The Great Banquet of God Has Wheelchair Access

20121019-114225.jpgJesus was a storyteller.

He composed stories and remixed parables and turned tales on their heads, and he did all this to teach us about fundamental cosmic realities, things like salvation and redemption and atonement.That’s why we still love these parables, because we never truly get to the bottom of them, but yet the core truths contained within them dig deep into our bones.

But while the parables have a spiritual message for us, some of them can’t be left there. After all, we can take the theological insights from them and leave the parables trapped between the covers of our Bibles instead of taking them out onto our streets and into our communities. Some of the parables need to be embodied – incarnated – into the world around us and into the lives of our church. After all, the Good Samaritan teaches us to help whoever needs help; the Prodigal Son teaches us to always be prepared to offer forgiveness. And the Parable of the Banquet teaches us to create welcoming communities.

Long story short – Jesus tells the story of a king who holds a wedding feast, but when the big day arrives, the guests decide they can’t be bothered to attend. In the face of this rudeness, the king orders his servants out into the streets to invite “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame”. In other words, the people who weren’t normally at the top of anyone’s guest list. Of course, this was a picture of how the Kingdom of God wasn’t limited to a privileged religious elite, but let’s not limit this to a nice metaphor of our spiritual salvation – what if this was a description of our churches?

Look, let’s be honest – churches aren’t always the most accessible places when it comes to disability awareness. But in the parable, there’s a specific invite to those who have a disability. Why? Because when Jesus was originally telling this story at a polite dinner party, the disabled were often left on the fringes of society, begging on the margins just to get enough to eat. Jesus is throwing the doors open, and two thousand years later, we should be doing the same. Because the Kingdom of God isn’t just about heaven and the afterlife, it’s about the here and now.

So we have a responsibility to ensure that God’s Great Banquet in the here and now is accessible. Think about those servants in the parable – if you’re sent out to those who can’t see, then you need to have some invites written in Braille. If you’re sent out to those with mobility issues, then you’d better be sure that the party venue isn’t at the top of three flights of stairs and a broken-down lift.

Then there’s the party itself – are the chefs able to cater for different dietary needs? Is there sign language interpretation on hand for the speeches? Is there a chill-out room for people getting sensory overload when the band gets loud? Has anyone involved those guests in the arrangements in the first place?

God expects his Great Banquet to have wheelchair access. Because otherwise people will be left on the outside, and God is very, very unimpressed when that happens.

We’re called to be a church that welcomes all but that goes beyond simply issuing an invite and expecting everyone to fit in. Instead, we should incarnate that Great Banquet and proactively find ways to make sure that everyone is truly welcome and able to participate, volunteer or lead to their fullest. What if, in other words, we treated the parable of the banquet not just as a story that’s spiritually true but also as something that’s lived out in our church communities.

If the gospel you preach isn’t good news for everyone then a piece of it is missing. If we’re not proclaiming jubilee for those who’ve been imprisoned by a lack of resources and a lack of understanding, by the ableism of the fallen world around us, then we’ve reduced the words of Jesus to a get out of jail free card. And if the love of Christ only extends as far as the edges of our comfort zones, then it’s not the love of Christ.

We carry with us invitations to the heart of the Kingdom of God. After all, he wants to be known by all his people, no barriers.

Do we work with him on this?

Are we loyal and eager servants, preparing the feast so that all can participate?

Or are we bouncers?

 

 

(There are more posts on this subject here.)

The Prodigal Son: Why isn’t his brother invited to the party? (Luke 15:25-32)

rembrant-prodigal-son-detailThis post has no answers. I’ll admit that now, because that’s a part of the Parable of the Prodigal Son that bothers me. It bothers me because it messes with the traditional interpretation and I don’t know what to do with that.

So the Prodigal Son returns home and his dad, instead of tearing him a new one, throws a lavish welcome home party. The elder brother, who’s always been the dutiful son and has always kept the rule, is angry at this, refusing to go into the celebrations. Because of this he’s treated as an ungrateful, resentful legalist with a stick up his butt. Who’s knows, maybe that’s the idea. Certainly that’s what I learned when I was growing up: God’s the father, the Prodigal represents ‘sinners’ and the eldest son is a metaphor for unforgiving religious types. Easy.

But one day I read verse 25 and something lit up and now it messes with me every time I hear this story.

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house he heard music and dancing.” Okay, what does that tell us?

The eldest son wasn’t invited to the party.

Look, the party’s already in full swing. There’s been enough time to round up a band and get some guests together. The next verse shows us that the fattened calf has been killed and cooked, and we know that because at least one of the servants knew what was going on. A fair bit of time has passed since the Prodigal got back.

No-one told his brother.

