The genius of the parable as a form of teaching is that parables can be adapted to suit different contexts. Matthew and Luke both recount Jesus telling the parable of a great banquet, but telling it in different ways.
Matthew frames Jesus’ whole ministry in terms of proclaiming impending crisis: the call to ‘repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matthew 4:17). That is to say, turn back, return to God, in the light of an imminent day of judgement! In the same way that the immediate prophetic horizon of the Old Testament prophets was the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire (which took place in 587/586BC), so the immediate prophetic horizon for Jesus was the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman Empire (which would take place in AD70).
Luke frames Jesus’ whole ministry in terms of proclaiming Jubilee: God’s favour expressed as good news for the poor, freedom for captives and the oppressed (Luke 4:16-21, where Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1-2. For more on what Jubilee meant, see Leviticus 25 and 27). That is to say, Matthew and Luke focus on different dimensions of Jesus’ message, Matthew looking to an event in the near future (the now-and-not-yet kingdom of heaven is coming), and Luke to an event in the now (the now-and-not-yet kingdom of God has come).
So Matthew records Jesus telling the parable of the great banquet as a parable of God’s judgement on unrighteous Israel, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem. Behind the action of the false god Caesar, in which those who currently enjoyed power and prestige would suffer horrific death, stands the judgement of the true King of heaven. In contrast, Luke records Jesus telling the same parable as a parable of Jubilee, in which those who had been pushed to the margins found themselves included. While the powerful experience a marginalisation they have not previously known, there are no gory deaths: the focus is justice, not bloody overthrow.
Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. But they all alike began to make excuses. If the excuses sound at all reasonable to us, that should be a warning to us of just how far we have accommodated worldly power in our own lives. The first has just bought land, without even seeing it. This is a clear violation of the Jubilee, where all ancestral land that had been mortgaged to a creditor had to be returned, liberating families from the burden of debt and the captivity of poverty. This restoration took place only twice every century, and so to take property in this particular moment was effectively to hold others captive for a full fifty years.
Another invited guest has just bought five yoke of oxen, and wants to try them out. Again, this is a clear violation of the Jubilee, in which the land was to lie fallow for a year. It is not only the tenants of God’s land who are to experience release: Jubilee extends to the land itself. Of course, to embrace a fallow year requires trust in God’s provision. To buy oxen and put them to work in this particular moment is to disregard and dishonour God.
Yet another invited guest has just married. Surely this is not a violation of the Jubilee? Don’t rich and poor alike marry? Well, in Numbers 36, Moses is called upon to settle a dispute. It has already been established that daughters can inherit land; the concern is that if unmarried daughters inherit land and then marry into another Israelite tribe, and if the land is subsequently mortgaged to a creditor, then at the Jubilee redemption it will be restored to that tribe and not her ancestral tribe. The concern is that marriage can result in the permanent loss of connection to the land, which was the inheritance of the people. In this version of the parable, where the first two excuses reveal violation of the Jubilee, Jesus’ listeners would have understood marrying in this particular moment as an attempted land-grab in violation of the Jubilee.
The RSVPs come in, and none of the invited guests are attending. So the owner of the house instructs his slave to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. This is done, but the slave reports back that ‘there is still room.’ The master sends his slave out again, to compel people to come in, that his house may be filled. As far as Jubilee is concerned, once you have fulfilled the letter of the Law, there is still room to go further, to bring more people in to the experience of justice and freedom.
How might this parable of the Jubilee relate to us, in Sunderland, today? Our reading from 1 John instructs us to love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. Love is expressed in providing help to those in need. This week has seen the publication of the Cinnamon Faith Action Audit, which has found that in Sunderland, faith communities – overwhelmingly churches – run over 400 projects serving the community. These include work with children, young adults, the elderly, the isolated, those in financial crisis, asylum seekers, those with addiction, those trapped in trafficking or prostitution, alleviating homelessness, skills and employment, and creating safer communities. More than 2,000 volunteers reached almost 80,000 beneficiaries in 2014, delivering services of a total financial value calculated at over £3.5 million. On average, each church or faith group was delivering 7 social action projects; with 4 paid staff working 1,939 hours; and 39 volunteers giving 5,553 hours; providing support for 1,395 beneficiaries; at a financial worth of £62,666 (paid staff hours, plus volunteer hours calculated using the living wage of £7.85 and a small supplement for management time).
The poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame are being brought in. And there is still room. The Jubilee that Jesus proclaimed is alive and well in Sunderland, because it is still, and always will be, needed.
We return to this place, to the house and presence of our Lord and master, in order to receive his word. First, he feeds us, nourishes us – but this is not the banquet itself. Then he says, go out…and bring in... Let us be strengthened in our duty, and serve with joy.