Maybe some of us can sympathize with the excuse makers in the parable of the great banquet – perhaps especially in this season of office parties to which we may not always want to go (Luke 14:16-24). Though most of us can't believably say to our boss, "I just bought five yoke of oxen and I have to go examine them. Please excuse me," but we might come up with other excuses (Luke 14:19). The classic is to feign illness. Or, you can tell one group that you already made plans with another group and then tell that group that you can’t make it because you’ve got plans with the first group. This is called lying your way out of it. But Paul tells us to stop lying to each other (Col 3:9). It can be a relief to get out of social obligations. The comedian John Mulaney says, "It is so much easier not to do things than to do them, that you would do anything is totally remarkable. Percentage wise, it is 100% easier not to do things than to do them – and so much fun not to do them, especially when you were supposed to do them.”
At one time or another, we’ve probably all experienced the relief of getting out of some odious social obligation, so we all tend to be rather sympathetic toward those excuses for not coming.
Even Scripture – the Old Testament, that is – appears to have some sympathy for these excuses. Deuteronomy lists three acceptable excuses: having built a house but not yet dedicated it (20:5); having planted a vineyard but not yet enjoyed its fruit (20:6); and having betrothed a wife but not yet married her (20:7). Now, interestingly, these are considered good excuses for not going into battle against the enemies of Israel, but they parallel surprisingly well with those excuses offered in today’s parable by the invited guests who do not want to come to the great banquet.
One has bought a field but not yet seen it; another has bought oxen but not yet examined them; and a third is newly married and so cannot come (Luke 14:18-20). Moses would have accepted these as excuses for not going into battle, let alone the simple matter of not going to a banquet.
But the man in the parable, who represents our Lord, was angry. He does not accept their excuses.
This is not the only time that Jesus takes a harder line than Moses. He came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill the law (Matt 5:17). I'm reminded of what Jesus said when asked about divorce. "For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so" (Matt 19:8). Moses introduces a leniency toward human weaknesses the Jesus does not seem interested in preserving. Rather, he goes to the root – to how it was in the beginning. He is radical. He would not have us too comfortable or self-assured of our place at his table.
The guests invited to the great banquet took too lightly their host's invitation. They were too comfortable. They thought it too small a thing. They failed to appreciate to what a great extent their host was going to please them out of love for them. They failed to notice that this was no ordinary dinner, but communion with their Lord. Their ingratitude barred them from giving proper thanks, that is, from Eucharist.
Their ingratitude is clear because it was at the second invitation that they refused to come. The engagement did not catch them unawares. If they were not going to come because of importuning circumstances, they really ought to have made that known when they were first invited. It’s as if they RSVP’d that they’d be coming, but then all changed their minds at the last minute after everything was prepared. They were too casual with their host’s hospitality. They were complacent and self-assured. They were ungrateful.
We may be like these invited guests.
In one sense, of course, those Jews who rejected the gospel of Jesus Christ are like the invited guests. They had been invited as God’s chosen people, but rejected Jesus when the Father sent him to them. And the Gentiles who accepted the gospel are like the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind from the streets and the lanes of the city and the people from the highways and the hedges brought in to fill the house with guests.
But in another sense – more applicable to us personally – we are the invited guests. We are invited to the great banquet by this gospel we have heard and accepted. We received and accepted this first invitation in our baptism. The banquet, of course, is our salvation in Christ, the kingdom of heaven, the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharist.
We have received our first invitation and we're waiting for everything to be made ready for us to go into the great banquet. We have been baptized into Christ and we await his second coming. By our baptism and our faith, we have accepted the Lord's first invitation.
When he comes for us again to make us come into the feast, let us not refuse him. He doesn't want to hear our excuses. We are to be ready at a moment's notice for the announcement that all is ready and for the invitation to come into the feast. We are to receive this good news with joy, not excuses.
Who among us is always ready to meet the Lord?
It is meaningful that the invited guests are replaced by the poor. This tells us, I think, something about the kind of person able to be ready at a moment's notice to enter into the great banquet. Such a person is poor. The poor do not have land or oxen or vineyards or houses. They also have no excuses. They are free of these distractions. They know it would be good to go into the banquet and eat and they have no reason not to. “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6:20). Really none of us have any reason not to. Some of us just think we do. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt 5:3).
What reasons do we have to resist the call of the Lord? What excuses do we make for avoiding the Divine Liturgy, which really is the great and heavenly banquet to which we are invited? Even if we have land and houses to attend to, we have no excuse. And if indeed maintaining our material properties keeps us from communion with the Lord, we should shed them. Or if anything keeps us from the Lord, we should cut it off. “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” (Matt 5:30).
Let us all examine our lives for whatever distractions exist between us and God and let us seek to remove these distractions. This time of fasting in preparation for the coming of the Lord at his holy nativity is a time of reducing these unnecessary distractions that cloud and distort our vision of God. “When the Lord comes, let me see him clear.” God isn’t some odious boss that we should want to avoid. He’s our loving father calling us to a great feast and to communion with himself. Let us stop making excuses. Let us answer his invitation with joy and go into the feast.