The Gospel lectionary reading for this coming Sunday includes a parable of Jesus, usually called the parable of the Wedding Banquet (Luke 14:1, 7-14).
In this parable, Jesus speaks about including those who would normally be excluded: When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. (14:12-13)
This emphasis on reaching out beyond the usual clientele expected at a banquet, to those traditionally seen as outsiders, is also found in the following story, the parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14:16–24). In Luke’s version, Jesus concludes the parable with a double invitation not found in Matthew’s account of the same parable (Matt 22:1-10).
Luke has Jesus extend the invitation beyond the normal groups who would be invited to the banquet, reaching out to include outsiders: Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. (14:21)
These instructions recall the clear guidance that Jesus has already given, in two passages appearing earlier in Luke’s orderly account. The first was when Jesus read from Isaiah in his home synagogue that, in his activities, … the Spirit of the Lord … has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind … (4:18-19).
The second occasion was when Jesus instructed his own followers to tell the two disciples of John the Baptiser that in the activities of Jesus, the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them … (7:22).
In both of these parables found in Luke 14, Jesus underlines his commitment to working constructively amongst those who have been displaced from the mainstream of society.
This is a trait which is already evident in the earlier report of the story of Jesus, the Gospel we attribute to Mark, which was clearly one of the sources used by Luke in compiling his later “orderly account”. The Markan Jesus, when accused of consorting with the less desirable elements of society (Mark 2:16), acknowledged that this was his deliberate policy: he intentionally associates with sick and sinners (Mark 2:17).
Luke reports the same scene almost verbatim (Luke 5:30–32), as well as other instances when Jesus has contact with people who are displaced from society. Thus, Jesus heals the sick (4:38–39, 40–41; 8:40–56) and has contact with outcasts such as a leper (5:12–16), a paralysed man (5:17–26), tax collectors (5:27–29), a man with a withered hand (6:6–11), some demon- possessed individuals (8:2,26–39; 9:37–43), and a blind man (18:35–43). These were all outsiders in the society of the day.
Indeed, Luke intensifies this theme by reporting other occasions when Jesus was in such company. Jesus encountered a crippled woman (13:10– 17), a man with dropsy (14:1–6), and ten lepers (17:11–19). The accusation of keeping bad company, once levelled against Jesus by the Pharisees and scribes (5:30), is repeated by Luke (15:1–2), in order to provide Jesus with an opportunity to tell three parables which justify his practice (15:3–32).
Throughout the Acts of the Apsotles, the followers of Jesus continue this practice, performing “signs and wonders” (Acts 2:43; 5:12; 6:8; 14:3; 15:12) as they cast out demons (13:9–11; 16:16–18; 19:12) and heal those afflicted by illness (3:1–10; 4:22; 9:32–43; 14:8–18; 19:11–12; 20:7–12; 28:1–6, 7–10).
That Jesus would be found in the company of outcasts had already been signalled in the prologue to Luke’s work (Luke 1—2), where some of the main characters in the narrative are outsiders from society.
Elizabeth, an older woman who was barren (Luke 1:25), bore a sign of God’s curse (1 Sam 1:1–18) for not being able to fulfil the blessing of bearing a child (Gen 1:28). Zechariah, a man who was unable to speak for some time (Luke 1:20), bore a sign of God’s displeasure (Ps 38:12–14).
Mary, a young woman who conceived before marriage (Luke 1:27), would undoubtedly have been regarded askance; because of the significance of the child she bore, the explanation for her state (“the power of the Most High will overshadow you”, 1:35) attempts to remove the possibility of criticism at an early stage in the developing tradition.
And the shepherds who came in from the fields to pay homage to the newborn child (Luke 2:8–16) would have been despised for carrying out a lowly and unworthy occupation; in the Mishah, a third century collection of Jewish laws, shepherds are classified amongst those who practice “the craft of robbers” (m.Kidd).
Quite clearly, Jesus and the earliest followers of Jesus welcomed outcasts into their midst. Luke’s “orderly account” makes this very clear. The community of the faithful that grew out of the movement that Jesus initiated, would reflect the same diversity in this way; both insiders and outsiders, powerful and powerless, respectable and disreputable, would be given a place together at the table.
And that ideal guides us in the church still, today, two millennia later.