The Parable of the Great Banquet
When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.”
Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’
“But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’
“Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’
“Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’
“The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’
“‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’
“Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’”
To Dean Robert Hill, in his absence, and the fine chapel assistants and staff of Marsh Chapel; to you, the Marsh Chapel congregation and our radio listeners, and especially to the faculty, students and staff of Boston University, I am indeed delighted to be here again on this special Sunday in which we celebrate the living legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Had he lived, he would have been 85 years-old on this past Wednesday.
Introduction and Elaboration of Thesis
Our Gospel text is about a table conversation between Jesus and a rich and influential man of the cloth. Jesus had been invited not so much because the pleasure of his company was sincerely desired, but so that he could be watched by the cynical and critical eyes of his enemies. They wanted to see him break the rules in some word or act of religious and moral impropriety. In response to his host’s table blessing, “Blessed is he who shall break bread in the Kingdom of God”, Jesus relates the story of the Great Banquet which you have heard in the reading this morning.
In the parable, a certain man prepared a huge feast and invited all the people who are on his regular guest lists: his friends, the socialites, the fat cats and the play- makers, but they all for some reason or another made paltry excuses and did not come. So when the servant returned and reported this to his master, the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant to ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ “‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’ “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’” The second and third invitations are different in respect to degree, each was more expansive than the other—from the streets and alleys of the town to the rural roads and country lanes—the servant’s orders were to compel them to come to the banquet. Welcoming the unwelcomed to the feast involved radical hospitality (and it still does).
The Welcome Table Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.—William Faulkner, Light in August
As we gather on this very special Sunday, dedicated to the memory of our greatest alumnus, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I thought it appropriate to pause and reflect on the place of memory and its power to evoke presences; ghosts, if you will, who beckon us, nudge us and demand of us that we take up their quarrel with the foe. All around us and within us, we are surrounded by memories that seek habitation in our lives, our speech and actions. It was Dean Howard Thurman who often said from this pulpit, “We died but you who live must do a harder thing than dying is. . .You must think and ghosts will drive you on.”1
During the holidays, I was struck by the powerful symbol of the Table. The times at the Table with family, friends and food were filled with moments of joy and of sadness— but precious memories, nonetheless, that I cherish because they help me to believe. I had plenty of memories. There were memories of my mother busy in the small kitchen in Chicago preparing for the big meal of ham, turkey and dressing, candied yams, greens, macaroni and cheese, cakes and pies. Ours was not the idyllic Christmas of John Boy on the Walton Farm or Beaver and Wally at the Cleaver dinner table, rather it was the gathering of my sisters, brother and brother-in-laws, uncles and aunts and cousins and friends who would drop by for good food and fellowship. Everybody was from Mississippi or one of the southern places from which people had come in search of “the warmth of other suns”. They had long memories of families gathering together at the Table. It was a Table where everyone was welcome and it really didn’t matter whether you were related or in the family’s circle of friends, if you showed up, you got fed. We knew then about the meaning of the Welcome Table–it meant radical hospitality for the least of these.
I think that we are forgetting (or have forgotten) that The Welcome Table is part of a great American tradition. Maybe once upon time, we, as African Americans, took it so seriously because we knew something about not being welcomed—not being welcomed in certain establishments, certain schools, certain neighborhoods, certain parties, around certain people—even certain churches and cemeteries. We knew what it meant to be unwelcome, so we worked hard at preparing a table that was big enough to welcome all. That’s why the old enslaved Africans, who had been relegated to the margins of anonymity and profanity, would gather way down in their brush arbor meetings and while working in the fields, and sing a song about The Welcome Table:
I’m going to sit at the welcome table Yes, I’m going to sit at the welcome table One of these days, hallelujah I’m going to sit at the welcome table Sit at the welcome table one of these days, one of these days I’m going to feast on milk and honey… I’m going to tell God how you treat me… All God’s children gonna sit together… I’m going to sit at the welcome table..3
Kennedy, King, Mandela and Obama and the Welcome Table
These “black and unknown bards” knew that while the Welcome Table was part of the great eschatological hope of African Americans, it was also costly. On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Sunday, I want us to remember people who paid the price for all of us to come to the Table. There are so many heroes and sheroes whose memories visit us from the past 50 years. Both 1963 and 1964 were powerful moments which shaped the legal, moral and spiritual landscape of the United States of America forever. I want to lift up the names of Medgar Evers (field secretary NAACP, murdered June 12, 1963); Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair (the 4 little girls who died in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963); and the 3 civil rights workers, Michael H. Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James E Chaney (murdered June 21, 1964 and found two months later in an earthen dam in Philadelphia, Mississippi)—all martyred in the struggle for justice in this country. They made possible the Welcome Table through radical hospitality. Now they implore us to join them at the Table. Longfellow wrote:
There are more guests at table than the hosts Invited; the illuminated hall Is thronged with quiet, inoffensive ghosts, As silent as the pictures on the wall.2
In late November of the past year, the nation was busy remembering the erudite and handsome, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, who was assassinated 50 years ago. Although some were suspicious of his politics and cautious embrace of the civil rights movement, in almost every African American home of the sixties his picture was on the wall alongside Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr. His picture was there in commemoration not so much for his brilliance and commitment to civil rights—-but because of his absence. Although some felt he came kicking and screaming, he made room for us at the Welcome Table. So, we treated him as family.
