We are still at the banquet to which Jesus had been invited by a prominent Pharisee on a Sabbath day. They were setting a trap for him and hoped to catch him in something he said. But they got for their pains memorable table-talk such as they had never heard before. They were hoping he would say something they could use against him and, instead, the entire world has heard again and again what he said at the Pharisee’s house that day! [Cf. A.B. Bruce, The Training of the Twelve, 87]
v.7 At such banquets the basic item of furniture was a couch large enough for three, what the Romans called a triclinium. Guests reclined on their left elbows with their legs and feet stretched away from the table. A number of these couches were arranged in a U shape around a low table. The place of highest honor was the central position on the couch at the base of the U. The second and third places were the places to the left and right of the man in the middle of that couch. At this particular banquet there was an unseemly rush for the more honored places and Jesus commented on what he observed. [Morris, 249]
v.11 The Lord’s advice here, as you may remember, was not original to him. Well in some ways it is because the entire Bible is his Word! We read much the same thing in Proverbs 25:6-7. The best way to get to the top is to start at the bottom, and in the great matter of salvation the bottom is where we all ought to see ourselves as sinners. The recognition of our creatureliness and unworthiness as sinners is the beginning of all wisdom. The proud must eventually be brought low in God’s world. It’s a fixed law. The guests at this banquet were of the moneyed class, hence the couches around the table. That was not the way peasants ate a meal! Humility was even harder for them than it is for those who are poor and it is hard enough even for the poor! [Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, 88]
v.14 There is no virtue, no generosity in inviting those people who, in one way or another, will return the favor. The only reward you will get is the minor one of receiving an invitation in return. The generosity that God will reward, and his rewards are always far greater than man’s, requires disinterest, the desire genuinely to do a kindness, a favor to someone in need of a favor.
v.15 We’ve all met the person who, when he hears some statement of biblical truth, will utter some pious response, perhaps a rather too loud “Amen.” Well, that was what this man was doing. He was drawing attention to himself, but, inadvertently, he introduced into the conversation the banquet as an image of salvation and heaven, a metaphor familiar to all readers of the Bible. Clearly the man had no doubt whatsoever that he would be found at last in heaven. The parable that follows is a lesson to all such men: it is possible to think you belong when you do not.
v.17 The first invitation and its acceptance were necessary, as RSVPs are required today, to know how much food to prepare. So those who accept are duty bound to attend. The second was necessary because no one had a watch and banquets took time to prepare. The second invitation was the announcement that all was ready. [Bailey, 94-95] The setting, remember, is a village. Everyone is close by.
v.18 The excuse is transparently false. No one would have bought a field without inspecting it first and, if he had bought it, there was no need to inspect it immediately. It would still be there the next day. The man just doesn’t want to come. Such a refusal is bad taste in any culture, but it was and still is an overt insult in the Middle East. [Bailey, 95-96]
v.19 Once again the excuse is paper thin. No one in the Middle East would ever have bought oxen untested. Even if it were true, the man would effectively be saying that his oxen were more important to him than his relationship with the host. [Bailey, 98]
v.20 Once again the same point. He hadn’t got married that very day. No village could have two great celebrations on the same day. He had been married when he accepted the invitation in the first place. The point is that the original hearers of this parable would have been shocked to hear such preposterous excuses offered as reasons not to attend. They would appreciate that great offense had been given and how insulted the host would have a right to feel.
Now, clearly, given the way the Bible uses the banquet as an image of salvation and given the way Jesus does the same elsewhere in the Gospels, there can be no doubt of his meaning here. The banquet of salvation had been spread for the Jews, for Israel, but they were offering one lame excuse after another for not attending. All is ready but only excuses are forthcoming! No wonder the master was angry! The Lord’s point seems clearly to be that the Jews of his day preferred other things to the banquet he was spreading for them and inviting them to enjoy. [Bailey, 99]
v.21 These categories of people obviously represent the people who had been chiefly attracted to the Lord’s ministry and to whom he had brought healing, sight, and good news. But they were also the people the Pharisees looked down on. They were the outcasts, the riff-raff of Israel. They were the people who never bought fields, never tested and bought oxen, and often couldn’t marry. In a dramatic reversal, contrary to all the expectations of the Pharisees, the banquet thus not only goes on without them but the tables are filled with the unworthy who are willing to attend. Once again the scandal the Pharisees found in Jesus’ ministry: “he receives sinners and eats with them.”
v.23 There is a general agreement in the commentaries that this is a reference to the Gentiles who would be invited to the great feast of salvation after Pentecost.
