It was the Sabbath, and Jesus was at one of the most awkward dinner parties the world has ever seen. The Pharisees and other important people were watching Jesus carefully, and for no good purpose. Jesus, for his part, healed a man with dropsy, which was a scandal to those who thought it was unlawful to expend such energy on the Sabbath. Jesus then rebuked the puffed up guests who sought the places of honor, putting them to open shame. Next, Jesus turned his attention to the host, telling him not to invite his friends or relatives or the rich, lest they repay him, but to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. To sum it up, the guests were trying to find fault with Jesus, and Jesus was finding actual fault with them and their false righteousness.
Then we get to today’s reading. One of the guests, apparently in an attempt to put himself forward as holy and pious, declares, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” He’s not wrong. The feast in the kingdom of God is like the feast Jesus shows at that dinner party. The guests will be healed of all ills. Lowly sinners who know they’re sinners and who sit in the lowest seats Jesus exalts, saying, “Friend, move up higher!” The host overlooks earthly riches and relations and he invites the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind―those who have nothing to offer yet become wealthier than kings, those who cannot move or see yet go forth leaping like calves from the stall and gain insight into all things. This is a feast that has nothing to do with what the guests have earned or deserved and everything to do with the gracious host, who desires to have mercy. This feast is the Gospel, the church, the holy Supper of Christ’s body and blood, and our Lord is the host. Blessed indeed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!
“Then why do you refuse my supper and reject me?” While the question isn’t stated in the reading, this is the question that Jesus addresses in the parable that follows. Jesus knows that, while the man’s sentiment isn’t wrong, the man doesn’t mean it. Jesus sits there surrounded by hypocrites who can sound pious when they want to, but who refuse the call of the Gospel and refuse to come to the banquet of Jesus’ grace. Why? Why do they absent themselves from the forgiveness of sins and eternal life?
Jesus tells a parable about the feast that he has been preparing. He had given many promises to the people of Israel, which were the invitation to his great feast. Now Jesus has come, in fulfillment of his promises, and the feast stands ready. Jesus and his apostles have been preaching to the Jews, calling them to come to the feast, to see their Messiah, to receive the bread of life from him. Some have heeded the call, but of those sitting around him at that dinner party Jesus says, “they all alike began to make excuses.”
And then Jesus explains what their excuses are and why they make them. “The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’” This man has made a recent purchase. He spent money on something, and now he must go out and see it, emphasis on must. More literally he says, “I have a compulsion to go out and see it.” Something is pushing him, driving him away from the feast.
We must understand that this world is full of things that would compel us away from Jesus. We call them “inanimate objects,” and are then oblivious to the draw and pull that they exercise on us. Who hasn’t been drawn in to stare at a screen? Every homeowner has had to say at some point, “I can’t do that today because I have to do this for the house.” You have bought something at some point that has required your attention and compelled you to do something with it, whether it be enjoy the thing or maintain it or repair it. “No servant can serve two masters,” Jesus says. “You cannot serve God and mammon.” Jesus refers to mammon―money and stuff―as a potential master, as a thing with a will of its own that attempts to exercise authority over you. The first man has bought a field and he has a compulsion to go out and see it. The field is summoning him, saying, “I’m more important than Jesus’ banquet. I’m more important than the Gospel. Come to me, and forsake the feast.” And the man listens.
It’s notable that the second man likewise has just purchased something. “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.” He doesn’t even say that he feels a compulsion. He simply asserts that he’s going to go to his oxen and not to the feast. He probably has even fooled himself into thinking that he’s making the decision himself and that nothing is compelling him one way or the other. It’s easy to control a slave who obeys his master’s compulsions while thinking he’s acting freely. Beware of the money and possessions that you acquire, lest they acquire you instead.
