Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 25 June 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
In our second lesson Jesus relates our social interactions to the heavenly feast. Listening to him we might reflect that in many of our relationships we are either playing the role of guest or host: we spend a lot of our lives either receiving from others or giving to others. If that is right perhaps we might also recall that, as the writer to the Hebrews says, we are all, even now, participants in the divine economy, in which everyone is a ‘first-born’ child of God and a citizen of heaven. So we should do to others as has been done to us. As host we should treat our guests with the same honour and dignity that we enjoy as citizens of heaven. As guest we should be as grateful to our host as we are to our divine host for making us ‘first-born sons and daughters’.
Our Lord’s parable of the great feast is recorded by Luke as Jesus’ response to a slightly clumsy dinner invitation, and there is an important ancient-world context for hospitality which I mentioned to some of you on the recent parish retreat. There are several words in ancient languages, including Greek and Latin, which express reciprocity, the two sides of relationship. These are all words which post-enlightenment thinking has tended to narrow and separate out in meaning. One of the best examples is that of words which can mean both ‘host’ and ‘guest’: xenos [ξÎνος] in Greek, hospes in Latin. The Latin word is best known to us in a kindly derivation – ‘hospitality’; the Greek one less so – ‘xenophobia’, ‘fear of foreigners’ or ‘strangers’. But the original words, xenos [ξÎνος] and hospes could mean either the stranger or the person welcoming them.
The encounter reported in our second lesson pivots on a response from one of the dinner guests:
‘Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God’
This sounds a bit like our friend the professional meeting-goer, the person who must always piously speak in every meeting, usually to repeat what the bishop has just said while looking round the room for approval. But, to be fair, teaching in the gospels is routinely aided by listener-misunderstanding; these misunderstandings were intended by the gospel writers to be comical and to provide Jesus with openings to expand what he is saying. The misunderstanding trope was brilliantly caught by Monty Python’s Life of Brian when the onlookers at the edge of the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount can’t quite hear what’s being said:
‘What was that?
‘I think it was Blessed are the cheesemakers’
What’s so special about the cheesemakers?’
Well obviously its not meant to be taken literally: it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.
Which leads my freely associating brain to Sandi Toksvig’s brilliant suggestion for a Palestinian fromagerie, ‘Cheeses of Nazareth’. But I digress.
In his desire to say something appropriate and pious, Jesus’s fellow guest has missed Jesus’s point, which was to suggest the manner of God’s gracious generosity, illustrated from this primary social context, the shared meal. Jesus, himself ever gracious, does not slap down his fellow-diner for his off-the-point remark, but uses it as the cue for a parable of the kingdom as a great inclusive dinner-party, a parable which cuts across the comfortable assumptions of those present about who is ‘in’ with God, using their evening’s entertainment as the setting.
Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God, is a feast, but not a celebration of respectability, or a reward for piety. He nails rather acutely the jaded indifference of the regular dinner-goer (for which we may read pious temple- synagogue- or church-goer) who misses out on the invitation of his life because he prefers his own affairs to yet another dinner invitation, while others, outsiders, are hungry and ignored: ‘the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame’, and the homeless street-people. But these, says Jesus, will not be ignored by the divine host: and Jesus will go on to offer the perfect form of hospitable reciprocity in the Blessed Sacrament, where he is both priest and victim. In this teaching, meanwhile, he names and shames all priorities which eclipse God.
That guest/host vocabulary I’ve mentioned and the cultural attitudes to hospitality it expresses are implicit in the parable of the great banquet, but the trajectory of the story is about the process of invitation and refusal within this shared social context.
The words we heard as ‘invitation’ and ‘invite’ are the same words as those for vocation, for calling: kaleo [καλÎω] in Greek, voco in Latin. When one is invited to a dinner in the ancient world one is ‘called’ to it, the same verb as when God ‘calls’ us, when Jesus ‘calls’ disciples to follow him.
The Gospel is always an invitation, never a manipulative or bullying command. That is a key to all our behaviour as members of the Body of Christ. We can say no, or apathetically ignore the invitation, and the loss is ours; moreoever we cannot compel anyone else’s attendance. But we should respond eagerly ourselves and issue the invitation as generously as we are able.