In a Middle Eastern context the term “compel” or “make them” is an acknowledgement that people of a lower station will and must always refuse the invitation of a superior. The polite assumption found still today in Middle Eastern life would be that the host cannot really mean what he says; it is too good to be true that someone like myself should be invited to a banquet like that. Imagine them saying, “No, no, really, I couldn’t.”. It is expected of them to refuse. The host must then wait out their refusal and virtually drag the startled guest into his house. They know themselves unworthy but he apparently really intends for them to join his banquet! [Trench, Parables, 369-370; Bailey, 108] We are back to the humble in vv. 7-11.
It is one of the saddest and most embarrassing facts of Christian history that this was not understood centuries ago. You may be aware that v. 23 was the proof-text, the biblical justification for the inquisition, the tribunal of the medieval church that sought, even by torture, to compel those it judged to be heretics or merely unbelievers to accept the church’s teaching and authority. That was, of course, an absurd interpretation of the Lord’s remark. If that is what the Lord had meant, he would have had the master tell the servant to compel the original group of invitees, not some other group. The servants of the host must compel by repeated invitations and assurances only because those invited can’t believe that the host really means to include them!
v.24 The “you” in “I tell you” is plural. The parable is over and Jesus is directly addressing the company at the table. That makes the “my banquet” at the end explicitly the messianic banquet that Jesus is setting for all who will accept his invitation.
This teaching turns the Pharisees’ worldview upside down and that of vast multitudes of human beings like them. They would be refused entrance to the kingdom of God and the riff-raff of the Jews and the Gentiles would fill the tables instead. Pride has gone before the greatest conceivable fall!
We are in a section of the Gospel of Luke that includes some of the most memorable and beautiful teaching in the Bible, including the Parable of the Prodigal Son in the next chapter. And much of this teaching, as you may know, was designed to demonstrate how profoundly and fundamentally the Jews of Jesus day had come to misunderstand salvation. They thought they could earn it relatively easily; they thought they deserved it; and they assumed they had it. They had lost sight, as generations of so-called Christians after them would, of their helplessness as sinners before a holy God and of salvation as God’s grace reaching down to give help to the helpless. Salvation by grace or as a divine gift to the undeserving is the central theme of the Word of God and it is taught in every conceivable way in both the Old Testament and the New. One of the reasons the Bible is so big a book is that human beings, even those well instructed in the Word of God, have a terrible time understanding this message, have a visceral dislike of it, and are constantly letting it slip from their grasp to be replaced by some theory of tit for tat or, as in our day, a salvation that requires so little of God or man that it is a certainty for virtually everyone. And so the Bible relentlessly repeats its message of human sin and divine grace, of human helplessness and divine love, of divine justice being met by divine sacrifice.
The Bible may be understood as a massive protest against this dismissal of salvation as a gift that was purchased at terrible expense by God himself and this belittling of eternal life as a matter so conventional and predictable that either the smallest effort on man’s part can secure it or it comes to mankind as a matter of course. The source of this preposterous thinking about salvation is, of course, human pride. This pride — this blindness to the human predicament in sin — reveals itself both in the diminishment of salvation as the foremost consideration of human life, as no longer the titanic achievement and the fantastically unlikely accomplishment of a holy God on behalf of sinful, petty, and ungrateful human beings, on the one hand, and, on the other, in every person’s tendency to look down on, to think oneself better, more deserving of others. These two evidences of pride were brought together famously in the Lord’s table-talk that Sabbath day in the house of the ruler of the Pharisees.
We cannot think often enough or carefully enough about this pride, this raging conceit, this self-absorption and self-congratulation, this sense of superiority and entitlement that corrupts the thoughts, words, and deeds of every human being. I was reminded of this, this past week, when Craig DesJardins sent me a news notice about Anders Breivik. Breivik, if you remember, is the Norwegian fellow who murdered eight people with a bomb that exploded near government buildings in Oslo and then shot to death sixty-nine others, mostly teenagers, at a Norwegian youth camp. If you can believe it, for those 77 murders, he received a twenty year sentence, the maximum allowed in Norway, though he could be kept in prison far longer if deemed a danger to society. Ya think? Anyway, it seems he was compelled to use a rubber safety pen with which to write his notes. It is a pen they give to inmates they fear might commit suicide.
"If it wasn’t for the fact that I am an exceptionally patient person, I would most likely have lost my mind in pure frustration," Breivik said in the letter to authorities.
Breivik said the experience of having to use the stab-free pen was "an almost indescribable manifestation of sadism." Breivik had a dismal upbringing — his parents divorced when he was a child — and concerns were raised about his mental health and the impact of his mother’s dysfunction as a parent when Anders was still a child. He doesn’t get it, obviously. He suffers from a total loss of perspective and proportion. He worries about having to use a rubber pen, a pen that writes perfectly well, but not about his having murdered 77 other human beings and having blasted the life of their families. He fails to grasp reality and we judge him mentally deficient as a consequence.
