The Lord said this parable: “A man once gave a great banquet, and invited many; and at the time of the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for all is now ready.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I go out and see it; I pray you, have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I must go to examine them; I pray you, have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the servant came and reported this to his master. Then the householder in anger said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and maimed and blind and lame.’ And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and there is still room.’ And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet. For many are called, but few are chosen.'”
ST. PAUL’S SECOND LETTER TO TIMOTHY 1:8-18
TIMOTHY, my son, do not be ashamed then of testifying to our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel in the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not in virtue of our works but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus ages ago, and now has manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. For this gospel I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, and therefore I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me, and among them Phygelos and Hermogenes. May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphoros, for he often refreshed me; he was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me eagerly and found me – may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesos.
Today’s gospel is a parable about the people of Israel at the time of Jesus. Jesus is telling a story of how Israel rejects the Son of God. It is interesting to read this story today, when we are also remembering the Holy Patriarchs of the Old Testament, as well as the prophets; all the righteous of those ages up to the time of Christ. The Synaxarion this morning told us that when Christ came the law of fear was exchanged for the law of love. Jesus called his people to set aside their understanding of who God is: to exchange a view of God as this irrational and irritable tyrant, of God as an abusive and domineering father figure, and instead realize that the enmity between man and God is entirely of man’s own making. God is love. God invites us to a feast. Jesus tells us about the people who reject the law of love. He uses three metaphors in the three excuses offered by the three men who refuse the invitation to the feast.
The first man gives the excuse of having bought land. This is a metaphor for the land of Israel, the nationhood, the tribalism that Jesus observed in his fellow Israelites. It refers to a narrow us-centred religion which also has a very narrow understanding of God. The God they were imagining has a very narrow focus: one small group of people to the exclusion of all the others. These people became irate when Jesus loves outsiders, whether it was foreigners or those who, like Zacchaeus, were considered to be unredeemable. The man whose excuse for not attending the feast is his purchase of land does not understand that the whole earth is God’s.
The second man gave the excuse of having just bought oxen. This is a metaphor for the animals offered in the temple. This represents the liturgical legalism and ritualism of the Jewish cult in Jesus’ day. He criticized his fellow Jews for straining the gnat but swallowing the camel when they multiplied rules only to make it seem lawful to do that which his clearly immoral and unethical. Religious observance was believed to be a means of forcing God to give them back their kingdom. God, in their view, would have no choice but to restore the kingdom because the people had perfected the art of following the letter of the law. This God they are imagining is petty and easily offended for no good reason. He is a touchy tyrant.
These same people were offended with Jesus who suggested that the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. They could not conceive of a God who would do anything for them that they did not earn, and yet they believed they could insult God’s intelligence by creating legal loopholes that flew in the face of the spirit of the law. What kind of God did they actually believe in?
The final excuse that was offered was marriage. A man declines to attend the feast because he has recently married. This is a metaphor for those who have deluded themselves into thinking that they have arrived. It is realized eschatology. It is a belief that all the questions have been answered. God is almost not needed. It is bride who does not need a bridegroom, because she has already married another. Israel did not think it needed Jesus.
In fact, such toxic pride, is actually based on the notion that God cannot be relied upon. If you don’t think God will help you, then it’s up to you, and you better do it yourself. This kind of religion is based on the feelings of insecurity, fear and betrayal. They were incensed when Jesus suggested to them that they had not reached the heights, and the kingdom of God was not even in the direction they were headed. He says, “blessed are the meek,” and, “blessed are the poor.” What he was asking of them was to honestly face the fact that they did not feel that God cared for them.
We all give the same excuse for not following Christ. Our first excuse is similar to the one in the gospel story. We also have a narrow view of God, not believing that he can forgive us. Even if we hope he can forgive us, we certainly do not easily believe he can heal and change us. We fear that God cannot give us what we need when we take on the daunting task of facing our own faults and shortcomings. God says, “be Holy as I am holy,” but we do not believe it is possible. We lie to ourselves and pretend not to have any sin. We convince ourselves that there will always be a later time, before the end of our lives, when we can repent. Because of our fear and distrust towards God, we neglect the calling we have to serve others. By failing to equip ourselves for service through the process of cleansing our minds, we are not equipped and ready to serve others. When our mind is full of self-deceit and fear, we cannot respond to the needs of others with courageous prayer, compassion, with forgiveness. Fundamentally, this is a failure on our own part to understand that God has bigger plans, and a bigger agenda than simply either condemning or forgiving my individual rule-breaking. We focus on the relationship of the God of the universe to one individual person, and pretend that the problem that needs to be solved is God’s petty anger and wrath towards me alone. Our focus is microscopic. We are afraid of being caught.
God is concerned with the salvation of the world. He shows us, through today’s gospel, that the problem that salvation solves is not God’s petty wrath, but man’s petty excuse-making. God does not need to be placated. Man needs to come to the feast.
By confessing my sins and accepting the forgiveness and deliverance God offers, even when it requires me to humble myself, I allow my focus to widen my focus from the narrow and scope of me-and-God exclusively, to the much wider scope of us-and-God.
