Lisa Nichols Hickman: The first social network

What if the parable of the Great Banquet is about building networks of relationships?

“Do you want to pretend to be the long-haired, barefoot guy or do you want to set the table?”

This was the question my daughter asked her best friend after seeing a sermon dramatizing the Great Banquet in Luke’s gospel.  With princess teacups, a shabby robe, and an armful of stuffed animals, they couldn’t wait to act out the story they learned in worship that morning.  The two girls heard the gospel with great clarity:  invite in the unwanted, the poor, the lame, the crippled, the blind, and, the long-haired barefoot guy.

We often struggle to hear the same old stories anew as they cycle through the lectionary. For Zoe and Leah, the parable came alive through drama and costumes.  For me, this parable took on new meaning after meeting Mike at the local Rescue Mission.

Sitting down to eat lunch with Mike, I realized what he receives at the table is less about nourishment and more about network.  I had always heard the parable of the Great Banquet as an invitation to invite the hungry into the feast.  Mike will always find a bowl of soup.  What he hungers for is support. 

The connections made at the table create a social network that allow new directions in otherwise convoluted lives.  Mike needs bread, but even more so he needs a substance-free friend to call at the end of a bad day.  Mike loves a good cup of coffee, but he also needs help writing his resume, applying for jobs and securing the transportation to get there.

My argument that the Great Banquet is less about nutrition and more about social networks is similar to that in the new book by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor and Yourself.” The book names the tendency of Christian organizations to focus too much on relief rather than relationships that lead toward long-term development.

Reading the parable of the Great Banquet as relief for those brought in from the streets subjugates the depth of the text. Reading it as a call to new relationships elevates the text to a resurrection tale.  Resurrection in Luke is ‘anastemai’ which literally means ‘to stand up again’.  The crippled, the lame, the blind and the poor will have a foretaste of resurrection grace at the banquet not only because their tummies are full, but because new networks of relationships will help them stand on their feet again. 

For Mike, sitting at the table with Don created a connection for a job possibility at the organization where Don serves on the Board.  Sitting at the table with Dave invited a further invitation for another meal to simply share in the Christian fellowship of encouragement.  Sitting with Jack allowed him to talk about his dental issues and health insurance struggles with a man in the health care field.  Sitting with Jason established a friendship where Mike could share the struggle of reconnecting with his adult children after twenty years as an absentee father.  Sitting with Lori made a connection for additional help in GED preparations. Sitting with Ralph formed a friendship for Mike to share the highs and lows of his new life in faith.  This support system is the sustenance Mike craves. 

Coney Island, full of hot dogs and chili fries, is down the street from the mission.  But the cross of Christ, laid across any ordinary table, creates intersections, connections, networks that bear resurrection, standing up again, life.

This past Saturday, as volunteers and men from the mission sat down to lunch, John walked in and with hearty voice said, “I love you all.  In case you haven’t heard it from anyone today -- I love you.  I love you. I love you.  I love you.”  That is the kind of relationship Christ reveals at the table.  Those words aren’t short-term relief. They bear witness to what we all hunger for: relationships that reveal the love of Christ and social networks that help us stand up again.

Lisa Nichols Hickman is pastor of New Wilmington Presbyterian Church in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.