But, then, that failure is common to all of us, to those who have perfectly sound minds so far as men measure such things. We know we are moral failures in many ways. We are aware of our unkind and impure and selfish and petty thoughts, words, and deeds. We know very well that we have in many ways failed to measure up to the standards by which we are so quick to judge others. But it doesn’t make any difference. We quickly and easily forget our own sins even as we remember the sins of others in great detail. We stand ready to condemn others at the drop of a hat but are always graciously forgiving of ourselves. We have a higher view of ourselves than anyone else in the world and we live in virtually total indifference to the judgment of God, a judgment that ought to terrify us. It is genuinely creepy, like Anders Breivik complaining about his pen; we don’t get it, we’ve lost touch, but that is the truth about mankind and about every human being all of the time. The Pharisees were everyman at that house that day!
And then comes Jesus Christ, who knows our sin to the bottom, knows it far more comprehensively than we do, sees it all, sees what we are in ourselves and, still worse, sees what we would be in ourselves if he were to remove the many influences he has placed around us that keep our selfishness, our lust, our dishonesty, and our pride in check. And instead of holding his nose and turning away, as we would do, he sends his servants to invite us to his banquet, he reserves us a seat at that lavish table and promises us exquisite beauty and delicious food and drink and the most delightful company for ever and ever. And what do so many do? They make excuses as to why they can’t come. Excuses that are patently false and paper thin. He offers all that a human being could ever want and multitudes reply that they are really too busy to come at this time. That, brothers and sisters, is the story of this world and that is the meaning of life: your existence is an opportunity to respond to the Lord’s invitation to his wedding banquet. And no matter what else a human life may be, it is always, first and foremost, an RSVP: either acceptance or regrets.
We love, of course, the image of salvation as a banquet. I’ve been to banquets as you have been. The very idea of a banquet is something sumptuous, beautiful, delicious, and entertaining. The term evokes the image of a table beautifully set, loaded with excellent food and drink, the room crowded with people you are honored and happy to be with, and who will make for the liveliest and most stimulating conversation around the table. At a banquet like that you lose track of time. At banquets everything is just so: the table staff is in uniform and performs their functions punctiliously; the host is gracious and makes everyone feel welcome; the atmosphere is both formal and comfortable at the same time. Anyone who has ever been to a real banquet knows what power that image has to attract us: the best setting, the best food and drink, the best company, and the best host. Think of the best Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner or the best wedding feast you’ve ever been to and then multiply that many times.
No wonder the banquet is already in the Old Testament an image of salvation and the consummation of the kingdom of God. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; my cup overflows,” we read in the 23rd Psalm. It is a picture of human life at its best.
People come to Christ; people become Christians for different reasons. Some come to Christ in a paroxysm of guilt, the recognition that they are sinners, that they deserve God’s wrath and only Jesus can take their sins away. We may number among such converts great men as Augustine, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, John Newton, and many others. Some of you came to Christ that way. Under the influence of Paul’s great exposition of salvation in Romans and Galatians, Protestant and Reformed theology in particular has often treated salvation as if everyone became a Christian in this way. Indeed there have been certain schools of Reformed evangelists and preachers who mistrust any profession of faith in Jesus Christ that does not originate in a powerful experience of the conviction of sin and its guilt.
But it is not the case that everyone becomes a Christian under the compulsion to find forgiveness for his or her sins. Most Christians are raised in the faith in Christian homes and, while they may come sooner rather than later to an understanding of their sin and guilt and a deep feeling of their moral unworthiness before God, they were Christians before they fully knew or felt in any great way the conviction of their sin.
Some Reformed evangelicals, people in our circles for example, have been quite critical of C.S. Lewis for not making more of the cross as penal satisfaction, of the cross, that is, as the punishment of our sin borne in our place by Jesus Christ to satisfy divine justice, and for not making more of justification as the declaration of our righteousness in Christ before God our Judge. I seem to remember that the word “justification,” so important to the Apostle Paul in Romans and Galatians, is found but once in the entire corpus of Lewis’ writings. But then Lewis’ experience of salvation was not first and foremost a growing sense of his guilt before God resolved in his recognition that Christ had borne the punishment of his sins on his behalf on the cross. He didn’t deny that Jesus had done that, of course; but it wasn’t that realization that made him a Christian. Indeed, even Paul didn’t always describe salvation as justification. In more of his letters than not the terminology of justification does not appear.
