Let me start by directing your attention to Jesus’ “Parable of the Great Banquet” and then I want to share a few thoughts about how Jesus’ message impacts those of us dealing with chronic illness. From Luke 14:15-24 (NIV):
15 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.”
16 Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. 17 At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’
18 “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.’
19 “Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’
20 “Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’
21 “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.’
22 “‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’
23 “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. 24 I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’”
Like it is always, in Jesus’ days there were the “haves” and the “have-nots.” There were a lot of things that could leave you in the latter group: scandalous history, questionable religious pedigree, poverty, and most certainly disease. If you found yourself unable to take care of yourself, you were reduced to a life of begging. You were ignored and stigmatized. Some even assumed that your ailment meant that God had punished you (cf. Jn. 9:1-2). You certainly didn’t receive any invitations to an important man’s banquet.
Jesus’ parable fit the times well. An important man is having a banquet and ostentatiously invites other well-to-do people, people with means and enough social mobility to be buying land, oxen, and marrying. Each of them refuses the master’s invitation due to being consumed by their own self-important lives. This enrages the master and he commands his servants to go all through the streets and find the “poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” and invite them to the master’s banquet. The opportunity for those who refused the invitation has now passed.
Jesus gave this parable in response to a man who echoed the sentiment of his time. They all looked forward to a great feast in God’s kingdom, a never-ending celebration inaugurated by the King, the Messiah. The man said nothing wrong. For it is true, “Blessed is the one who will eat the feast in the kingdom of God.” But too many people made false assumptions about who got to eat at this feast for Jesus just to let that statement go unaddressed.
They assumed that the kingdom of God followed the same rules as kingdoms of the world. The “haves” of this world were obviously blessed by God and would have the important seats at the banquet, or so they thought. But this kind of people wouldn’t even recognize the invitation. They were so overly occupied with their own lives that they missed the Master’s invitation. They didn’t even recognize him and crucified him as a common criminal!
But “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame,” who have been cast aside by society, find themselves with an opportunity to be at the feast to end all feasts. Their circumstances have humbled them and they are receptive to the master’s invitation. This isn’t just any master; this is the King and the Messiah, and they find themselves invited to his table.
The good news for those of us who struggle with chronic pain and illness should be obvious. Our pain often sidelines us from doing the things we want. We may literally have to turn down invitations because we hurt too much. Others may just stop inviting us all together. We can’t always “carpe diem” the way we used to or “just do it” as Nike tells us. The world seems to be leaving us behind, but Jesus never will!
I am not suggesting that just because a person has suffered an unusual amount in this world that their ticket is automatically punched to Jesus’ never-ending feast, which is really about being in God’s kingdom forever. It doesn’t work like that. A person in pain can reject the invitation as well. But it does mean that Jesus will not leave us behind. It means we are invited!
One of Jesus’ big themes is a reversal of fortunes. The people in this life who have a lot will lose everything in the life to come (see “The Rich man and Lazarus) if they do not know the King and live as compassionate citizens of the kingdom. Those who have suffered and been cast outside will be greatly comforted and honored in the life to come, again, provided they have known and loved the King.
Our pain is not permanent. Our place at Jesus’ table can be. As the old hymn beckons, “All things are ready; come to the feast!”