What was Jesus' view with regard to the Gentiles? Just prior to Luke 15, we find an astonishing parable told by Jesus in Luke 14:15-24, typically known as the parable of the Great Banquet. As we will see, it goes directly to this question.
Verse 15 says:
One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, "Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!" (NRSV)
We learn from verse 1 that this meal is taking place at the home of a leader of the Pharisees. Remember Kenneth Bailey’s admonition to pay close attention to these events because when Jesus is engaging the Pharisees there is a heavy-duty theological interaction taking place. The statement asked by the dinner guest is referring to the eschatological Great Banquet at the end of time. It is intended as a test. Jesus is expected to respond with something like “Oh that we might be considered worthy and keep the law in a precise enough fashion so that when that great day comes we will be counted amongst the faithful and be privileged to sit down according to our ranks with the coming messiah.” (Parables of Jesus in Luke, Kenneth Bailey, Lecture 8) Then the hearers will know that Jesus shares and affirms their view. This is not Jesus’ response. Instead, he tells them a parable. Before we examine that parable (in the next post) we must appreciate the centuries old development of the Great Banquet theme up to Jesus' time.
The central text about the great banquet comes from Isaiah 25:6-9:
6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
7 And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
8 he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.
9 It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the LORD for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. (NRSV)
“All the peoples” and “all the nations” is a clear reference to the Gentiles. The story speaks of all the people, Jews and Gentiles, being brought together at this eschatological event. That seems straightforward to us but this image had become radically altered over the several centuries from the time it was written, up to Jesus’ day.
After the Jews returned from exile in Babylon, they ceased speaking Hebrew and adopted Aramaic as their language. Because of this, it was necessary to have someone translate the Hebrew scripture into Aramaic when it was read in services. Eventually they began to write down the Aramaic translations, which became known as the Targumim (“the translations.”) These were paraphrased translations, in some ways like we have the Living Bible, except with much more tolerance of commentary and revision. People added to the text as time went by.
The Isaiah 25 text began to undergo a transformation.
“Yahweh of hosts will make for all the peoples in this mountain a meal. And although they suppose it is an honor it will be a shame for them and great plagues, plagues from which they will be unable to escape, plagues whereby they will come to their end.” (Parables of Jesus in Luke, Kenneth Bailey, Lecture 8)
While the Gentiles will come to the banquet, it will be for their destruction not their reconciliation to God. Then there is the description of this great banquet presented in the second Temple era book of 1 Enoch (Book 2, Chapter 62:6-16):
6 And the kings and the mighty and all who possess the earth shall bless and glorify and extol him who rules over all, who was hidden.
7 For from the beginning the Son of Man was hidden,
And the Most High preserved him in the presence of His might,
And revealed him to the elect.
8 And the congregation of the elect and holy shall be sown,
And all the elect shall stand before him on that day.
9 And all the kings and the mighty and the exalted and those who rule the earth
Shall fall down before him on their faces,
And worship and set their hope upon that Son of Man,
And petition him and supplicate for mercy at his hands.
10 Nevertheless that Lord of Spirits will so press them
That they shall hastily go forth from His presence,
And their faces shall be filled with shame,
And the darkness grow deeper on their faces.
11 And He will deliver them to the angels for punishment,
To execute vengeance on them because they have oppressed His children and His elect
12 And they shall be a spectacle for the righteous and for His elect:
They shall rejoice over them,
Because the wrath of the Lord of Spirits resteth upon them,
And His sword is drunk with their blood.
13 And the righteous and elect shall be saved on that day,
And they shall never thenceforward see the face of the sinners and unrighteous.
14 And the Lord of Spirits will abide over them,
And with that Son of Man shall they eat
And lie down and rise up for ever and ever.
15 And the righteous and elect shall have risen from the earth,
And ceased to be of downcast countenance.
And they shall have been clothed with garments of glory,
16 And these shall be the garments of life from the Lord of Spirits:
And your garments shall not grow old,
Nor your glory pass away before the Lord of Spirits.
Again we have we have the Gentiles being brought to the banquet only to face their destruction.
The Essene community at Qumran seemed to have a higher standard. No Gentiles or Samaritans will be allowed into the banquet. Only the Jews who keep the law the way the Qumarn keep it will enter. But even among them, only those that are physically pure will be welcomed. In 1QSa 2, there is a vision of the messiah returning and the peoples of Israel coming before God according to clan.
And let no person smitten with any impurity whatever enter the Assembly of God. And every person smitten with these impurities, unfit to occupy a place in the midst of the Congregation, and every (person) smitten in his flesh, paralyzed in his hands and feet, lame or blind or deaf, or dumb or smitten in his flesh with a blemish visible to the eye, or any aged person that totters and is unable to stand firm in the midst of the Congregation: let those persons not enter." (1QSa 2:3-8, The New Interpreter's Bible, v. 8, p. 287.)
The powerful vision of inclusion in Isaiah's Great Banquet has devolved into a banquet where only the most holy and pure can enter. Therefore, when the guest says to Jesus “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God," he has this degraded image of the Great Banquet in mind. The Pharisees want to know if Jesus “rightly” understands the significance of the Great Banquet. This is the context in which Jesus offers the parable in Luke 14:15-24.