Lewis came to Christ more because the Christian message made sense of the world and because the person of Christ himself became so arresting to him. He became a Christian because he was convinced that the Christian faith was true. The same might be said of Shelden Vanauken, one of Lewis’ disciples, who wrote one of the great conversion narratives of the 20th century in his book A Severe Mercy. Sundar Singh the Christian convert and famous Indian sadhu of the early 20th century became a Christian through a visionary encounter with Christ in which his quest for meaning in life was fulfilled. Like Lewis, his piety was shaped much more by the Gospels than by the letters of the Apostle Paul.
I have known a number of folk converted under the ministry of Francis Schaeffer and a number of them likewise embraced the Christian faith not first to escape the burden of guilt but because they found there the meaning of life or the truth about God and man. Dr. Schaeffer’s evangelism was much more directed to the question of truth than to the guilt of sin. Others have become Christians because of the beauty to which they were drawn in the Bible’s account of divine love, the goodness of creation, Jesus Christ as the perfection of humanity, and so on.
There are many others who have become Christians because they have great burdens in life, great longings, and have come to believe that Jesus can help them bear those burdens and fulfill those longings. I know people who became Christians just watching other Christians live and thinking more and more that they wanted to live that way themselves. And then there are people who become Christians because they want to go to heaven and are beguiled by the Bible’s description of the place. This is, I think, a particularly important motivation for children. They want to go to heaven and are drawn to the Bible’s description of heaven as a safe, a beautiful, and an endlessly happy place.
I remember George Sayer, first the student and later the friend and colleague of C.S. Lewis, recollecting in his fine biography of Lewis, entitled Jack, that after his daughter had read all the Narnia stories, she cried bitterly, saying, “I don’t want to go on living in this world. I want to live in Narnia with Aslan.” “Darling,” Sayer replied, “one day you will.” 
In the Bible it doesn’t seem to matter why a person becomes a Christian, only that he or she does. And in the Gospels, while our sinfulness and need of forgiveness gets repeated and emphatic attention in the Lord’s teaching, it is not the only way he describes salvation nor is it the only reason for which he invites us to believe in him.
Here he describes salvation as a splendid banquet to which everyone is invited but which invitations many refuse. What is revealed in this parable is that the world is divided into two communities: those who are not terribly interested in an invitation to heaven and those who can’t believe that an invitation to participate in such splendor has been extended to them.
Who are the saved in this parable? It is those who frankly can’t imagine their being asked to sit down at the Lord’s banquet table, to be treated as honored guests, to walk among the great. They think that their clothing and their rude manners would cause them to stand out as people who don’t belong in such fine company and in such a fine place. They are sure they will be out of place; they won’t know how to behave. They fear that once they are there, standing in the ballroom, among the glittering lights and the loaded tables and the liveried servants, they will discover that it was all a mistake and that the Master never intended to invite them and they will be asked to leave, humiliated before everyone. That is the person, in the Lord’s parable, who gets it, who understands salvation, and who will find a seat with his name on it in the banquet hall of the kingdom of God.
The Pharisees at the table that day, or most of them, had no such worries. They took their place at the banquet in the heavenly kingdom for granted. They imagined walking right in as if they owned the place. That was their terrible and fatal mistake. They thought little of the Jesus’ invitation because, in their view, he was not offering them anything they didn’t already have.
But the burden of the Lord’s parable is that their excuses were pathetic and insulting. They were the kind of excuses that would offend any host. And such excuses continue to be offered today. Think of what people say in effect to the Lord when he invites them to his banquet.
- Thanks, but I’m a vegetarian. I need to choose the menu myself.
- I couldn’t accept if my friend isn’t coming. If you don’t include him or them it really wouldn’t be right for me to go.
- You know, the folk who are going to be there are not really my kind of people. I wouldn’t have anything to talk about. I would enjoy myself more at the sports bar. And supremely
- There are other things in my life than going to banquets; I’m really just too busy.
The accent, as you see, falls on those who refuse to come because Jesus was speaking to a roomful of people who had refused to come. In the later months of the Lord’s ministry his teaching took on a still more solemn note. The great issue of salvation or damnation more and more occupied his thoughts and so his preaching. This is not what the Jews wished to hear or thought they needed to hear, but it was what Jesus felt constrained to preach and to preach with bluntness and terrible emphasis. He preached, as Richard Baxter would later put it,
“…as never sure to preach again,
And as a dying man to dying men.”
Can you think of words more solemn than these:
“I tell you, none [that’s short for “not one”] of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.”
If you think it a small thing that you have been invited, dwell for a while on those words. “Not one who has been invited shall taste my banquet.” And, then, Respondez si vous plait! R.S.V.P.