It was the Sabbath, and Jesus was dining at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees. Jesus had just spoken of eternal life and the resurrection, and one of the dinner guests exclaimed, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Blessed indeed! At his banquet the Lord says to humble sinners who sit in the lowest place, “Friend, move up higher!” and exalts them in his presence with his righteousness and eternal life. To his banquet the Lord invites those who cannot repay him – the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind – for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. At this banquet the guests feast on the Lamb who was slain, and their sins are forgiven and joy fills their hearts. Truly, blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!
Yet mankind generally doesn’t think of God’s banquet in that way. Jesus tells a parable, which, historically speaking, was happening at that very moment. The Holy Trinity had planned a great feast of salvation from of old, and it was now reaching its final preparation in the Gospel of Christ. The invitation to the feast had long been going out to the people of Israel. They heard the voice of this invitation in the Scriptures that God had given them through the mouths of his servants, the prophets. And yet at the time of Christ, the invited guests, the Jews, were preoccupied with other things, and few had any desire to come to the feast of the Gospel. God became angry and once again sent his servant, this time the apostles, to call the Gentiles to the feast. We see from this history that man tends to value trifles over true treasures.
But what could be greater than the feast that God has prepared? The Father sent his Son to become our brother in the flesh. He bore our sins, suffered crucifixion in his body, and shed his blood to forgive our sins. Now he offers our mouths this very body to eat and blood to drink and offers our ears the sweet fruit of the Gospel. This Gospel is the elixir of life, peace with God, rescue from sin, salvation from hell, a priceless treasure. Men would give heaps of gold to escape death and live forever. Men would slave away for years in dark mines under the earth if they knew it meant they could live in light forever thereafter.
But the feast requires no labor from us. As the invitation goes out through the mouths of Christ’s ministers, we learn with great delight that God offers this feast to us freely as a gift. We need no heaps of gold. We need not slave away to earn it – indeed, we cannot earn it. The call goes out, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” “Come, for everything is now ready.”
For this feast, the Lord is worthy of all praise. Who can sufficiently proclaim his glory and his deeds? His goodness knows no end and is beyond what we can capture in human speech. As the psalmist says, “You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you! I will proclaim and tell of them, yet they are more than can be told.” I wish my tongue could reach high enough to extol the Lord as he deserves. Then it would be plain how utterly insane it is to reject his invitation to free, eternal life. But may the Lord supply what is lacking in my speech and by his Spirit communicate to you the highest regard for the Lord’s feast and invitation.
For the goal of this parable is to teach how preposterous are the concerns of men. It is man’s nature to behave preposterously. You see in the word “preposterous” pre and post muddled together, before-after. Acting preposterously means to confuse the beginning with the end, to put the cart before the horse, to consider last things first or first things last, to get priorities wrong, or, more generally, to think or act in a perverted or distorted manner. We have seen something preposterous in the recent Supreme Court decision, according to which a man can be a woman or a woman a man, and no one should bat an eye when a burly, bearded guy in a dress comes to take your order at a restaurant. That’s preposterous. We have also seen something preposterous in today’s parable: God offers heavenly treasures for free, and men prefer earthly things instead.
The invitation still sounds forth today. The Lord calls people to come to hear the Gospel and receive the Sacrament of his Son’s body and blood. And he meets with the same excuses today as he did in the first century. Now it would be easy to rail against those who who have put earthly things above the Gospel this Sunday and aren’t here. But the point is not to take stock of who’s missing and puff yourself up. Self-righteousness is an evil thing. Self-righteousness would delight in empty pews and be happy that some aren’t hearing Gospel just so it could feel better about itself. And self-righteousness wouldn’t even stop to think that some who are absent from us are simply out of town and are sitting in church elsewhere, hearing this same reading. No, the point is not to judge others by this reading, but to take heed yourself and learn to see how preposterous your own flesh is.
The servant calls, “‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ But they all alike began to make excuses.” The first has bought a field and must go out and see it. The second has bought five yoke of oxen and goes to try them out. The Gospel is free, and according to our sinful flesh, that is its downfall, for the flesh will always value more highly anything that cost it something. “I have bought a field; I have bought five yoke of oxen.” And because I have bought it, it’s the most important thing on earth, at least for now, until I buy something else. This is in your flesh. You’ve felt the excitement of making a purchase. You’ve felt the delight of having something shiny and new. You’ve also felt the let down as mammon fails, as the flesh desires something newer and better, as the happiness of buying wears off and you need your next fix.