And then there’s the third man. He has not just bought something. He has just married someone: “I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.” Marriage is a tie that supersedes all other earthly relations. And we’re familiar with both the literal and figurative senses of the word. A husband is married to a wife in the literal sense. But figuratively, people can be married to all sorts of things: convictions or work or fishing or pets or possessions. Marriage requires the highest devotion. It requires a wholehearted commitment and shapes the entirety of life. This third man shows the result of being married to the wrong thing. He says, “I cannot come.” I am not able to come. The ties of his marriage forbid him from coming. To come to the feast would be to cheat on his bride. He would be stepping out on the world and committing adultery with heaven. And he cannot do it. He belongs to the world.
So Jesus has prepared the feast of salvation. The Jews had the Old Testament. They had seen this coming. And yet when supper was served they would not come. Jesus became angry with them and sent his servants, the apostles, to call the Gentiles to the feast. The Gospel went out to the nations. Yet the warning from the first part of the parable stands. It’s not just a history of what happened with the Jews. It’s what we see wherever the Gospel spreads. Many people hear the Gospel and say, “Eh, I’ve got better things to do. I have my possessions, and my heart belongs to another.” God forbid that we should ever rate the things of this fallen world above the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
Yet we are surrounded by things that would compel us and possess us. The devil and the world strive night and day to stir up desires in our hearts for earthly things. And our own flesh is against us! It is prone to all manner of covetousness, looking at the things of this world and longing for them, acquiring them and then feeling their appeal even more strongly. If this is the state of things, who can be saved?
Note what happens next in the parable. The master of the house brings in the poor and crippled and blind and lame, and there’s still room. So he tells his servant, “Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.” As the world seeks to compel people away from Jesus, Jesus does not stand idle, but he exercises compulsion of his own, and his compulsion is our hope and salvation.
First the Lord compels us by giving us knowledge of our sins and of the wrath of God. He terrifies us with the fire of hell and lets our conscience feel his heat. This alarm of the conscience is not something that we can manufacture in ourselves. We cannot work up sorrow over our sins. But our Lord compels us to it. He drives us with his commandments to recognize and lament our sins. Fields and oxen and everything in this world suddenly cease to matter as we must square with the righteous anger of God.
But our Lord does not leave us in despair. After he makes us see our real need, he then meets it. He sends forth the word of invitation to the feast and preaches to us, “Fields and oxen cannot turn away the wrath of God, but I have shed my blood for you and prepared a banquet. ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed’ (Prov. 9:5). There is still room. ‘Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live’ (Is. 55:2-3). Eat and be satisfied.”
How gracious is the Lord’s compulsion! We would forever care about the wrong things and devote ourselves to the fleeting stuff of this world, except that Jesus compels us to see our true need and to desire that which is good. We would forever doubt that our sins could be forgiven, except that Jesus compels us to confidence in his mercy. Because of the Lord’s compulsion we sing―not because we’re forced to do something we don’t want to do, but because we’ve been made to see the truth―and we sing, “What is the world to me / With all its vaunted pleasure / When Thou, and Thou alone, / Lord Jesus, art my Treasure! / Thou only, dearest Lord, / My soul’s Delight shalt be; / Thou art my Peace, Rest,― / What is the world to me!”
And this gives us a completely different view of the things of this world. Our flesh is filled with grief when our mammon fails us or when we aren’t able to acquire what we want. But the men in the parable acquired what they wanted, and it drove them away from the Lord’s feast. Getting and retaining things can prove harmful, and many men have rejected the Lord because of what they amassed and possessed on earth. Now if the acquisition of stuff can be detrimental to salvation, then we must learn to think of the loss of stuff as helpful to us and a particular favor from the Lord. We welcome with open arms everything that the Lord does to remind us that this world is fleeting and failing, even when that means losing things. The sinful flesh will still take it hard when we suffer the loss of our earthly possessions. But the new creation in Christ rejoices. He has one less thing tying him to this world and one more reason to set his mind on the things that are above, where Christ is and where nothing fails. With every fresh earthly loss, the new man hastens with fresh eagerness to church. And we look forward to that day, whether our last day or the Last Day, when we shall hear our Lord call, “Come, for everything is now ready!” And we shall be with Jesus forever. Amen.