When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” Luke 14:12-14
These words were spoken in a banquet. The poor, the maimed, and the lame were not included in the guest list and Jesus wasn’t being a good guest. He insulted his host by saying that he only invited those who could return the favor. I am sure that if Jesus was a guest in my house, he would say the exact same thing about me. I have people over for dinner on a weekly basis. We have several friends living in the same neighborhood and we have made it a custom to eat a meal together at least once a week. The food and conversation is always good and edifying and we don’t want to change anything. It is an intimate affair but alas, it also an exclusive one. It is not our intention. It just happens to be such. In the same way, the Pharisee that invited Jesus was not being exclusive intentionally. After all, he invited Jesus. He must have known Jesus’ strong criticism of his sect and yet Jesus was on his guest list. To invite someone into your household is quite a significant gesture. It means that you consider the person as your equal. This Pharisee was definitely one of the better lot. However, for Jesus, being better was not good enough. According to him, we have to be different from the world. He is reinventing the rules for a proper and successful banquet, or at least successful according to the gospel.
Hosting a dinner was more complicated then than today. Then the guests usually travelled miles to make it to a banquet. They were expected to spend at least few days at the host’s house to make the trip worthwhile. It was the responsibility of the host to provide food, shelter and even proper dinner attire for his guests. The people who heard Jesus saying these tough words then would have found it to be more scandalous than us. Today we just have to put up with our guests for a couple of hours. Being a host for a dinner is less stressful and easier in our context but the guest list still remains the same throughout the centuries. We only tend to invite those who are similar to us.
It is not hard to imagine what a dinner party would look like if we invited both our friends and the poorest of the poor. My guess would be that it would be an utter disaster. Being with and among the homeless from Monday to Friday has done enough to eradicate all my romantic illusions of poverty. I can imagine real scenarios; Bruno in his clothes that he has worn for the past few months sitting next to our friend who is a germaphobe, no one saying anything because it would be socially impermissible. The night would be dominated by awkward silence with scattered small talk. It would hardly be a pleasurable evening. I don’t think that it would be a time of relationship building. I doubt that anyone would return for another meal in my house ever, not even the homeless. I don’t believe that this was the scenario that Jesus had in mind. He wasn’t into shocking people for the sake of challenging them. He was into relationship building. The gospel is about building bridges where there was none before. St Paul reiterates this when he wrote:
Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.- 2 Corinthians 5:18-19
The point of having a meal together is to reconcile and not create a greater divide. Therefore, we need to go beyond the superficial understanding and grasp what Jesus is challenging us to do.
Personally, we would love for our friends to meet Bruno, Igor, Aline and Felipe and even the unpredictable Ruan. They are interesting teens and young adults and I believe that our friends would enjoy their company. In fact, we talk about them with our friends often at the dinner table. In turn, they often enquire after them and expressed that they were interested in meeting them one day. There is a willingness to include them into our circle of friendship. However, it is our teens and children that are afraid to meet them. They might be comfortable with us but they don’t know our friends. They are afraid that they would not be accepted. Even if we provided the proper attire and made all the attempts to make their appearances more acceptable, their inner person would not feel comfortable enough to engage with any of our friends. They would immediately shut down and not say a word. This has happened before in another circumstance. It is not just a question of opening the doors for the poor, the lame, and the blind but we need to prepare ourselves to receive them. By this, I mean that we need to be like good host and ensure that our guests have everything they need to overcome their insecurities.
When Jesus said that we should invite the poorest of the poor, He is not talking an act of charity. No one then and now does charity work out of their homes. The home is a sacred place. It is place of intimacy and friendship. When we open up our house to people, we are exposing a part of our life. There needs to be trust and confidence. These things come from true friendship. When Jesus challenged us to invite the poorest of the poor to our dinner parties, he was suggesting that we extend our friendship to include these little ones.This perhaps is the part that is the most difficult. It requires a complete change of our mindset. I don’t mean that we do what is commonly known as “friendship evangelism” which is not friendly or evangelism. That is using friendship as a means to an end. Jesus would not approve. He never loved his people so that they would become his disciples. He just loved them. True friendship is unconditional relationship. It is also rare and difficult. This is why we need the Grace of God even in our efforts to become a friend to His little ones. It goes against our common wisdom which teaches us to stay within our familiar social circles.
Being a friend in this sense is a growing process. It does not happen immediately. I am finding it hard to call our time in the street, “a ministry”. I use this word as an communication instrument so that people can understand the foundation of our presence in the streets. However, ‘ministry’ implies that this is work. Work, in turn, reflects a notion of obligation. However, our time with the children and teens is not work for us. It is a moment where we have a genuine spiritual exchange between us. They have became our friends. They have become our children and teens. They do not expect anything from us except our companionship. They share their questions and thoughts with us. They know that we will provide them with spiritual guidance when they need it. Most of the time, they just want us to be with them and the feeling is mutual. Recently we were playing a game with three of the boys on the steps of the cathedral when another older teen passed by and said, “What a beautiful family gathering!”. The statement was quite random but it describes a development in the growth of our relationship perfectly. Nevertheless, we still have miles to go. These teens and children are still not ready to come our house for dinner. One day they will because this is the goal of our evangelism in the streets.
Biblical evangelism is not about changing one’s religion. It is becoming part of a new family. The new creation begins with the creation of new family ties based on the movement of the Holy Spirit. Only God’s Spirit can break the barriers between us and the children in the streets to mold us into one family. However, for the moment, they are still in the streets. They are still separated from our friends who live in another reality. God wants to reconcile these two groups as well. They need to sit at the same table and fellowship as equals. Humanly, this is not possible. Even if we made these two groups to sit together by own cunning efforts, the result would be an artificial fellowship at best. Only God is able to remove the obstacles standing between us. All we need is to be open and willing to have these little ones to become part of our guest lists. I believe that this is the deep meaning of the Lord’s supper. I am grateful that I am part of a tradition where every Sunday, the Lord’s Table is open to everyone who accepts His invitation. At His banquet, all the human and sinful divisions are disintegrated and we become One because of our Heavenly Host. This is the goal of evangelism.
We should only invite our friends to our dinner. The dinner table is a place where trust and honesty must prevail. This is only possible among true friends. Jesus is not asking to invite complete strangers whose behavior might be dangerous or unpredictable. He is recommending that we change the way we choose our friends. They should include the homeless, the poor, and the lame. We need to open our hearts to allow these little ones to become our friends so that one day they will sit at our table and fellowship with us as our true friends. When this happens, the symbolic meaning of the Lord’s Communion will have become a living and practical reality in our lives.