In the fourth century, St. Ambrose of Milan preached words that still ring true today: “money generally buys masters for itself.” Listen to the man’s words in the parable: “I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it.” I must. This man has a compulsion. He has bought a field, and he has acquired with it a master that commands him, “Skip the feast and come, come to me.” One of the most dangerous things that happened to you this year, perhaps one of the most dangerous things that will ever happen to you in your life, is you received a large chunk of money from the government. If you happen to be among those who didn’t, count yourself fortunate. And count yourself fortunate when your stuff breaks or won’t work or wears out. Thank God that he lets you see how fleeting and flighty are the things of this world. Then you can sing from your heart the words of the hymn, “Other things may promise pleasure / But are never what they seem; / They prove to be burdens that vex us and chafe us, / And true lasting happiness never vouchsafe us.”
Now in these first two excuse-makers, we see more than just the danger of money. We see generally the danger of following one’s passions, following what feels good and seems right to the flesh. These two men honestly did what they did because it made sense to them. They asked themselves, “What’s going to give me more happiness: going to a feast, or seeing my new stuff?” They didn’t conclude that the feast was a bad thing. And they showed no hostility to the messengers of God, unlike what we see in some of Jesus’ other parables, like the parable where the tenants of the vineyard kill the messengers who are sent to them. These two men are simply weighing in their minds two decent options – and decide in favor of the one that is nothing compared to the other.
This is where our passions will lead us: away from Christ and toward earthly enjoyments. We must hit this point strongly. Something needs to counteract a generation’s worth of Disney movies that have told you to follow your heart. Your heart will lead you to hell. Don’t follow your heart. Earthly things will appear to be greater than the Gospel. So don’t judge by how things appear to your heart. Judge according to the Word and promises of God. The Gospel is our greatest treasure and pleasure in life. Scorn everything that would assert itself above the Gospel, or you will end up excusing yourself from eternal life.
But now to the third man. He says, “I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.” There are two lessons in this that we should take to heart. First, to our young people: be careful whom you marry. We all know someone, probably multiple someones, who fell away from the church and stopped believing the Gospel, and we know the seed of his unbelief was planted the day he said, “I do.” Marry someone who has a right confession of Christ. Marry someone who will be an encouragement to you in going to church, not a hindrance. Don’t marry an excuse from the feast, but marry someone who wants to respond to the invitation and attend church, who wants to have children and wants to rush them to the baptismal font and bring them up as Christians. Remember, there’s no saying “I don’t” after you say “I do,” so say “I do” wisely and with concern for your eternal salvation.
The second lesson from this man is in his words “I cannot come.” This shows where a man can end up if he continually excuses himself from the Gospel in favor of the passions of the flesh. One day he finds himself wedded to his ungodly compulsion and he is then unable to come, unable to believe the Gospel. People really can get to this point of no return. How do they get to this point? By excusing themselves from church in favor of earthly things: once, then again, then habitually, then forever. Am I saying that you’re condemned if you skip church even once because the lake is calling or because it’s hunting season? No. But I warn you, as Jesus does in the parable, that making such excuses is to play with hellfire. Take God’s response in the parable seriously. When the servant comes back and reports the excuses, God is not sympathetic. “Then the master of the house became angry.” “I offered them the blood of my incarnate Son for their eternal salvation, and they preferred walking in the field and driving oxen?”
It’s preposterous. Our flesh is preposterous. What hope do we have? Or as the apostles once asked Jesus, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus replied, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” So if you despair of yourself, good. There is no hope in yourself. But if you despair of salvation entirely, that would be most preposterous. The reason God gets so angry in the parable is because he is completely serious in his invitation. He said, “Come to the feast of eternal life in Christ, for all is now ready. My Son has laid down his life and taken it up again. Come, drink freely of redemption and taste heaven. I will receive you graciously and be your refuge from all harm and danger.” “Come,” God says, and he means it. He will seat you at his table and blot out all your sins and put the fear of death far from you and give laughter in your mouth to mock the devil and the world and joy in your heart to delight in the one thing needful. So when your flesh wants to be excused, then say as a new man in Christ, “What? You want to excuse me from salvation and eternal life? What’s wrong with you? We’re going to church, sinful flesh, and you can see the baptismal font in which you’re drowning while I delight in the feast!” And then come, and you will find it just as the Lord has promised, even as it is this morning, full of absolution and peace and the work of Christ, to whom be glory above all things on earth, now and forever. Amen.