Then said he unto him, A certain man made a great supper, and bade many: And sent his servant at supper time to say to them that were bidden, Come; for all things are now ready (St. Luke 14:16-17).
In today’s Gospel, we join our Lord in the midst of a trap masquerading as a dinner party. Jesus has been invited by one of the chief Pharisees in order for the religious leader and his other guests to closely observe and gather evidence against the God for whom their entire way of life is supposed to be honoring. Just as their hospitality is fake and a means to an end, so too is their intense piety proved to be false, or at least tragically incapable of bridging the gap between human sinfulness and divine holiness. These self-righteous monsters actually place a dying man next to Jesus to see if He will ‘break’ the Sabbath to heal him; they scurry around the dining room to get the best seat at the table; they sit in judgment in the presence of God as if He needed to prove anything to them. In short, they act as if they are entitled to the glorious promises of God; sadly, they act not that different from most Americans—a people who increasingly seek out a self-righteousness of their own through the replacement religions our culture constantly offers to the bored and the scared and the comfortable. A recent poll finds that Americans now attend weekly church at the rate of 26% down from 44% in 2000: a fairly grim trend which brings us back to pre-war historical norms. What’s worse is what counts as church within that 26%. How many people think church is going to a movie theater and getting a hug from Mickey Mouse while a tanned, good looking man tortures the Scriptures to try and show how Jesus is just like the hero of the latest comic book movie? And if these are the church goers, what levels of decadence and superstition and fear does the average non-church goer stew in while dutifully paying homage to the dogmas and liturgies of our supposedly secular world? As we peer out into the angry and tribal land we inhabit, we find that the human person is invariable built to be religious, the only variable is whether we worship the self-righteous creeds of our fellow fallen men, or whether we die to ourselves and follow the resurrected One.
Throughout today’s 1st century dinner party, the resurrected One provides us with real and challenging examples of the true, sacrificial piety demanded by His words and deeds among us—demanded by the example of the only man to conquer death. There lies the only test an always dying human should use to determine what religion he serves. For an always dying human, it must be resurrection or nothing. It must be resurrection or greed, resurrection or disordered sexuality, resurrection or blind faith in politics or technology or consumption. It is only as reborn and committed followers of the crucified and resurrected One that we will ever submit to the true religion He outlines today—a religion, a way of life, designed to form our very actions into public proclamations of who God is and what He has done for His creation. We must begin the journey to being a vessel of the truth by purging ourselves of the self-righteous lies offered by our world as comfort. It is this desperate need which drives our loving Creator to command that we do worldly defying acts. Examples include: humbly taking the worst seat at a dinner, inviting the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind to our banquets with the full knowledge that they can never repay us, and embracing humility like our life depends on it. Jesus reveals that the only cure for the evil selfishness which causes us to hurt ourselves and those we love is a radical giving of ourselves as a living witness to our ultimate trust in the promises of God. Jesus reveals that our calling in this world is to be a living reflection of His victory over evil.
It is through this lens that we must understand today’s parable; a story which is about the saving work of Jesus and about how we now live as redeemed beings made everlastingly secure in His victory. In the parable, the master of a great house sends His servant to welcome the invited guests to a great feast; the guests refuse to come. It is helpful to remember that in a world without clocks a first and second invitation to a dinner would have been most necessary, but refusing the second invitation after promising attendance through the first was an incredible insult—an abuse, in fact, which served as a declaration of war amongst the tribes of Arabia. Refusing to come to the feast is not a neutral action; it is to spit in the face of the host and deny his value in the starkest terms. This cultural background helps us see just what our Lord is getting at in the parable. The master of the house is God the Father who sends His servant to make good on the first invitation to the great end of the world feast presented in the Old Testament. As we read in Isaiah, ‘On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken’ (Isaiah 25:6-8). We should be starting to see that this banquet is about so much more than being filled; it is about humanity and the entire creation being made whole; it is about a new world in which scarcity and pain and sadness are no more—a world where death is no more.
To make this new world happen, God the Father sends His Son to reconcile the world to Himself, but if we look at the Greek word which stands behind the innocuous English word ‘servant,’ we find that Jesus is describing Himself as a slave. It is here that the Messiah reveals the radical humility which must flow from following His example. Jesus has made Himself as low as a Roman slave by clothing His divinity in our fallen humanity; He has freely chosen to give all that He has—His very life—for the sake of the poor, crippled, lame, and blind humans dying of hopelessness in the streets of the city of man. In A.D. 33, all of that sacrifice and love was flowing through the veins of the Living God come to save His people. The whole weight of history was on His back, and the God/slave was welcomed with the pathetic excuses and condemnation of the self-righteous. He still is.
The Pharisees who invited their Creator to dinner to try and murder Him, could not have embarked on this insane course unless they were sure they were the most righteous in the land. They tragically believed that their adherence to the law in some areas gave them the right to claim authority over not just the law but the Lawgiver Himself. This same virulent cancer of the soul affects American Christians in countless ways. From the religiously progressive Christian who decides he is specially qualified to tell Jesus and His apostolic witnesses what love really means, to the conservative Christian who thinks as long as he’s not gay or trans he’s sexually pure. From the progressive Christian who thinks the church should look just like every poisoned institution of the 21st century, to the conservative Christian unwilling to purge the false Christianity of the 20th century from God’s church. We (layman, bishop, priest, deacon, or lay deaconess) will never obtain some hypothetical level of righteousness by which we can be the judge of God; in fact, we are called to an embodied trust which manifests itself in everything we do. If the head of our church made Himself a slave to save the world, what does that mean we should do? Every part of us that bristles at the idea of surrendering to the infinite wisdom and providence of God is insane, illogical, and self-righteous. Every part of us that bristles at the idea of surrendering to the grace and justice of God is a part of us that doesn’t think sin is that bad, or at least doesn’t think our sin is that bad.
Which brings us back to the tragedy of men and women absent from church or the tragedy of a church absent from real worship. It is the purpose of the church’s worship to remind us again and again of just how bad sin is, and just what it takes to set the table of the Great Banquet and feed the blind and the lame. In the Old Covenant worship, animals were slaughtered by the thousands, not because God enjoys the death of His creatures, but because human beings are so incredibly stubborn and self-deceiving that there was no other way to constantly teach and reteach the people of God just what was the wages of their sin. But, even this violent liturgy of blood and death was only a shadow of the great slaughter of God the Son for the sins of the world: the death St. Paul tells us we show forth every time we gather for the Lord’s Supper, every time we gather for the Great Banquet to which the God/slave beckons us—to spiritually eat His flesh and to drink his blood, to taste what real world-saving humility can do. It is through this sacramental union with Christ and the new earth His real presence defiantly proclaims that we are increasingly prepared to become free slaves ourselves, to go out into the world and call our fellow men to the marriage feast of the Lamb, to compel them by the power of the Holy Spirit to flee the poverty of self-righteousness and to dwell in and with and through the Savior who defeats death with a cross, feeds us with His own body, and mercifully provides us with the only way to live in the confused chaos of our dying world.
When we taste today’s feast, let us remember who and what it took to fill that table and save our hearts, and let us never turn down His call again. When we hear ‘Come; for all things are now ready,’ let us always say, ‘I am ready too.’