Luke 14:15-24 Generosity at The Wedding Feast Reflection by Mart the Rev
Here’s a story I heard this week: A friend talked about a family who lived next door to her and how this family recently received the terrible news that their young child had a debilitating illness that would steadily deteriorate over the next twenty or so years until she died. This family have no church connection. In the church that my friend in involved in, there was a man who had some years ago hit a hurdle in his business and had been wondering if the business would have to fold. Unexpectedly another man from the church had given him a sizeable amount of money to help the business over the bump. The money was not a loan, but a no-strings-attached gift – with no expectation that it should ever be repaid. This gift worked and the business was now thriving. When the news broke about the family with the terribly sick child, this businessman stood up at church and told his story of being helped when his business was struggling. He talked about the profound impact that that unconditional gift had had on him and his family, and how it had helped him turn his business around. Then he said that he wanted to make a similar unconditional gift to this family who he did not know. He said that he wanted to give the same amount of money that had been gifted to him when his business was struggling – he wanted to pass it forward – but he added that he would also meet that amount himself – thus he would double that amount of money. From what my friend said, it was a sizeable gift.
Here’s the thing my friend observed: if all those years ago the generous person at the church had only loaned the money to the struggling businessman it is highly unlikely that the generosity displayed towards the family with the sick child would have been as enormous as it has been. It might well have brought about some generosity in response, but it is unlikely that it would have had the same power to multiply. The challenge and obligation around paying off the loan might have ended up sinking the business and made the businessman super cautious. And, potentially, it could have soured the relationship within the church especially if the load had defaulted. But most importantly, it would also have coached the businessman to only give knowing that there should be a return. That’s what a bank does – the bank has to minimise risk. It is impossible to see that the struggling family would have had the kind of support they have been given by that businessman if there had been this more limited form of generosity. It was the original expansive gift that enabled an even more expansive gift later on. Yes it was, and remains risky behaviour, but it is the kind of behaviour that disrupts and invites a profound reconfiguring of how people live. It changes lives. Most of the time it changes lives.
I’m thinking of the host of the wedding feast. This generous host. Tables set, a sumptuous feast laid on, and a willingness to do whatever he can to have the chairs full. But some of the invited guests came up with excuses, like, I’ve bought some land and I need to look at it today …really? On an impulse I’ve purchased a holiday home at Omaha – next door to Sir John Key, we’re going to check it out, sorry, I cannot come. You have to go right now? You’ve already bought it – it is winter… do you really need to go today? Sorry, I cannot come, I’m going to try out the new oxen I’ve bought. I’ve just bought myself a Lamborghini… you should see the look on the face of my neighbour… he thought his new BMW was the cat’s pyjamas… but my Lamborghini has way more ox-power than anything in his garage! I’ve got myself married… I know it is lunch-time but hey… you know how it is, we are newly-weds! I know you’ve invited me to your wedding feast… but… I cannot come.
“I cannot come to the banquet, don’t bother me now…” Do you remember that song? “I have fields and commitments that cost a pretty sum, pray hold me excused I cannot come.” The host of the wedding feast invites people from far off – the highways and the byways… the banquet must be full.
We are trying to do and be church. People come, but not as many come as go. We are struggling. The temptation is to retreat. To retreat into a huddle of our knowing one another and the comfort of friends. But knocking on our door is the generous host who has a banquet all prepared. Daringly, he has no boundaries… there is no place he isn’t prepared to go to fill the seats at the table. Doesn’t he look at us huddling around safety, fear, and anxiety, and say, ‘Come on, be the living. Don’t let the indifference of people around you stop you in your tracks… I am your coach, not them… believe, live, play, love… there’s a party to be had… let’s make it happen!’
We are trying to be church. Generosity is at the heart of it. The Creator enables the creature to glimpse the wonders of grace, bestows sun on our backs, air to breathe, plenty of resources for our survival, guidance to living life abundantly, and invites us into mirroring such generosity of spirit. But sometimes, often, we want to exact a return for our generosity – some conditions… we even frame salvation in terms of conditions… God will love you if… only if… We respond with thoughts like, I might hold back on my giving because I need it more than the church needs it… I won’t give more in case they do something I don’t like… I won’t bequeath anything because I’m not sure there’s even a future in it. ‘Come to the table,’ says Jesus. ‘Don’t make excuses…’ Sometimes we need a disrupter to remind us of the kind of generosity Jesus is on about, like that businessman standing up at church.