The servant explains what’s going on, but he has to be summoned so it’s not like he was  already on his way out to the field to round up the family. The eldest son is out of the loop and hasn’t been invited.

So of course he refuses to go in. Of course he’s angry. Of course there’s a tense conversation with his father.

It’s hard not to get the impression that this is a messed up family. “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends!”

Is this true? Did the eldest son ever actually ask? Was he not invited because, let’s be pragmatic here, it’s not always easy for farmers to drop everything and party? Did the father ever directly refuse to give him a goat? In the next verse the father says “Everything I have is yours,” but his eldest son doesn’t seem to believe it. “You are always with me,” the father says, but he forgot to invite his eldest son to his brother’s homecoming, the biggest party the family had thrown for years.

Maybe I bring too many issues to this, but something doesn’t seem right. This exchange, with its tensions and undercurrents, makes the parable more complicated, more difficult. Jesus often told stories in which the God substitute was a little unflattering, but this almost seems to be lampshaded. I still tend to lean towards the traditional interpretation, because I love grace and stories of grace, but I can’t help but think I’mm missing something here.

And why not? The Bible’s a complicated book. It contains allusions and imagery and debates and arguments. Some of its metaphors are messy and we have to wrestle with that. We need to engage with its ideas and in doing so engage with God. I think that’s what Jesus the storyteller would want.

Subversive Samaritans (Luke 10:25-37)

Jan_Wijnants_-_Parable_of_the_Good_Samaritan“Hate crime against disabled people rises.”

“Twitter abuse: Why cyberbullies are targeting women.”

“Thousands of hate crimes reported in Greater Manchester.”

“Gay bashing attacks on rise in NYC.”

It’s easy to read the Parable of the Good Samaritan and see it simply as a simple, sweet story – yes, we need to be nice to people, even people who are different, lovely. But if we leave it at that, we miss something important.

After all, it’s easy to say we should treat everyone as Christ would treat them, but it’s a bit harder to confront our own prejudice and accept that those who are different are also our neighbours – that’s the experience of the Teacher of the Law who was originally on the receiving end of this parable, to the extent that he couldn’t even bring himself to name the hero of the story. But sometimes it goes beyond even that. Sometimes Samaritans have to be subversive.

It’s no secret that the world can be a hateful place – the headlines quoted above testify to that. Ditto for 1st century Samaria and Judea, where Jews and Samaritans loathed each other, so ask yourself this: what happened to the Samaritan after he did his good deed?

Was he the subject of gossip, of abuse? (“What d’you think you’re doing, wasting your money on that piece of trash?! Traitor!”)

Did he keep quiet, maybe explaining what had happened only when necessary, and even then leaving out some key details?

Did he aggressively defend his actions, telling his family and friends that yes, he helped an injured Jewish guy and yes, he’d do it again if he had to?

There are no answers to these questions: the Samaritan was a literary construct used by Jewish to challenge the prejudice and narrow-mindedness of his audience. But it’s not one man’s racism that Jesus confronts, it’s a whole social context where some people are considered ‘in’ and some people are very, very ‘out’. And this isn’t unique to Galilee two thousand years ago; the fact is, sometimes taking a stand for what’s right comes at a cost; sometimes loving our neighbour is the most subversive thing we can do.

And yet there’s a power there. Slow and painful as it may be, Jesus’s call to love and compassion is more likely to heal our broken communities that building more walls and spewing more hate. This Kingdom will be built on helping those who need it, not leaving them bleeding in a gutter, not joining in with the beatings. There are times when that’s easy. There are other times, when we’re faced with offering support and hope to those society has deemed to be the enemy, when being a Good Samaritan requires courage and sacrifice.

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” said Martin Luther King. In a world where there is political and online capital to be made through hurling abuse and accusations, it’s a statement with which it’s worth guarding our hearts. Especially when, too often, the church props up the systems and attitudes that Christ may call us to confront; especially when God builds his Kingdom through the compassion and courage of the world’s subversive Samaritans.

The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30)

So one day a rich man goes off on a journey. Before he does, however, he asks three of his servants to invest his money. Two of them go away, use their entrepreneurship to double their investment and return their boss’s cash with more besides. He’s overjoyed, of course, because this is a substantial sum of money. Everyone ends up celebrating.

Everyone, that is, except the third servant, who, for reasons of his own, disobeys his master and buries the money in a hole. His employer is, not surprisingly, unimpressed.

That’s how the Parable of the Talents goes, and the interpretation is evident – God entrusts us with resources, talents and relationships and we’re supposed to use them to further his Kingdom. There’s a responsibility here, and that’s a lesson the third servant learned to his cost.

