Invite Them All

Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Reading of the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke (14:16-24)

To understand the point Jesus means to make in today’s Gospel reading we need to look at the rest of chapter 14. There is an important little detail to remember about it.  Most of it takes place at a dinner party in the house of a Pharisee.  Evidently, it takes place on the Sabbath just like our reading last week when the Lord healed the old woman. This time he heals a man of dropsy.  He once again reminds the audience that it is wrong to say it is unlawful to heal on the Sabbath when anyone of them would not hesitate to help an ox stuck in a ditch on the Sabbath.  You might think that Jesus was being deliberately provocative to heal on the Sabbath at dinner in the house of a Pharisee.  You would be right.  Jesus was the Son of God, yes, and a prophet who did not hesitate to speak truth to power.

In the next verses Jesus teaches the dinner guests about humility. Don’t take the important seats at a dinner table. Instead take the lesser seats.  Perhaps he had just witnessed a little pharisaical jockeying for position. But the Lord tells them, “whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

So now, in the context of the Lord’s teaching at dinner in the house of a Pharisee, we come to today’s story.   We learn through the parable that everyone is welcome at the heavenly banquet.  The Lord’s table, contrary to what the Pharisee would envision as proper, becomes filled with unclean sinners like us because the righteous are too busy refusing his invitation. 

Let’s take this a little deeper.  A hallmark of Orthodox exegesis has always been that we look for deeper meanings that are hidden under the surface of the Gospels.

The heart is the dinner table.  The body is the Master’s house. The Master of the house is the image of God in each of us.  

Those who are invited and refuse to attend the dinner represent the first level of conscious resistance to God: arrogance, pride, self-satisfaction, delusion and ignorance.” I need nothing from God, I know all there is to know, my desires are my primary concern, I will live forever,” say the righteous.

Unable to convince the “righteous” the Master of the house digs deeper to the roots of their delusion.  He goes out into the streets (representing a deeper level of consciousness) and invites the “unrighteous”, the sinners, the infirm, and the unwanted.  These guests represent all the things in us that lie under the surface afraid to face the light of day:  our fears, our secret sins, our wounds; all those things we try so desperately to keep hidden from everyone including God. The Master goes looking for them and enjoins them to come to the table to dine with him.  The feast represents the hospitality that makes friends out of adversaries.

When he sees that the table is still not filled he digs even deeper. He down into the lanes and roads, through those hidden and locked passages of the mind and heart that lie at the core of us, into those dark places we are afraid to explore or do not even know exist, of which we are ignorant. There are many levels of consciousness, many layers of pain to be healed.  All of them must be uncovered and explored.  He not only invites those he finds hidden there, he compels, he begs them, to come to His table. How can they be healed if they do not come?   

Ignoring what lies beneath our skin ensures that these hidden wounds remain as they are, bleeding sores that infect all of life. We float on an ocean of tears and, if we are not watchful we may drown in it. All of these tears must be expressed.  The Lord calls us to clean the inside of the cup, not just the outside to look good, but the inside to become good. So with compassion we welcome the “unwelcome guests” into full consciousness.  Instead of revulsion and resistance we acknowledge and welcome them with words like these, “Ah my dear friend, fear, I invite you, you are welcome.  I am here for you and I will take care of you.  Come to the feast.” 

The Orthodox spiritual masters often instruct us that before we pray we gather together all our disparate thoughts. And then what do we do with them?  Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings!

Love never hates anyone, never reproves anyone, never condemns anyone, never grieves anyone, never abhors anyone, neither faithful nor infidel nor stranger nor sinner nor fornicator, nor anyone impure, but instead it is precisely sinners, and weak and negligent souls that it loves more, …, imitating Christ Who called sinners, and ate and drank with them.

   - Abba Ammonas

With compassionate love we tend to our wounded guests.  With kindness we embrace these “the least of the brethren” so they may be healed.  This is why I teach that the parish must be a safe place where this kind of deep healing is allowed to take place, where people are given the freedom and the space to find themselves and do the work they need to do.  If honesty, openness, and tolerance are not allowed or encouraged at every stage of the process, if we adopt legalism as our tool, then we hinder the work of the Holy Spirit.  The process can be messy and uncomfortable, but so what?  Life is messy!  But the Holy Spirit who lives in us just as at the creation of the cosmos, is here to bring order out of chaos.

The kind of change we need, both exterior and interior, can only come through openness, honesty, and love. Sin and death were conquered by Jesus on the Cross by these virtues. The path we speak of is the Narrow Way of Golgotha. It demands persistence, compassion, patience, and a great deal of courage.  One writer calls this the “Spiritual combat harder than men’s battles.” 

All this work of interior compassion causes a transformation that radiates to the world around us.  As we treat our poor, wounded selves is precisely how we will treat others. “As a man thinks in his heart so he is,” writes the author of Deuteronomy.  Just as the hidden “brethren” are befriended and healed, so the visible brethren are befriended and healed.  So this is hardly a “selfish” enterprise at all.  By making peace in our own hearts we ensure the salvation of thousands.