquette—and a dicey move on the host’s part. Giving honor to those with means to repay his hospitality limits his rewards to returned invitations, Jesus explains. Not a bad thing, necessarily, but it’s not the best he can receive in recompense for his efforts and kindness. “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed,” Jesus says. “Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (v13-14) The message: “There’s more to hospitality than meets the eye. See the bigger picture.”

Compel Them

The extent of Christ’s compassion for the neglected and ostracized becomes evident in the parable. After the servant sees there are more than enough seats and food for the overlooked, unwelcome—even unwholesome—villagers, the host sends him into the countryside to find more guests. “Compel them to come,” he commands. Such is Christ’s command to us this feast season. This is our opportunity find the financially and familial poor, those hobbled by fear and rejection, those halted by tragedies and transgressions, and those blinded by hatred and despair and compel them to join our banquets. Tending to them prior to our feasts falls short of Jesus’s insistence we invite them. Of course, many will refuse. They’ve been conditioned to get out of the way and cope with their loneliness and deprivation in silence. But we can’t take “no” for an answer. Amending our guest lists to include someone with only gratitude to offer in return witnesses our belief there’s more to hospitality than meets the eye. The bereft and berated—compel them. The abused and abandoned—compel them. The unnoticed and undesirable—compel them. We have plenty of room for them. Though they have no tangible means to repay us, we will be blessed.

Tending to the less fortunate prior to our feasts falls short. Jesus insists we must compel them to join us.


claire said...

“God’s grace is free to all who accept it.”

Tim, I even have a hunch that 'Godde's grace is free to all those who don't know about it.' ...

Otherwise, to find a way to celebrate Godde's love with some who there is love at all, what an uplifting prospect!


Tim said...

Claire, the truth here makes me smile. Yes, grace is free to all!

Converting holiday celebrations into opportunities to express God's grace was instilled me by my parents, who found the idea of someone doing without or being alone on feast days intolerable. It was a hard lesson to learn--and live with--when I was young.

There's a legend in our family about the time a poor family in our church lost a son to suicide two days before Christmas. The parents had nothing appropriate to bury him in and my folks presented me with the choice of keeping the sports coat waiting for me under the tree or giving it to them. I wasn't happy to do it, but I knew it was the right thing to do. To this day, my brother will kid, "Maybe Santa will bring you that jacket you never got." It was one of the hardest lessons of my life, but one of the most precious, too.

I realize what I'm suggesting here isn't the easiest of tasks. Yet as I've practiced it down through the years, I can attest to the richness and joy that come from it!

Blessings, dear sister,

Sherry Peyton said...

Tim, you hit on something that troubles me always at this time of year. We take our bags of food and our unwrapped gift and drop them off at the church, and perhaps we spend a few hours serving food, and we feel somehow that we have done our duty.

Yet you are so right. The duty is to find and include those marginalized into our family meals and festivities. have pricked my heart once again.

Jan said...

Thanks for that story of the sports jacket. It lives on.

Tim said...

Sherry, I'm right there with you. I'll pass along something I mentioned in response to Grant's similar sentiment in a comment he posted on FB. One of the truest, most enduring things my father ever said to me was, "Donating is easy; giving is hard."

The flaw in "doing our duty" is we walk away after its done. And while I don't mean to discredit these efforts--they are perhaps the only way to reach out to as many needy souls as possible--they don't excuse us from extending ourselves to the lonely and downtrodden around our tables. Jesus fed multitudes and nobody complained. But when He took the time to eat with the outcasts, He exemplified the grace He proclaimed. And that shook the world!

Jan, I gave serious consideration to including the jacket episode in the post. But I got gun-shy about its being perceived as self-aggrandizing, rather than a personal example of the kinds of dilemma we all face at this time of year. At the time, I was not happy and holy doing it. If anything, I felt I'd been cornered into it. How could I ever wear the thing without feeling ashamed?

But as I grew older, the lesson stuck and I'm so grateful for it. It taught me holidays are not times to receive everything I want. They're chances to celebrate all I've been given.

Thanks to both of you for stopping by. You're true gifts to me and everyone here!

Blessings always,