The second temptation was to rely on the efficacy of rituals and rules. We fear that God will only ever love and protect us if we perform all his rituals correctly, and we delude ourselves into thinking we are capable of accomplishing this. We begin to nit-pick on others in the church. You have not bowed correctly. You have not crossed yourself at the appointed time, in the appointed place. We resent the innocence of the children, because they are not bound with the same irrational fear of God that binds us adults. They spill the prosphora on the floor. They are not quiet. We develop irrational soul-crushing expectations of children, of those who are weaker or more vulnerable, though we have every reason to know these expectations are unreasonable. We also put certain people in the church up on a pedestal, creating an image of the perfection that we have deluded ourselves into believing is possible. We begin to make our music a performance instead of a prayer. It must be just-so. Worship become production and experience, not sacrifice. Whereas the joy that trusting God brings can cause us to observe the good-order of the church services with love and care for others, in this mindset of fear and anger, all our attention is taken up with resenting others’ failure to adhere to a myriad of rules (most of which, by the way, are small-t traditions that have no basis in canon law or scripture). Having deprived ourselves of joy by our lack of faith, we set out to destroy as much of others’ joy as we can.
The final temptation we face is that which Jesus indicated through the man who sent the excuse that he had just gotten married. How many of us become married to Orthodoxy, but not at all in the sense that God intended? In the current-day Orthodox culture the temptation is, especially, to sit behind our computer screen and discuss the correct Orthodox position on all kinds of controversies ranging from church politics to actual politics. We hoard answers, believing that if I know all the right answers then the world will be put back into balance. If I (little and insignificant as I am) can win all the arguments, then the world will be saved. I am married to a false bridegroom, and he is me. This is a vision of realizable eschatology, if it is not a vision of realized eschatology.
We become irate when our assumptions are challenged. We become indignant at any teacher or priest who would simply ask us to consider for a moment why we assume what we do. We resent those whose interpretation is too lax or too liberal. Some of us resent the stricter interpretations more. These are two sides of the same coin. When we ask ourselves, “how can they do/say that?” we do not really want to know the answer. We are closed off to empathy. We fear that if we begin to understand and empathize with those who are other, God will abandon us and allow us to become as deluded as they are. We do not trust God to do that which we pray for at nearly every service! We pray things like “establish us in the way of thy commandments” or “enlighten our minds through the light of thy gospel teachings,” but we do not believe that He who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it. Therefore, we isolate from all whose opinion is different. We build a controversy-free cocoon around ourselves and perhaps around our families in which we do not need to trust God.
But let us remember what we read in the epistle today. “For this gospel I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, and therefore I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.”
Read carefully. Who guards the teachings of the gospel, according to St. Paul? Is it St. Paul himself? No. It is Christ who guards. “he is able to guard … what has been intrusted to me.” The survival of the Church is guaranteed by the Christ, not by us. We struggle to cleanse ourselves of sin, so that we can better cooperate with the work of Christ, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which keeps the Church on the true path.
What if we stop giving our excuses and actually agree to attend the feast that is offered by God? In the other version of this parable (Matthew 22), it is more explicit that the feast is a wedding feast. Currently, we have a false bridegroom, but when we come to our senses, we come to celebrate the marriage of the true bridegroom.
If we take the story seriously, we see that the wedding feast is celebrated by a company of blind and lame guests. How can we join their number? By accepting the truth of our own blindness and lameness. Any sin that I am hiding, that I am too afraid to deal with, that is something which also prevents me from loving others and having compassion on their weakness. That is my first priority. The Paschal canon says, “Let us purify our senses and we shall behold Christ, radiant with the unapproachable light of the Resurrection, and shall hear Him saying clearly, “Rejoice!” As we sing the triumphant hymns!”
Do you want to see Christ the bridegroom? Purify your senses through the confession of your sins, by following Christ to the cross. The cross is the lifestyle of humility and admission of failure. It is the lifestyle of forgiving those who do not deserve forgiveness. When we follow Jesus to the cross, the only handwriting is the accusation nailed to the cross above our heads, not the accusations that we would like to write down against others. When we allow only accusations against ourselves to be heard, the writing above us on the top of our crosses is truth, but in a way that no one expected. The truth of the accusation is also a confession of the truth of God’s promise. We will join Jesus in His royal priesthood; Jesus, above whose head was hung a sign reading, “king of the Jews.”
We say to ourselves, therefore, “I am blind and I do not have all the answers. Therefore, I will repent of my own sins. I am surrounded by wounded and suffering people, therefore our shared pain and suffering is the grounds for our companionship, comradery, our communion.” God wants hurt people to be present at his wedding feast. He invites us to be present to the pain of others by revealing to us our own pain.
In order to realize the hope of this message, find someone at coffee hour after church, and listen to their story. Truly hear where they are. Do not fix. Do not teach. Do not judge. Just listen. Maybe you will find answers for all the times when you wondered, “how could someone think that way.” Be a fellow blind man. I don’t have the answers. Jesus has the answers.
Give thanks to God for the work he is doing in the people whose journey is different to your own. Even though their perspective is different, pray, “Jesus, thank you for the love and compassion you have for that person. Help me to use your traditions, your statutes, to develop more love and compassion.”
Repentance is the way to discover a loving God who is not petty or narrow. We find the freedom to have real genuine communion with all the other blind and lame beggars at the wedding feast.