Anne was saying that her parents wouldn’t have liked someone standing up like that businessman – it puts too much attention on him and could be interpreted as showing off. However, we both agreed that the inspirational nature of what he did would have a power among that congregation that would far outweigh the attention it gave him. And, how do we ever learn the dimensions of generosity if there aren’t people about us modelling it? In a way, I liken that act of generosity to be very similar to the actions of the host of the wedding feast, in that the invitation went far wider than the circle of friends. When you pick and poke, in a way, he behaved even more generously than the man who helped him with his business all those years ago. The initial act of generosity that helped the businessman through his business troubles was huge, but it was also somewhat measured in that it was given to him by someone who knew him, and might well have been in a position to assess the potential for the gift to do its work. In a way this is like the initial wedding invitation to the circle of people known to the host – the ones who made their excuses.
But when the businessman acts in kind and then doubles the gift and gives it to someone a way outside the circle of what is safe and known, then you are into the same territory as the second invitations in the parable. You are into the land of risk… nothing may come of it in terms of return… there may be no reward for the gift, and no attendance at the feast or the table of the Lord. In that sense the businessman is entering right into the wondrous expansive recklessness of how God is with all of us.
Does God only love us on condition of our acceptance and return? No. Everyone is loved. Everyone is invited. The sower sows on every kind of soil. Not every seed sown reaps a harvest but that doesn’t stop the sower.
As we look at the parable we initially see ourselves in two places – first perhaps, as the people invited who at the last minute back off or give a half-hearted response, or hold something back, or only saying yes for what we can get in return… and, if it doesn’t seem like something we will be rewarded by, we come up with excuses. I think there is a terrible amount of that pulsing through our veins – your veins and mine – yeah, nah, yeah… that’s how we can be. Shortly, after the offering we will sing Take my life O Lord, my heart, my mind, my all… but in the back of our heads is another song playing… I cannot come to the banquet, don’t bother me now. I can’t speak for you, but I am constantly oscillating between the sentiments of those two songs.
The other place we might see ourselves is as those who are far off – in the highways and byways. We may not be there now, but we might once have been… we heard the far call and drew near with a yes. We are one or the other, and sometimes both. I don’t think the call from the host to come to the banquet ever ceases, and nor do I think we are ever in a place where we are fixed firmly at the table – we make excuses, we drift to the edges – we need this constant call home and life in this journey back and forwards.
Which brings me to the last point I have begun to wonder about. As I said, we initially see ourselves in two places in the parable – in the first circle of people invited or, as the people on the fringes who are also invited to fill the seats. But what if we are invited into a third space – that of the host. What if we are being called to be the host?
I figure that this is what the church is meant to be about. We are not The Host as in Jesus himself, but aren’t we called and enabled to live his life in the world – to be part of his eyes and ears and witnesses to his gracious and generous life among us? Isn’t there a call on us to issue generous invitations to those like us and those unlike us – the safe ones (who these days seem to put up a lot of ‘too busy’ signs), and the unsafe ones?
We are trying. I think that’s a big part of what The Village is about – offering hospitality to the community – hosting them in our buildings, inviting them, generously giving of our resources, our time, and our energy – not on condition of getting something in return, but because we know that we are similarly called, welcomed and hosted by our gracious generous God. There will always need to be some reckless crazy generosity to startle people around us into another way of seeing and behaving. That stuff is what sends out the ripples and both encourages and inspires us, because we are often knocked back by people’s excuses and indifference.
That’s why I love the reckless generous actions of that businessman in Waitara. He has been prepared to respond deeply and trustingly in response to the generous grace once given to him. He cannot possibly know what will come of his generosity. That, you know, is faith. But I bet it is transformative – not only for him, and not only for that congregation, who themselves have been the recipients of unconditional generosity. Not that long ago a church from a distant city gifted them a million and a half dollars to help them build their new church. But I bet it is also transformative for that family who have that sick child, along with their families and friends. This is faith moving mountains stuff – this is generosity sending out ripples. Already, I heard, the couple have asked the minister if he would conduct their wedding. How about that! The tables have already been turned. People from the church have been generous, now that couple have invited a representative of the church to their own wedding feast! That’s how this kingdom of God stuff works!