To understand the story about the wedding banquet and certain guests, we have to review some facts of the time when Jesus lived. That is, a sundial was the accepted form of telling the time of day but there was no monthly calendar in every home. The priests and rabbis were in charge of observing Sabbath every seven days.
Jesus was in Jerusalem on their turf. That’s when he told the story of a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. Jesus always told his parables not only to make a point, but also to make the point in such a way that his listeners had to draw their own conclusions. Can we ask whether the same conclusion may be valid for us? Just like nowadays, a wedding then was no small undertaking. Since calendars and clocks were unknown, two invitations were issued to each guest.
The first invitation gave advance notice that you would be invited in the very near future but the date was not specific, and the second was carried by a slave to say, “Now is the time to come.” A festival dinner in the mid-East two thousand years ago was commonly built around a fattened animal, roasted whole. The time was only approximate, with the beginning set more by the cook than by the host.
In the parable, everything was ready, but the guests who had received the first notice would not come . The excuses were familiar but not very original. My first pastoral service was in a rural setting. When I was teaching young teenagers for confirmation, I expected 100% attendance. Larry missed an after-school session.
The next Sunday, he told me he’d fallen off the school bus and needed a doctor to bandage his leg immediately. I already knew the hunting season opened the previous week, and in spite of needing serious medical attention, Larry was seen walking through a field with his shotgun while my class was in session.
I learned early on to avoid confrontations because I am not good at replying to excuses. So let’s see if we can find something useful in the story. Jesus says the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet. As in nearly all of tbe stories and parables that Jesus told, we are in this story. We are dealing with God who invites us into his kingdom.
But what did the people in the parable have for excuses? Ordinary things like a farm and a business. In another version, those invited pleaded they could not come because they had bought a field and had to go look at it.Another had purchased a pair of oxen that the new owner wanted to inspect. Another had just married, and it was not suitable to be away from his wife.
Someone has observed that whenever we need an excuse to get out of something, then the devil can give the dullest one of us a powerful imagination. Larry’s excuse of falling off the school bus was far more imaginative than I thought him capable of.
How many opportunities arise in the course of a day to refer to the kingdom of heaven as our guide, as our standard of excellence, as our direction for thinking and acting, as the reference point against which to measure ourselves?
We all find ways to ignore God. When we read a story of Jesus that resonates with the reality of our own experience of making excuses to God, then we take refuge in mass-think by saying, “But people have been this way for thousands of years.”
Each of us can counter God’s expectation of us with a good and truthful excuse. Is there anyone who has not had a good excuse to avoid something, or somebody, or some responsibility? We could take the commandments in the Old Testament or the expectations of Jesus in the New, and explain to God why we just could not do what was expected of us in each case. And having rehearsed all those tired old ways of avoiding our on-going conscious participation in the kingdom of God, we could take a kind of perverted refuge in knowing that we are not alone.
We can chastise ourselves for being less than we ought to be, and having made our confession of the obvious, we can go on our way agreeing that once again we have been only human. Poor old God, sitting there at his great table, stuck with all that burned roast and nobody coming for a party. But that sad picture, along with a sketch of our excuses and God’s unaccepted hospitality, is not the point of the parable.
Our ingratitude, our reluctance to accept God’s invitation, and our despicable unwillingness to respond as we ought – all that puts the point at the wrong place. Jesus isn’t finished telling his story. When the king heard of those first invited who refused to come, and even killed his messengers, he was enraged. He called out troops, destroyed the murderers and burned their city. This is illustrative material in Jesus’ story, not a prediction of the future. God ordered his slaves to round up everyone they could find on such short notice, whether they were good or bad, so that his wedding hall was filled with guests.
Suddenly everything changes. Everything shifts. The story is not about those chronic excuse-makers then and now who sadly may never make a reasonable response to God. The center of the story is pulled away from those so preoccupied with themselves they have no time for God.
The story may not be about their refusal, as though God’s story stops when we get tired of making excuses about why we are not behaving as we should. God remains the master of the banquet, the lord of all heavenly hospitality, and the king of all that is good and valuable and holy in this sin-burdened world. God’s purpose still holds.
That purpose is that humankind shall know the joy and fellowship of our Lord, and there will be a banquet of joy and fellowship in honor of the son, and for whose pleasure the great banquet hall will be filled. Our refusals, our petty excuses, must be put into the perspective that God may be angered but he will not be stopped. We may disappoint him, but he cannot be diverted from his purpose. What he intends, he will accomplish. As he inspired Isaiah to say, “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth.
“It shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Thinking of God in that way is not fashionable. Our reflections on God are mostly centered on our wishes, our hopes, our needs, even.
God is considered in terms of our upsets in life, our failures, even our regrets. But then the parable has an utterly different twist.
For while we keep accepting invitations from lesser idols of our own making, God wants to us know the joy and fullness of life in him. He even furnishes proper attire for his guests. But one refuses to accept a festive gown. When will we return to the ancient wisdom, the magnificence of a merciful God who says, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.”
Obedience to that expectation would bring forth a great and glorious day in human relations, local and national politics, and in the attention we give to those who are disenfranchised. It is a sobering thought for our age that we are the generation when old familiar powers fade and new and unfamiliar powers rise. While the stock market reaches unprecedented figures, the terrible things political office holders say about each other should give us pause.
It is said that our nation cannot avoid its position of world leadership, but the theology of history suggests that we can occupy center stage only momentarily. We might have thought once that God’s purposes involve world leadership for our nation. But are we indispensable to God? Whether as a nation or individuals, or as Lutherans or middle-class or moderately prosperous, or as good leaders and pliant followers – there is not a single classification that sets us apart as being essential to God’s purposes.
Now our excuse making can be put in proper perspective. We can protest we have good reasons for not coming to the banquet (excuses, really) but God’s banquet hall will be filled. By the love of God and because of his awesome carelessness about whom he loves, he will have the final word on the guest list for the banquet.
The difference now is that we are no longer at the center of the story nor are we the center of the universe. Only by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected and not because of anything in us, such as our positions, our wealth, our labors, our marvels of achievements , nor the works of our hands or minds but only by God’s grace will his wedding hall be filled.
Now we stand as beggars with the entire world in those streets where we may be found by God’s grace. It is only by God’s relentless love and overpowering grace, that even people such as us, will be his guests in eternity.
With an on-going struggle, we can be the family, the people of God.
As grateful recipients of our transformation by the presence of Jesus Christ, are we becoming. more perfectly what God has in mind for us? Are we finding ways to say “Thank you?” for the love of God?