In just about three weeks, my middle brother is getting married. As you might imagine, this impending event is occupying a lot of my family’s time and attention. Whenever I call home, I receive an update on some aspect of the plans from my mom: the progress on the gardens—because this will be an outdoor wedding at a private home—the selection of the bridesmaids’ gowns, and the ongoing work on any number of smaller things like flowers, table decorations, and everything else.
One thing above all others, however, has become the subject of a great deal of concern—the growing size of the guest list. You see, back when the invitations first went out, there were eighty-some people on the guest list, consisting mostly of family and friends of my brother and his fiancé. In the last few months, however, that list has been growing. About a month ago, I called home and learned from exasperated parents that now 100 people had been invited and they were scrambling trying to get additional seating, tables, and all the considerations that go with those things while the future in-laws were learning that the wedding reception was going to be a more expensive affair than originally planned. Since then, the number has steadily grown and at last report was somewhere around 125, or half-again as big as the original invite list.
Now, as the brother who lives 400 miles away, I am not responsible for trying to figure out how to fit that many people into a back yard. I am not responsible for the logistics of feeding that large of a crowd. And I am not being asked to donate my evenings to creating centerpieces for all the tables or favors for all the guests. No, with the privilege that comes with distance, I get to pursue the more philosophical questions in life. Questions like, who are these people that my brother and soon-to-be sister-in-law are inviting to the wedding feast? After all, neither of our families have uncovered any long-lost relatives, nor have my brother and his fiancé developed forty new best friends.
My pursuit of this mystery has revealed that for the most part, these new guests being invited to the wedding are “acquaintances” of the couple. And here acquaintance is a word that means a stranger that they met once for long enough to hand them an invitation. It is a trait that is as endearing to an impartial observer as it is maddening to those who have been tasked with handling the wedding plans.
Who would you invite to the banquet feast? It is not just a philosophical question, it is an imminently practical question, one that we all have to answer on a regular basis. For those who have had weddings, think to your own wedding plans. How much time did you put into creating the guest list? How much stress and/or conflicts did it cause as you hashed it out with your spouse and other family members?
If you have bypassed the whole wedding experience or if your wedding was many years ago, then try something more recent. Think about your holiday feasts, who must always be present? Or, whose house must you always go to? Matt and I know this particular one quite well as we continually negotiate with our respective families whose house we will spend our Christmas holiday at.
Or perhaps think of something even more close to home. Who do you invite over to your home for a dinner or a party? Are they your relatives, or your friends, or your co-workers, or your fellow parishioners, or your social acquaintances from different clubs or associations in the community?
Who do you invite to the banquet feast? Is it people you are obliged to invite because they are family or friends, people who invited you to a party in the past and now you must return the favor, or people who would be hurt or insulted if you didn’t invite them? Or is it people you expect at some level to be able to return the favor, people who can grow your social prestige, or people who can help you in a cause that you care about, or people who can help you advance your career?
Whatever factors go into deciding your guest list, it is remarkable how similar we are today to the people who gathered around to hear Jesus speak two thousand years ago. While taking a seat at a Sabbath feast, watching those who had been invited to attend along with himself, Jesus offered a third path for them to pursue.
Who do you invite to the banquet feast? Do not invite the people you are obligated to invite, Jesus warns, and do not invite people you hope to become obligated to you. Instead, invite people whom you owe nothing, people who could never repay you the favor you are extending, never increase your social standing, and people who could never advance your own career. Invite the social outcasts, Jesus commands, invite the sick, invite the poor, and invite the homeless.
So often when we hear words like these, we nod our heads and say to ourselves, “yes, that sounds nice, so what does that mean for us?” But this is not theoretical advice from Jesus. It is not philosophical instruction. Jesus meant for us to actually do it. And let’s be clear, what sounds nice being proclaimed from an ancient text on Sunday morning is not easy to actually live out in our own lives. At the very least, as my brother is finding out, you are going to irritate your parents and in-laws. At the worst, well let’s remember what happened to Jesus for saying and doing things like this.
But do it we must, for Jesus calls us into a new way for us to live in the world; a new way for us to be in relationship in the world. It is a world where we learn to encounter one another, not looking for what we might get from others or what they might do for us, but as children of God. It is a vision for the Kingdom of God where we no longer see one another as objects for our own benefit, but as individuals with value in our own right and as God’s own beloved.
And there is another reason that Jesus calls us to do this work, for it is more than pragmatic spiritual practice. Who we ask to the banquet feast becomes a sacramental act because it reveals to us something fundamental about God’s own self. When we live out Jesus’ instruction, then we enact God’s own relationship with us.
My sisters and my brothers, God is preparing a great banquet feast, and you are invited. You are invited and in no way does God owe you anything, for how could the one who formed the heavens and the earth out of the stuff of nothingness owe you anything? How could the one who breathes the breath of life through your nostrils and into the center of your being owe you anything? How could the one who became like us, walked among us, and suffered death at our own hands so that we might be restored to relationship with God owe you anything? My friends, you are invited and there is nothing that you can do to ever repay God for that gift, for God is good, God is immortal, and from God all things flow, and we are but the stuff of dust and brokenness.
No my friends, we do not deserve it and there is nothing that we can ever do that would properly repay it. And God is setting for you a seat at the banquet table, for in God there is only abundance and God loves you. So let us prepare ourselves and let us be a people marked by joy and thanksgiving as we dance towards the feast prepared for all of God’s children from the very foundations of creation.
Image: “Peasant Wedding,” Pieter Bruegel the Elder, oil on wood, 1566-69.