Who are you inviting to Thanksgiving?
On a recent Sunday, my pastor presented this question to the congregation: Who are you inviting to Thanksgiving? If we were like most, he concluded, friends, family and maybe a co-worker made that list. The Scripture for that sermon was Luke 14:12-14.
“12 He said also to the man who had invited him, ‘When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. 13 But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.’” (Luke 14:12-14 ESV)
Jesus is at a dinner gathering after being invited by a Pharisee. Not just any Pharisee, but a ruler of the Pharisees. Jesus has, by this time, had contention with members of this group, especially when he healed people on the Sabbath. At this dinner, it is apparent that the Pharisee intends to capture Jesus in the act of breaking their Sabbath laws by having a sick man with dropsy present at the banquet. Jesus heals the man and shreds their legalism by asking about saving one’s son or an ox on the Sabbath. Would they not save their son or prized ox if one of them had fallen down a well on the Sabbath? His question is met with silence, for they did not know how to answer. Then he gives the Pharisee the truth about his dinner: do not invite people because you are hoping for reciprocity. Rather, invite the poor, the lame, and the blind, for they cannot repay you.
This sermon troubled me. Not because I did not understand what Jesus was saying, but because I knew that I would invite my friends and family, even some co-workers, to the feast I prepared. Would I invite anyone else? There is a homeless camp in the woods behind my church. Most of the people who stay there are sojourners in our land, some of them here illegally. They are nomadic and do not stay exceptionally long, but there are always occupants in the camp. Would I invite them to my home? Would I bring them food?
This troubled me so much that I spoke of this to one of my coworkers who is not a believer. I told her how bothered I was by the probability that I would not invite anyone from the camp to my home. She pressed questions that were investigative and revealing. There are countless reasons I could make not to offer an invitation, but only one reason I should. Why would I not invite them? It came to this: security for my family. Fear of the unknown is, I suppose, a better way to say it.
The response from my friend was truly remarkable. She said, “Love is being strong enough to let a stranger in, to let the homeless, the blind and the lame, without the fear that our power we have accrued and our homeostasis won’t come crumbling down, because we know our foundation is stable.” As I read her response, I understood more deeply that the desire to help others who are poor and homeless is not just a Christian thing, but a human thing.
God has a way of exposing our hearts, as I can think of a hundred reasons not to seek out the poor, the lame, or the blind. The sermon was certainly a warning about the dangers of payment and reciprocity. Was I inviting my friends and family with the hopes of getting something in return? To my mind, I don’t think so. Our hearts and our actions are not always coordinated, as I can stand in a crowd and declare that it is unjust for someone to be homeless and hungry. But then I wonder: What am I doing to help? Am I merely speaking words without action?
I admitted to my friend that I was probably not going to invite anyone from the homeless camp to my banquet. I also admitted that I felt guilty for knowing this already. It is probably that guilt that causes me to donate substantial amounts of food to local food drives each year. I would say it is more from guilt than a sense of charity. I grew up poor in a broken home, with a mother who worked three jobs just to put food on the table and a roof over our heads. I saw her struggles, and as the oldest, I longed to help my mom whenever I could.
I remember one year; I was about nine. A neighbor had invited us to dinner, because he heard from his daughter that we didn’t have a lot of food. That was my fault, as I told her days before that we had cereal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner nearly every day. It was all my mother could afford. When we arrived at the neighbor’s apartment, there was a feast: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, vegetables, and dinner rolls. It was more food than I had ever seen on a table where I sat. At one point during the meal, my mother started crying. I did not understand then why she was upset; but I understood later. She felt guilty for not being able to provide food like this for me and my brother.
That moment stuck with me for many years, and I remember vowing at one point that I would do everything in my power to ensure that any children I had in the future would never see the same empty space in the fridge or pantry that I saw as a child. By God’s grace and provision, my children have not gone without food. They have not felt the hunger that I used to, nor the uncertainty that the kids in the homeless camp feel.
Thanksgiving this year has come and gone, and I am still unhappy that I did not invite the poor, the lame, or the blind to the feast at my home. I sat with my family, and as the chatter over the dinner table droned on, I thought about the condition of my heart. I long to do more. I was poor, and now I am not. I was hungry, and now I am fed. Was this all my doing, or did God provide?
I believe it was God. The struggle now, for every holiday, rainy day, or any day, I will wonder: what am I doing to bless those around me who are in need? While I worship on Sunday, do I live my life Monday through Saturday focused on Jesus? Or am I living just for me?