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The Great Banquet – more than just sharing a meal

Thanksgiving reminds me of a parable from Luke’s Gospel known as the “Great Banquet.” Contemporary scholars consider this parable to speak clearly in the voice of Jesus. A person of some wealth is holding a banquet and has invited several of his neighbors who are of the same social class. Just before the banquet is about to begin, the host sends his slaves out to tell the invited guests that the food is ready.

Then something unusual begins to unfold. The invited guests beg off. They all have some fairly legitimate excuse for not attending, but it does seem rude and upsetting that none of the invited guests will come. What’s the host to do? Remember, the food has to be eaten now or it will spoil. In that day there was no refrigeration, no means of keeping the food fresh for another meal.

So, the host sends his slaves out to gather the poor, the crippled the blind and the lame. These people were easy to find. It’s likely they’re out begging in the center of the village or at its main thoroughfares. We can also assume that these people are known to the host. They’re part of the community. These are some people in the village who have fallen on hard times. They may be a little dirty and unkempt, but people see them around every day. It might be nice to offer them something.

But, it’s still uncommon and can be uncomfortable to bring them into your home. It would more likely be the custom to bring the food out to those people? We’ve all probably given food or money to local food pantries, right? But if I were to ask how many of us would bring a poor family into our home for Thanksgiving or any meal, it would make us stop short. Sharing a meal is a fairly intimate activity. There are a limited number of people that we invite to our table.

But there’s still too much food and not enough people. So, the host
sends the slaves out to gather people on the outskirts of the town.
This represents the people who are not from the village or tribe. These are not our people. They are foreigners, travelers, traders, perhaps who are passing through. We don’t often invite them to our dinner table either without some kind of introduction from a mutual friend or colleague.

Being welcoming, having open-hearted hospitality are, for me, the most important themes of this parable. This kind of open-hearted hospitality needs to be an intentional act in our lives for it is an act of justice. When we practice open-hearted hospitality, we invite into our homes, our sanctuaries and our lives the people we don’t usually associate with. Being welcoming means that I am going to meet you for who you are, putting aside my own expectations and assumptions. This is a central theme of the Gospel, and of Jesus’ message. Open-hearted hospitality is the good news to which we are called. And being welcoming is very hard work!

Open-hearted hospitality means that we are going to have to accept and try to understand the lives, customs and rituals of people we don’t know very well. When we are welcoming, we do not ask people to conform to our way of doing things. We try to see the world through their eyes.

As we prepare to sit down at our Thanksgiving table, we commemorate a time when two groups of people with very different ideas and customs gathered for a great banquet to give thanks and celebrate their successful harvest after a devastating winter. I’m sure it wasn’t easy to blend those two different cultures during this celebration. But, sadly, we know that the attempt to bring these two groups of people together didn’t last very long. We failed at open-hearted hospitality. Our differences were too great and control of the land became an issue as more European settlers arrived. We, Euro-Americans were never able to understand that the culture of the native peoples could be as good and right as our own.

It’s the same thing that happens to us sometimes when we encounter our neighbors. “They just don’t understand how we do things here.” How many times have we heard that or even said it ourselves? That kind of thinking creates a barrier between us. Then we build upon the fear of our differences, both imagined and real.

Jesus’ call to attend the Great Banquet is not only an invitation to enjoy a bountiful feast. The call to attend the Great Banquet is a challenging one for it asks much of us. It’s not just sharing a meal. It is an invitation to be part of this wonderful multitude of people that we might not ordinarily associate with. Join them. Invite them into our intimate spaces. Sit at table with those you see as different or foreign. Get to know them. Be truly welcoming to each other as an act of justice that stands against the silences that separate us. The door is always open. Everyone is always welcome, always invited to the banquet of life no matter how often they, or we, turn down the invitation.

Rev. Arthur Lavoie is the Minister at First Parish Church in Dorchester, Unitarian Universalist and can be reached at minister@firstparishdorchester.org.