I like this metaphor of a party because I love to throw parties. I have often set up parties from start to finish. Moving every chair into place. Decorating each table’s center. Setting each fork and knife and spoon just so. Making sure everyone has what they need. Filling water glasses, answering questions, serving food. And then at the end of the night, restoring the room to the clean slate. Everything back in its proper place. I am always exhausted and ready to go home.
I was recently behind the scenes at a gala for a non-profit. Auction items were going for over $10,000 a piece. Everyone sitting at their beautiful tables talking and laughing with one another hardly noticed how many people it took to make the evening seem so flawless. But I noticed. When it was time for dinner, 3-4 servers descended on each of the 41 tables with precision so that everyone at the table got their food at the same time. And similarly, as people finished, their plates were whisked away. Out of sight, out of mind.
Jesus talked a lot about parties. He also attended parties. Many gospel stories happen at a dinner or a party. Jesus talks about throwing parties over lost sheep, coins and sons. He talks about inviting people off the street, about how not to take the best seat, about accepting an invitation to a party without making excuses. He eats dinner with all sorts of people, many of them shocking or surprising to the religious people of his day.
I have been participating in an Ignatian Bible Study for the past year and a half in which we do a lot of imaginative prayer. One way to engage in this practice is to put yourself in the story - imagine yourself as one of the people in the scene - and write a first-person present account of what is happening. It’s interesting where I see myself in these scenes. Sometimes I do imagine that I am a servant in the home where the dinner is happening. I’m overhearing the conversation as an outsider. In those imaginings, Jesus’ words are especially comforting. Hopeful. Restorative. But if I put myself in the place of the Pharisees, I find Jesus’ words combative, threatening and challenging. “Who does He think He is?”
Recently at Uptown Church, there was a Bible Study for doubters. Anyone who felt like they had questions or doubts was invited to be a part of this group. My friend Linda, who lives in our neighborhood, decided to join. Linda has had a rough life and as a single, older African-American woman she had a particular perspective to share. One Sunday, as two younger white guys were discussing their doubts and questions about the thief on the cross and his promise of paradise, Linda interrupted. “There had better be something after this life! This can’t be all there is.”
Romans 8:18 - 23 says it this way, “Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal his children. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering.”
As believing people, we are called to groan alongside those who groan - recognizing the signs of decay and being a part of the restoration of God’s kingdom here and now. Maybe the sheep and the goats parable is more about position than anything else. You saw someone hungry or naked or sick and you knew it was your job to feed or clothe or visit them. Not your job, but a sign that you are part of the movement of God to make things right in the world. The need, the lack, the sickness is a direct and outward sign that things are not ok. That our world needs saving. That God’s ways are not in place.
Luke reiterates the words of Isaiah as he tells of John’s mission: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth” In this gospel account, it goes on to describe John instructing people to share if they have coats or food to spare and not to extort or cheat their fellow humans.
As people of God, we are foreigners and strangers in this world. We are looking forward to our new home, as the writer of Hebrews says, we are “longing for a better country—a heavenly one.” While the great human party is divided between the haves and the have-nots, the heavenly party awaits where all are welcome and all are equal. As we participate in making this human party more equal, we declare that God’s kingdom is arriving. We prepare the way. Every place that Christians come to should be affected in this way. Relationships restored. Inequities evened out. Barriers broken down.
But for every barrier knocked down, the enemy puts up a new one. For every relationship restored, others are broken apart. The work is constant and the signs of destruction are rampant. We will not see the promises fulfilled - only at a distance, in a dim glass.
After putting on a big party or wedding, after the last dish is washed and dried and put away, I want nothing more than to soak in a bath or lay in my bed. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s description of heaven: “the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes in the airing cupboard.” So I will not grow weary, for He who calls me is faithful. And in a little while, He who is coming will come and will not delay.
When the party’s over, God will take me home.
listen to the song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXYtwL4DXRU