Most Americans of that era had a deep respect and abiding reverence for the office of president. I am not so sure now. The dangerous incivility and racist innuendoes hurled at President Obama convince me that though seasons have changed, still most Americans find it easier to revere our fallen heroes than to honor and believe in the possibility of the present ones.
On August 28th of this year, my wife and I joined the throng of thousands who returned to the Lincoln Memorial, this site of memory, to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. While sitting there, I could not help but reflect on the progress that we have made towards the realization of that dream, but also on how far we still must go “if America is to become a great nation” as King so eloquently proclaimed. I was trying to believe. While we sat there in the shadow of the Great Emancipator, there were signs and banners calling attention to the George Zimmerman verdict in the killing of Trayon Martin, a seventeen year old teenager in Sanford, Florida. President Obama’s remarks that “Trayvon could have been me thirty-five years ago” came as a source of encouragement for many mass protests of righteous indignation and cries for justice from citizens around the nation. On the other hand, many felt that he had inserted the proverbial race-card into an already volatile situation of fractured race relations in this country. Some conservative pundits blamed him for acting as the “Racist-in-Chief” while some critics within the black community felt that he said too little, too late—that his statement was like “pre-sweetened Kool-Aid” suggesting that it was palliative, at best, and failed to address the deep structural issues at stake for the poor and black and hopeless masses who needed his engaged and embodied leadership in this case and others.
One has to ask why this continued public harassment of President Barack Hussein Obama which appears to be intensifying as Supreme Court rulings carefully and effectively began to dismantle the hard-fought gains of the Civil Rights Movement (the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action) in the year of the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic speech.3 Is it because there are some people in this country who are afraid of the Welcome Table?
I visited family over the holidays and in the home of my sister there was a picture on the wall next to Martin and Malcolm X. It is the dignified portrait of Nelson Mandela. He was not made in America, yet he helps me to believe. He was a beautiful man with a soft smile and deep humanity. When I was at Morehouse College, each summer, I led a delegation of students sponsored by Oprah Winfrey to South Africa to study ethical leadership within the context of the South African democratization process. After a visit to Robben Island, the prison facility where Mandela spent most of his 27 years incarcerated, one of the students wrote in his diary:
The impact was strongest when I stood directly in front of Nelson Mandela’s cell, number five in the B section, which was reserved for political prisoners. Sections A and C housed criminal prisoners. What affected me most was to hear how these prisoners were actually treated. It was heart-breaking to look at the cement floor where Mr. Mandela slept without a cot or anything for cushion. It was enormously troubling to look at the five-gallon bucket that Mr. Mandela had to use for a bathroom because there was no toilet in his cell. Who can imagine having to smell something like that two feet away from you all night long until the following morning when you were allowed to empty and clean your waste bucket?4
We cannot help but resonate with this student’s feelings as he observed Mr. Mandela’s inhumane circumstances, but we also marvel at the deep humanity of this man who forced an apartheid government to open up the Welcome Table and who emerged as the first black president of South Africa and statesman to the world. Madiba teaches us that:
Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage; Minds innocent and quiet take That for an hermitage;
If I have freedom in my love And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above, Enjoy such liberty.5
Today, I would like to place another picture on the wall this morning. It is a picture of my colleague, Professor Kathe Darr, Chair of the Faculty Council, who has made a commitment to expand the Welcome Table at Boston University. She is joined by the President and Provost in this commitment to diversity. Let us pray that in this year when we celebrate the memory and legacy of Martin Luther King, that we place more pictures on the wall.
