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Some really stupid excuses

November 7, 2017

Luke 14:15 – 24

Tuesday 7th November 2017

Just before today’s story in the Gospel of Luke people had been asking Jesus about the Kingdom of God, asking Him what it is like, and who will get in. Jesus really surprised them by saying (luckily for us) that people other than Jews will get in; and He also told them that Jews should not assume they have an automatic right of entry into heaven.

To cast some more light on today’s gospel we need to appreciate two things that would have been obvious to the earliest Christians. Firstly, the Jewish people often described heaven as a communal meal, as a wonderful banquet, a beautiful wedding feast; and secondly, this travelling preacher called Jesus fascinated people. His reputation went before Him, and when He arrived in town, ordinary people flocked to Him to be healed and to hear His message. Other people wanted to be seen with Him and meet Him for social reasons, perhaps to flatter themselves that He had been to their house, or, being suspicious, to check out his political and theological views.

So, in Luke’s gospel we regularly see Jesus being invited out for meals, and they didn’t always turn out as people expected. Saint Luke gives us five mealtime stories.

The first[1] is a celebration at the home of the repentant tax collector Levi: Jesus gets criticized for eating with low life like tax collectors and sinners. The message is clear: sinners can get to heaven.

The second meal[2] is hosted by Simon, a self-righteous Pharisee, who is scandalized by the arrival of a woman of ill repute who washes Jesus’ feet – the message here is that it is not our place to judge others in this life – we should treat people with respect.

Then there is dinner with Martha and Mary[3] – Martha gets indignant that Mary is wasting her time listening to Jesus rather than helping with the kitchen chores! The moral of this story: there is a time and place for everything when we’re preparing for heaven. Sure, there are routine things to be done in this life, but we need to get our priorities right and spend time listening to God.

Luke also describes[4] Jesus having breakfast with another Pharisee, who gets peeved when Jesus doesn’t wash his hands before eating, only for Jesus to read his mind and tell him that inner cleanliness is more important ritual hand washing! Getting to heaven is more about spiritual preparedness than just mindlessly following strict rules.

A common theme in all the stories about meals in Luke is that no matter who is doing the inviting, no matter how disreputable, or rude or hypocritical the people sitting down at the table, Jesus always accepts their invitation.

And today we again see Jesus at a meal, and he uses it to explain why some people who expect to automatically get to heaven (simply because they were born Jews) might not make it. The explanation is simple: some people refuse the invitation. And they turn down the invitation for the stupidest of reasons.

One of the best excuses to turn down a dinner invitation I’ve heard was sent by the English comedian Peter Cook’s. It is said that when the Duke and Duchess of York invited him to dinner he replied: “Thank you for your kind invitation. I have checked my diary and I’m afraid I must decline, as it turns out I shall be watching television that evening.”

The people reading St Luke’s gospel 2,000 years ago would have probably found the excuses given in the gospel just as laughable. They are so crass they are each a disgraceful insult that shows contempt for the man sending the invitation:

“I have bought a piece of land and must go and see it.” Nonsense! In the Middle East there is a lot of desert and not much land that can be cultivated. No-one would be so foolish as to buy land in a hurry without seeing it first – the process of buying land would take months, even years. “I have bought a piece of land and must go and see it.” It’s like saying “I had an email saying I have won the Nigerian lottery. I’ve sent them my bank account details and password and must go immediately to pick up the money.”

“I have bought five yoke of oxen and am on my way to try them out.” Madness! Oxen must work in pairs, and they must work in harmony. A farmer would never buy ten oxen like that, it would be completely idiotic. It’s like saying, “I’ve bought ten of those new lorries (trucks) that don’t have drivers but are driven by computers and I need to try them out on the motorway (freeway)!”

“I have just got married and so I am unable to come.” This would be a dreadful insult to both the new wife and to the man sending the invitation, because it would be seen as a completely unnecessary and vulgar reference to marital relations.

In the face of these hostile, stupid refusals to accept his generosity, what does the man organizing the banquet do? He is not going to let all the food waiting to be served go to waste. He widens his invitation to include people who really want to come, to people who would normally expect be shunned.

What’s the message for us in today’s gospel? Firstly, don’t think being a pious, practicing Catholic means you’ll get a free pass to heaven: that is the sin the Church calls ‘presumption’. If we judge other people, treat sinners with disdain or make pathetic excuses for our own failings, we’re at risk. But here’s the good bit: getting to heaven is not as onerous as many people might think. Above all we need to accept the invitation from God and try to lead a good life, serving and respecting others. We may falter on our journey, but our guide, our host, the person inviting us, will accept everyone who tries, even if they sometimes don’t hit the mark. Even the most unexpected will be allowed in, as long as they accept the invitation and approach God in true humility. It is called Divine Mercy. Above all, what we must not do is to try and avoid our responsibility to honour God in our lives by coming up with pathetic, stupid excuses.

And this is why the last thing we are often reminded at the end of our Catholic liturgy are the words ‘Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life’.

 

[1] Luke 5: 27-32

[2] Luke 7: 36-50

[3] Luke 10: 38-42

[4] Luke 11: 37-54

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