The Unreturned Gift

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This gospel is not like all other human acts of gift-giving. It doesn’t come with the expectation of a gift in return. His mercy is an unreturned gift.

You know how it goes: being invited over to someone’s house for dinner always implicitly means that you have to invite them to your house in return. To share a meal is a form of hospitality, and in cultures around the world, hospitality must be reciprocated. This is not always true, but in most cases, it is. When a gift is received, the expectation is that you offer one as well.

The cycle of gift-giving flows in and out, as cultural anthropologists have been telling us for decades.

In Luke 14, Jesus advises his disciples not to invite their relatives if they throw a dinner party. He says: “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.” (Lk 14:12). What is the sense in that? Who else would one invite but one’s friends and family?

Jesus, of course, isn’t unconditionally prohibiting parties with friends or family, but he is illustrating an important point about the gospel. This gospel is not like all other human acts of gift-giving. It doesn’t come with the expectation of a gift in return. His mercy is an unreturned gift. Jesus directs our attention to the banquet of heaven where the saints will gather with the Father, Son, and Spirit for eternity. Their feast will be the fellowship and meal that God gives forever. It cannot be repaid.

In the immediate context of this teaching, Jesus addresses his fellow Jews. Indeed, the Pharisees have just invited Jesus to a party of their own. But rather than simply enjoying the Lord’s company, they spend their time watching to see if Jesus is going to do something out of line (Luke 14:1).

And indeed Jesus does just that. He heals a man with dropsy – a condition where water fills the cavities of the body. When the Pharisees object, Jesus makes a provocative point about his hosts: on the Sabbath, all of them will pull their sons, or an ox, out of a well. But that’s probably only because they would lose money if their children or farm animals were stuck at the beginning of the next work day (Luke 14:2-6).

It’s really all about economics: the Pharisees don’t care about anyone but themselves and their perceived holiness – that’s true of self-righteous people anywhere. Once money and productivity are on the line, however, the self-absorbed will gladly suspend their grand gestures of religiosity and stoop down to help someone – but only as long as they stand to benefit in some way.

Jesus is addressing his own people in this case: don’t invite family to the party, because they will eventually repay you. Don’t invite those from whom you stand to benefit in the end. This is certainly a scandalous take on the conventional wisdom. One’s social status or proud heritage doesn’t count for anything in the end. The Gentiles will be invited to the banquet of heaven just like the Jews will be.

The pedigree of the elite has no standing before God.

The gospel hiding in plain sight here – now revealed to us by Jesus – is that God is in the business of inviting people to his banquet who can’t repay him. He is not interested in accruing social debt with anyone in a circular exchange of gifts, so he doesn’t deal with people who can repay. God is in debt to no one. He does only what he wants to do. He only chooses sinners to come to his feast since they are the ones who can’t return the favor.

This means that there is only one qualification to be a Christian, and that is to be a sinner.

This truth hurts, of course, because if I’m receiving gifts from God that I can’t repay, then it means I’m a sinner. It means that all of us are the “poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” (Luke 14:13) who’ve been invited to the banquet of heaven. It means that God has chosen us, not the other way around. This threatens our independence, control, and liberty. This truth hurts because it means God is free, but we are not.

But this painful truth is also good news for us. It is the heart of the gospel. It means that, right now, God is inviting you to his banquet. At the Lord’s table, he throws a magnificent party, one where we eat and drink the gifts of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine. His crucified flesh and shed blood were donated on the cross for you. Now he gives them as an extravagant meal which will never end.

There won’t be an opportunity to repay God for the gift of his Son because God never stops giving gifts long enough for us to reciprocate. All ordinary gifts have some sort of expectation attached to them. They must be returned or repaid in some fashion. But the gift of Jesus Christ is one we can never pay back. Indeed, in this eternal act of gift-giving, we find God’s proper glory. His abundant mercy never runs out, and the pleasure of receiving it is the enjoyment of God that the saints will experience in the unending life to come.