The story in today’s gospel from St Luke, Chapter 14, is about a banquet. A man gives a banquet and sends out his servant to invite many people to come and dine in splendour with him. The host of the banquet tells his servant “to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for all is now ready.” However, for various personal reasons, many of those invited decline to come. The householder is angry and tells his servant to “go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and maimed and blind and lame.” However, even when that is done the servant reports: “Sir, what you have commanded has been done, and still there is room.” Then the master commands the servant to go outside of the city of Jerusalem “to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.”
Now this story about a banquet which many people are hesitant to attend is a parable—a riddle which has a hidden meaning that the listener is challenged to discover. Christ often spoke in parables; and in the Gospel of St Matthew, Chapter 13, verses 10 to 16, “the disciples came and said to [Christ], ‘Why do You speak to [the people] in parables?’ [Christ] answered them, ‘To you [disciples] it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to [the people] it has not been granted… I speak to [the people] in parables, because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand…But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear…”
This parable poses a challenge to each of us: Are we primarily disciples of Christ or to a considerable degree are we people who do not understand fully what Christ is seeking to tell us? Christ is not making things difficult for us; He is not trying to trick us or demand of us intellectual feats of which we are not capable. On the contrary, in St. Luke, chapter 14, verse 15, the verse before this Gospel that I have just read, Christ has said, “Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God.” It is clear that the banquet to which we are being invited is the banquet which draws us into the kingdom of God. We are being invited to eat the food that will empower us to live at one with the person who is the host of the banquet. How do the Church Fathers interpret the meaning of this banquet?
The fifth century pastor and theologian, St Cyril of Alexandria is quite clear in his interpretation of this parable. He writes that the host of the banquet is “God the Father…The Creator of the universe and … [He has] made a great supper, a festival for the whole world, in honour of Christ.” St Cyril also explains that the servant who was sent to do the Master’s bidding is Christ, because it is Christ who “emptied himself to take the form of a [servant].” St Cyril continues: “What was the nature of the invitation? ‘Come, for look, all things are ready.’ God the Father has prepared in Christ gifts for the inhabitants of the earth. Through Christ, He bestow[s] the forgiveness of sins, cleansing away of all defilements, communion of the Holy Spirit, glorious adoption as children , and the kingdom of heaven. To these blessings, Christ invited Israel, before all others…[In] the voice of the Psalmist [Psalm 2.6], ‘But I have been sent as a king by him, that is, by God the Father, on Zion his holy mountain to preach the commandment of the Lord’.”
We still recognise today that reality of which St Cyril has written, when we sing in the Christmas carol, “The First Noel, “Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, Born is the King of Israel.” However, as St Cyril has pointed out, those people who were invited to come to the heavenly banquet are busy with various “earthly matters; they cannot see things spiritual.” St Cyril suggests that the first invitations to come to this heavenly banquet went to “those who stood at the head of the Jewish synagogue,” that is, The Temple in Jerusalem. When those Jewish leaders declined, the whole of the Jewish people in Jerusalem were invited to this banquet; and it was only when many of them had also declined the invitation from the host of the banquet, God the Father, delivered by His servant, Christ, that Christ was then sent by God the Father to “the highways and hedges” outside Jerusalem and invited those who were not Jews, the Gentiles.
Almost all of us, except for those Jews like me who have accepted Christ, are included in that third invitation to come to the kingdom banquet. The remarkable fourth century preacher and pastor, St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, reminds us that when God the Father and his servant Christ summoned “the poor, the maimed, the blind [and the lame], They showed us two important insights. First, and I quote St Ambrose, “handicaps do not exclude us from the kingdom of heaven.” That is very important: “Handicaps do not exclude us from the kingdom of heaven;” and those handicaps might be physical or emotional or spiritual. Second, St Ambrose pointed out that, and I quote again, “the Lord’s mercy forgives the weakness of sinners. Whoever glories in the Lord glories as one redeemed from reproach not by works but by faith.” As St Ambrose has reminded us, neither our handicaps nor our sins exclude us from being invited into the kingdom of heaven.
To finish the interpretation of this parable, it is helpful to turn to St Gregory the Great, the sixth century pope, Gregory I, and the fourth and last of the Latin Doctors of the Church. St Gregory has reflected on how God the Father sent His servant, Christ, to “compel people to come in,” as stated in verse 23. St Gregory acknowledges that many people, and I quote, who “receive the gift of understanding ... do come. But certain people are called in such a way that they are even compelled.” As St Gregory phrases it, “often after failing to get what we want in this world, after growing weary from the impossibility of fulfilling our earthly desires, we bring our minds back to God.”
That is what happened to me at the age of 25. I reached the conclusion that if I wished to live a life of purpose, a life grounded in learning how to love God and love others, I had no choice. I was compelled to become a Christian. Now that same choice confronts me and each one of us in this church today, because every day of our lives we choose whether to accept the invitation to come to the kingdom banquet. So today, the parents of Birhane Mariam have chosen to baptise him and join him to Christ. We too choose whether to seek God’s will for our lives or to coast along pleasantly or unpleasantly in our own limited hopes.
To conclude, this parable about the kingdom banquet is important. We can understand it. Both the Jewish leaders and many of the Jewish people rejected the invitation to come to the kingdom banquet. So then the host of the banquet, God the Father, sent his Son, Christ, to invite the Gentiles to join themselves to Christ. Today we are all invited, Jews and Gentiles. We can each choose now to sit down at the kingdom banquet and become one with Christ—by going to communion, by loving our families, by reaching out to those in emotional, or spiritual or physical need. We can accept that invitation to the kingdom banquet either because we have already received “the gift of understanding” or because we have today brought “our minds back to God.” Let us all then in the midst of the Divine Liturgy participate in the kingdom banquet. The invitation comes through this parable in the Gospel of St Luke to each of us: “Come; for all is now ready.”
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise
to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Father Deacon Emmauel