Sermons That Work

An Invitation to Joy, Proper 23 (A) – 1999

October 10, 1999

This parable, found also in Luke, is embellished by the writer of Matthew’s Gospel and contains some points that may be difficult to understand. But the heart and meaning of it come through clearly. The story is definitely an allegory. That means that the king in the story stands for God. The people found in the highways and byways are probably the Gentiles, the invited guests are the children of Israel, and “the king’s troops” is probably a reference to the Romans who burned Jerusalem in AD 70 (a rather strange designation for the Romans).

But what matters is that the king gave a banquet and the invitations to the chosen guests were rejected. The words used by the writer are more troubling than outright rejection. “But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business…” This was troubling then, 20 centuries ago, when Jesus told a parable about an invitation to a joyous occasion that is rejected by the honored guests and offered to those who are on the margins of society. It is true today.

Our world still makes light of the Good News of God. You can look anywhere and realize it. It is not just that the Gospel is ignored; it is ridiculed. The word “God” is used in the most casual and disrespectful manner imaginable. And the name of Jesus has become an oath. Instead of approaching the Creator in awe, we encounter apathy and blasphemy. People are frightened of religious expressions of faith and in their fear they use ridicule. “They make light of it.” The most weighty subject on earth, the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, is a matter of indifference, of disbelief, of ridicule. And those who do believe become so defensive in reaction to this indifference that they create their own idols in thinking that God in Christ needs their protection in order to survive. We hear preposterous phrases in the media: “We have thrown God out of the classroom; we have pushed God out of the children’s lives by not having school prayer” and on and on. As though we little human beings can ever push God out of our lives.

Notice that the passage doesn’t say that because the invited guests did not come to the banquet, the wedding was canceled. No. The wedding and the feast were to go on as scheduled. Only the guest list was changed.

God does not alter God’s plans because of the indifference of human beings. God does not withdraw the feast. The choice is up to us. It is we who accept or reject the invitation to joy. The feast is still there for those who would come to the banquet, who would honor the invitation. But most of us have other things to think about. We have work to do. We have our jobs. We don’t have time to read about the faith, to worship with others, to serve others; we have work to do. In the gospel of Luke, who also tells this parable, the excuses are more specific: the purchase of land, the purchase of animals, and a marriage. The first two made sense in an agricultural society, of course. They dealt with work, with physical survival. Land had to be tilled, oxen had to be fed. The example of marriage gets even closer to where we live. We cannot even use our families, our dearest and nearest, as an excuse for staying away from the Kingdom, the parable tells us. No excuse is acceptable when the offering is a matter of life and death. Our spiritual survival is at stake. Yet, we find excuses and are attracted by the affairs of the world more than by the needs of the spirit.

“The world is too much with us,” the poet said. We are consumed by commerce; our lives are too busy and cluttered; too noisy to hear the invitation to a banquet of joy. And when we are reminded of it, we are embarrassed. We have found other things to occupy our time and consume our energy. When we are asked to take time to pray, to think, to learn God’s truth, to share it with others, to focus on what is of eternal importance instead of on temporary needs, we make light of it. The cares of this world loom much greater than the cares of the Kingdom.

But listen to what St. Paul says to the Philippians about this banquet of joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4-14). And how does this joy manifest itself? In gentleness, in awareness of the nearness of Christ, in lack of worry, and in peace. All this is achieved through prayer as we bring our upplications before God with thanksgiving, he tells us. St. Paul urges those who have accepted God’s invitation to the banquet to remain there by thinking of whatever is honorable, true, pure, pleasing, commendable, of things that are excellent and worthy of praise. In hunger or in plenty, he tells the Philippians, he has learned to be content, because he can do all things through him who strengthens him, through Christ who was his life.

And that brings us to the paradox of this invitation to a banquet of joy. Turning our back to the cares of the world in order to go to the banquet, in order to focus our minds on God, is not achieved because we are already good and holy. The Matthew passage tells us that the servants invited both those who were good and those who were bad. They were invited because of the generosity of the king, not because they had done something to deserve the invitation. Isn’t that a comforting thought?

How many of us are hesitating still because of fear that attending the feast will make too many demands upon our time, will limit our worldly pleasures, will dilute our ambitions? There is no question that the one who makes the offer will not accept second place in our affection. It is true that accepting the invitation to God’s banquet of joy changes our sense of what is important and of value.

But how barren the heart feels outside this banquet hall. How much we would miss of companionship and of the peace that passes understanding!

Why should we reject such an invitation? Let us hurry to the banquet. Let us sing with Isaiah,

It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have
waited for him, so that he
might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we
have waited;
Let us be glad and rejoice in his
salvation. (Isaiah 25:9)

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Christopher Sikkema


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