One of the challenging moments in planning a party is creating the guest list. I’ve worked on guest lists with church groups, family parties and other gatherings, and it’s always tricky to know where to draw the lines—who to include and who to leave off. Anyone here who can remember planning their wedding knows exactly what I’m talking about.
Our text this morning has a party, a great banquet, it’s called, and the reaction of a host who just wants as many people as possible to enjoy his food and drink. It’s a parable that Jesus told as an allegory, or a story where the characters represent something bigger and broader than just the people involved. The guest list is the issue here—let’s read the story.
A wealthy man is throwing a party, and he invites the sort of people you might expect him to invite—people he knows, who are in his circle of friends. They make excuses, and so he fills his party with anyone he can find.
Now we should say here that none of these are bad excuses. These people were busy—they had properties to manage, businesses to run, they had relationships that needed care. In this cultural setting marriages were considered so important that men were exempted from military service and even work during the first year after the wedding. These aren’t ‘the dog ate my homework’ kinds of excuses. In today’s language, they were about investments, business trips, important jobs and family vacations.
The problem wasn’t that they were bad excuses. The problem was that when the master calls us, nothing else should get in the way.
The host responded with a radical idea. It may have been normal to fill the seats of no-shows with people of the same social standing, but this host reaches out to people who would have been excluded from the first list: the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. These were people who couldn’t escape their need for help—they never had any illusions about being self-sufficient; self-satisfied; independent. These people knew that they needed help from outside themselves
‘And still there is room.’ That’s the key to this passage. Notice where it comes in the story: The original guests have said no, and the banquet has been filled with the outcasts and the poor and the broken people of the community. That’s when the servant tells his master: ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room’.
The master’s response is to send the servant even farther in the search for guests—to the countryside and alleys. He wants his house to be full.
Most of the time we think that this parable is teaching us to be inclusive, to reach out to the unfortunate, to care about the blind and the poor and the crippled and the lame. Those are all important things, and they appear very clearly in other texts, but they’re not what this parable is about.
The parable of the Great Banquet is about setting priorities. It’s about recognizing that our relationship with God comes first—not after we’ve done everything else on our list. He gets our first attention, our first effort, our first money. It wasn’t that the field or the oxen or the marriage weren’t important—they weren’t lame excuses. It was that they represented priorities that were upside down and sideways.
God made room for us, but we have other things to do. But that place is still there—still there is room, the parable teaches.
What does this mean for us in the church?
First, the call from God is to be with him—to commune with him. This story—and all of Scripture—shows a God who is determined to have fellowship with all of his people. Notice just how much the host wants people at his dinner party. Whatever else we this place is—source of fellowship, a great place to sing, an American club...whatever else we call this place, we shouldn’t forget that it is the church of Jesus Christ, a place where we come to meet the living God in a real and powerful way. A place where we join together as people on the journey of faith to learn how to love better, worship better, serve better.
Second, we make all kinds of excuses, and leave others take our place in the call of service. This is a challenge to those in the church who hear the invitation and politely refuse it. It’s a challenge to those of us who have forgotten that we need God, that we need a savior. Maybe it’s a challenge to listeners who still won’t acknowledge that need—the self-sufficient, the self-satisfied, those who would never admit that they could be dependent on God. The point of this parable isn’t the detail of any excuse, it’s the danger of using those excuses in the first place—the danger of excusing ourselves from the Lord’s Table, and all that that means, because we have better things—more important things—to do. What could be more important than living as a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ?
Finally, ‘and still there is room.’ There is no limit to the grace extended by God to the world—he wants everyone there. This is such an important part of the story. Even though the last part of the text talks about the original guests not enjoying the banquet, that’s because it’s their choice—not because the table was full.
The point of this story is that God’s mission to his creation is never finished. As one writer put it, God is determined to have fellowship with his children, even if they turn him down at first.
That leaves us with a couple of very important questions:
Will we make excuses that prevent us from hearing God’s call?
Will we make still more excuses that keep us from sharing what we hear?