Opening up The Welcome Table: Welcoming the Unwelcomed
I often wonder what it will take to produce a new generation of leaders who understand the power and the cost of radical hospitality and who are willing to build on the great vision of a beloved community. What might it mean to become servants of justice and truth in this place that is haunted by the memories of Martin Luther King, Jr., Howard Thurman, Barbara Jordan, Anna Howard Shaw, Walter Muelder and Samuel DeWitt Proctor and so many others, who like ghosts, drive us on? Echoing Frederick Douglass, King often said, “Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless effort and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God.”6 Ah, there it is! Co-workers with God! An old-fashioned, unsophisticated theological assumption that has no empirical warrant and backing? Maybe . . . but it got the job done. I think it still will.
Ours is a daunting challenge, but if we are truly committed to welcoming the unwelcome here at Boston University and elsewhere, we must join the long and hallowed chorus of brave women and men and boys and girls who have dared to make room for others at the Table. King called these principled actors who are willing to risk life and limb through nonviolent creative social change, “transformed nonconformists.”
Summary and Closing
In closing, parables can be tricky—the Parable of the Great Banquet does not tell us how much work and how hard it is to welcome the unwelcomed—to expand the guest lists and to restructure the rooms so that “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame” can come in.
First, welcoming the unwelcomed involves courage—the courage to change. According to Martin Luther King, Jr. it begins with a transformation in consciousness— a revolution of values and priorities. It implies a re-orientation of values and priorities, it requires a readjustment of our worldview, it requires a rearrangement of the personal and social furniture in our living rooms—more than that it requires a type of courage, a kind of resistance, a steadfastness to go in spite of the resistance. It says, “Wait on the Lord, be of good courage, and God will strengthen your heart.”
Second, welcoming the unwelcome will require a sense of justice. Justice as fairness—a level playing field. If we are going to invite others to the Table, we will need to change the menu, change the rules of etiquette, restructure the dining room and change the seating arrangements. We will need to make room for folks at the Table who do not look like us, talk like us, dress like us, love like us and pray like us. It means ultimately, that we must learn to share power. For the religious among us, it will require repentance, confession and conversion. For some Christians, this will be especially hard.
Finally, we must practice compassion for the least of these. Who are the least of these? They are the ones whom we do not see, whom we seldom even think about except when in our hurried pace, we pass them on the street or see them behind bars or lying in their own blood on the evening news. One has to ask how is it that in a nation of so much wealth and prosperity, we are witnessing more and more poverty, mis- education, mass incarceration of the black, brown and poor, the left-out and the left behind?
Who are who are the least of these? They are your sisters and your brothers locked in poverty and locked out of a future of hope and possibility. Dare we see the face of our brothers and sisters from whom we are estranged and find our own faces?
We need not look far to see what is at stake in this call to radical hospitality. It is not enough to be gentle, civil and progressive—these are fine personal attributes, but ultimately we are called to put some skin in the game, to stand up and join the creative forces that call us to justice and peace-making in this world. Leaders in this century are called to be more than charitable actors who respond to the needs of individuals; they must be willing to stand at the intersection where worlds collide and create communities of justice and compassion. Who dares to stand in the absent spaces and places left by King and others and suffer with strangers? Who dares to welcome the Unwelcomed to the Table?
1 From Howard Thurman’s meditation in memory of Jim Reeb in the issue of The Liberal Context (Spring 1965) a paraphrase from Hermann Hagedorn’s The Boy in Armor, “Because you would not think we had to die : . . . .We died. And there you stand no step advanced.”
2 “Haunted Houses” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
3 In 1964 Congress passed Public Law 88-352 (78 Stat. 241). The provisions of this civil rights act forbade discrimination on the basis of sex as well as race in hiring, promoting, and firing.
4 Walter Earl Fluker, Ethical Leadership: The Quest for Character, Civility, and Community (Fortress, 2009)166.
5 Richard Lovelace, “To Althea, From Prison” (1642)
6Douglass actually said: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle.” Frederick Douglass, “West India Emancipation” speech at Canandaigua, New York, August 3, 1857. See more at: http://www.blackpast.org/1857-frederick- douglass-if-there-no-struggle-there-no-progress#sthash.fLNNA0p9.dpuf Accessed, 19 January 2014.
~The Rev. Dr. Walter Fluker
MLK, Jr. Professor for Ethical Leadership, Boston University School of Theology