PC Gospel


Writing a moral and political blog as I do can be beleaguering. It’s not the regimen of writing itself that’s difficult, but the events on which one feels obliged to opine. More often than I care to admit I’ve been tempted to give up the endeavor in an effort to salvage what sanity I have left.  

It’s true that anyone who expresses, in even a tepid way, his or her opinion about what’s happening in the world today will be criticized; I realize that. Sometimes articulating one’s views in a forceful manner results in recriminatory blowback; I realize that too. I’m not bothered by criticism in the least. I’m not shaped by what others think of me or of what I write. 

What I do care about is how I stand with God. I regard myself as a Christian, which means a “work under construction.” When I wake up on Sunday morning, I always try to go to church somewhere. Worshipping God is a centering experience for me. I count on it to help realign my values and to unscramble my priorities.  Hearing a message that is firmly anchored in Scripture and that constitutes a “progress report” on the text of the day is a vital need of mine.  It’s analogous to eating and sleeping, but much more imperative than any physical appetite. A powerful homily stirs me spiritually, puts a knot in my throat and a tear in my eye. Nobody is more appreciative of hearing a divinely authentic Word directed to the tangled world in which humanity lives than I. 

Often I’m disappointed. There are times when I sit in the sanctuary waiting to hear that Word, but it’s not forthcoming. The preacher instead either leaves me wandering around in the first century with few, if any, vectors established between then and now or, as in mainline Protestant communions, attempts to deconstruct the Scripture in order to make a moral and political statement with which he himself is comfortable. This past Sunday was an example of the latter. The minister took as his text Jesus’ Parable of the Great Banquet, as recorded in the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 14, verses 15 through 24.  

In the verses immediately preceding the parable, Jesus states, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid.” No, no – “when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” At this point, a man who sat at the table with Jesus and who heard his words, exclaimed, “Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!” It was then that Jesus replied with the parable: a man gave a great banquet and extended a number of invitations. He sent his servant, as was customary at the time, to inform the invited guests that everything was ready. Yet all of them began making flimsy excuses. The servant returned and reported this news to his master, whereupon he angrily instructed the servant to go out quickly to the streets and byways of the city, and bring in the poor, the maimed, the blind, and the lame – the pariahs, in other words. The servant returned with the word that he had done so, although there were still empty seats at the banquet table. Then the master commanded, “Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.” Luke concludes the parable with the following stern words of the master, “For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.” 

Luke’s audience, when listening to the parable, were aware that the many who were initially invited to the great banquet had spurned the invitation. Specifically, the Jews --God's "chosen ones"-- had declined his invitation, and the Gentiles had thereupon received it. The parable, interestingly enough, depicts the master (or God) as “angry.”  He will see to it that “none of those men who were invited (and did not come) shall taste of my banquet.” The parable, for Luke, is a word of judgment and of hope. It’s a categorical judgment against those who refuse to accept God’s grace, but it’s a word of hope to the outsiders of the world to whom the invitation is subsequently issued. The most miserable sinner may ask, “Is this invitation open even to me?” The answer is a resounding “Yes!” Everyone is a beneficiary of God’s invitation. This is a hopeful, liberating word. 

But a question arises: Does this mean that anyone can, on his or her own terms, feast at God’s banquet table? The preacher I heard Sunday left the impression that a Muslim, a same-sex couple, and (I would guess) a child molester and serial killer are all accepted at the banquet unconditionally. The invitation is certainly extended to them, and this is the primary point of the parable. But the divine invitation is not translatable into an embrace of license. It’s still God’s banquet, and there’s a rigor in his love. Nowhere in Scripture is there the slightest intimation that God enables and pampers humanity in wrong-doing. To argue that anyone – you, me, a Muslim, or a same-sex couple – is welcome at the banquet in the absence of repentance is not a Christian idea. It’s simply a perversion. Furthermore, to expound in a sermon upon the concept of “God’s invitation” without carefully differentiating it from the anemic, uncritical relativism of “liberal tolerance” is to carry political correctness to a hopelessly debilitating extreme. The gospel is thus uncritically transformed into little more than another rendering of popular American culture. 

Sunday’s preacher, a man of many years of ministerial experience, should have known better. His attempt to be profound and politically au courant was false, deceptive, and misleading. This is tragically sad, but true. The stakes are too high in today’s world for Christian pastors to give voice to such social and political nonsense. This single episode represents, in microcosm, almost everything that has caused mainline Protestant Christianity to implode over the course of the last century. Many clergy, with their lazy understandings of Scripture, have contributed more than anyone else to writing the Western church's obituary as well as that of the culture it once emblazoned.

 April 2, 2014