Hmm. The third servant. Traditionally the third servant is the point of the story; he disobeys his master and pays the price – he was given a talent, worth twenty years’ wages, so we’re not talking peanuts here. This makes the parable a warning, and it partly is, but there’s a danger in taking that too much to heart – after all, should serving God become a duty we reluctantly carry out simply because we’re afraid of the consequences? Or does that just make the attitude displayed by the third servant a self-fulfilling prophecy? The third servant sees his master as harsh, judgmental and unfair, and he acts appropriately – or does he? If the master is really that bad, why didn’t the servant at least make an effort?

See, his boss points out that he could have just put the money on deposit and earned some interest. Instead, the servant went to the trouble of physically digging a hole and dumping the money in there. It almost sounds like it was harder work to not make a profit.

So what if the servant’s assault on his boss’s character is really just a cover for his own apathy? Is there any objective evidence that the master is the unreasonable badass he’s made out to be? Or is the description provided in verse 24 just an extension of the servants own heart, much like the elder son’s attitude towards his father in the parable of the Prodigal Son (more on that here)?

Let’s try looking at things from the perspective of the first two servants, because there are actually two gifts on display here: not just the money itself but also the opportunity to use it to build a Kingdom. It’s this second gift that reveals the hearts of the servants and their attitudes towards God. The third servant couldn’t be bothered and the Kingdom is smaller as a result. The other two servants, however…

We’re entrusted with so much and most of it can be used for the benefit of others and as an extension of our relationship with God. After all, he invites us to work with him to build a Kingdom that isn’t just in the future, isn’t just up on a cloud somewhere but here and now. That’s a huge privilege – the sums entrusted to the servants are insanely extravagant and so are the profits. That money in your account, that thing you can do better than anyone else, the circumstances you find yourself in? Their value can be incalculable when approached from the perspective of God’s Kingdom.

So let’s not just read this parable as a warning. Let’s see it as an invite. God gives us a talent or five and asks us to build his Kingdom. That might be sharing his story, it might be digging a well or running a soup kitchen or becoming a voice for the oppressed. It could be a thousand and one things but a single fact underlies them all – God gives us the chance to build a Kingdom. That’s an incredible honour.

Let’s not get apathetic and start throwing the things we’re given into a hole somewhere. Let’s use that with which we’ve been blessed to achieve something that will echo into eternity.

The Parable of the Banquet (Luke 14:12-24)

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I think sometimes we overlook Jesus’s power as a storyteller. There he is, walking the dusty streets of Israel, captivating audiences with parables like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, stories told centuries ago but that have somehow gotten into our bones. The stories of Jesus change us.

The Parable of the Banquet is one of these stories. One day, a man decides to throw a banquet. The richest food, the finest wine is prepared and out go the invitations. These go to the in-crowd, the dignitaries, the VIPs.

And no-one comes.

Oh sure, they make excuses, but these excuses show their priorities, and a relationship with their would-be host isn’t one of them. So the doors of the banquet are thrown open – to the poor, the hurting, the outsiders.

It’s not really a subtle parable. God’s the guy who’s throwing the banquet and those who take his invitation for granted find themselves outside his Kingdom, while the partygoers are those rejected by polite society but who nevertheless find themselves responding to God ‘s invitation. It’s a lesson for the Church to learn – the Kingdom often grows unexpectedly, outside structures of religious privilege and comfort, in places where God is more important than doctrine.

But that’s the politics of it. The heart of this story is grace, pure and simple. While Jesus’s audience here is made up of insiders in danger of becoming lost, let’s look at it from the perspective of those who did accept the invite.

A couple of days ago, two workers with the Fusion project were asked to replicate this parable – you can see a video of it here, and read a behind-the-scenes account here. The amazing thing about this was the inclusivity of it all – middle class and homeless, Brits and Hungarians, Church and Starbucks, all shared in an outpouring of grace and community. This is the Kingdom, one facet of it at least, and it’s beautiful.

Sometimes, though, this beauty scares me: I wouldn’t know how to relate to someone who has to sleep in a doorway, wouldn’t know how to deal with someone off their face on drugs. And yet the Kingdom of God encompasses all those in need of grace, myself included, and demands I follow Jesus into a world where the church throws banquets for anyone who’ll come and throws a birthday party for a prostitute at 3am. It’s scary and humbling and amazing, all at once.

2,000 years ago, a thirty-something rabbi told a tale that found itself embodied in 21st century York. The party is for all and grace is poured out in streets and coffee shops and church halls. People can change and the world can be transformed – restored – into a different place.

This is the power of God’s great Story.

(On thinking about it, this connects to another post I wrote, all about ‘cooking for Christ’. Here’s the link.)