To understand our passage from Isaiah, you need to look at chapter 24, which begins, “Now the Lord is about to lay waste the earth and make it desolate,” and carries on from there. There’s a turn in the last verse, however, as the Lord of hosts establishes his reign on earth; then comes a hymn of praise to God, and then our passage this morning. “On this mountain”—on Mount Zion, after he has judged the earth—the Lord will prepare a feast, not just for Israel, but for all the nations. He will “swallow up” the shroud that covers the nations and keeps them from seeing his glory, and Jew and Gentile alike will receive his salvation.
This great banquet is related to the coming of the Messiah; but while the Jews got that part, they rejected a key element of Isaiah’s vision, that the Messiah’s banquet would include all the nations, not just the Jews. Thus the Aramaic version of this passage renders verse 6 this way: “In this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all the peoples a meal; and though they suppose it is an honor, it will be a shame for them, and great plagues, plagues from which they will be unable to escape, plagues whereby they will come to their end.” Whoever was responsible for that couldn’t accept the idea that God might bless non-Jews, so they narrowed the passage. Over time, that narrowing process continued, excluding unrighteous Jews, and then anyone with any sort of physical blemish; only those worthy to earn an invitation would be welcome.
This is where the dinner guest is coming from in Luke 14. His statement is a conventional piety, to which he expected a conventional response. He certainly wouldn’t have thought to provoke a challenge, and yet that’s what he gets. Jesus sets the scene briefly: a rich man gave a dinner party. He sends out the invitations with an RSVP, so that he’ll know how many are coming, and thus what kind of meat to serve. For a few guests, it might be a chicken or two, or a duck; for 10-15, a goat; for a larger number, a sheep. To feed 35 or more would need a calf. Once they’d butchered the appropriate animal, it had to be eaten that day, since the meat would never keep. Once you accepted the invitation, you were duty-bound to come, so that none of the host’s food would go to waste.
The host makes his preparations, and when the meal is nearly ready, he sends out his servant to tell his guests that the feast is prepared. They accepted the invitations and promised to attend, but to his surprise, now that it’s time for them to come, they refuse. That alone was a considerable insult to their host, but then they offer excuses which can only have been calculated to increase that insult. For whatever reason, they’re giving their host a deliberate slap in the face.
The first guest says, “I bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.” Now, imagine you’re throwing a big party, and just as it’s starting, one of your guests calls and says, “I’m not coming—I just bought a house down in Indy, I’ve never seen it and I don’t know where it is, so I have to go look it over and check out the neighborhood.” Are you going to believe them? No! Do you think they’d expect you to? Of course not. The excuse is ridiculous. Who would buy a piece of property about which they knew nothing?
That was even truer then; buying a piece of land could take years. W. M. Thomson, a missionary to Syria in the 1800s, said, “It is not enough that you purchase a well-known lot; the contract must mention everything that belongs to it, and certify that fountains or wells in it, trees upon it, etc., are sold with the field. . . . Thus Abraham bought this field and the cave that was therein, and all the trees that were in the field, and that were in all the borders round about, were made sure.” You knew a piece of land intimately before you bought it. This excuse is a joke, and everyone knows it. Worse, this guest says, “I must go out and see it.” He’s saying this field is more important to him than his relationship to the host, which only compounds the insult.
The next excuse is even more preposterous. Imagine a friend calling you up and saying, “I can’t come to the party—I just bought five used cars over the phone, and I have to go find out their make, model, age, and mileage, and see if they’ll start.” No one would buy a team of oxen without testing them first—in public—to see how well they pulled together. This excuse is just as transparently false as the first, and even more insulting. Fields are land, after all, and land is holy, but oxen are just animals. For the first guest to say that land was more important to him than his relationship with the host was bad enough, but oxen?
That said, this man is at least civil, as was the first. The same cannot be said of the third one. You see, this wasn’t his wedding night; the host would never have scheduled his banquet for the same day as a wedding. No one would have come. This guest already knew he was married, or would be, when he accepted the invitation. Also, men in that culture were supposed to be very reserved when talking about women in public settings. In particular, sex was seen as an intensely private thing which wasn’t to be mentioned in public. It was extremely rude for this guest to say, “I know I said I’d come to your banquet, but remember, I got married not long ago, and this afternoon my wife—well, you get the picture. I’m not coming.” He doesn’t even bother to send his regrets, which only makes things worse. As Kenneth Bailey notes, “The entire response is guaranteed to infuriate the most patient of hosts, East or West.”
Indeed, the host is furious; he’s just taken several nasty public insults. He also has a problem: what to do with all the food? His delinquent guests are sure they’ve dealt him a humiliating defeat. Obviously the feast can’t go on without them, and the food will go to waste. But the host rises above them, and responds with grace: if those who would be considered worthy of his invitation won’t come, then he’ll invite the unworthy. He sends his servant out into the city to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame—those who were excluded from polite society. This would enrage his original guests, both for the implied insult and because their attempt to prevent the banquet has failed. They might retaliate somehow, but he does it anyway.
The servant comes back to report that he’s carried out his instructions, but there’s still room at the feast. The host commands him to go out beyond the bounds of the community, out into the highways and side roads of the wider world, to bring people in to fill the tables. This is an even more staggering command than the first—not least to those invited. That’s why the master says, “Make them come in.” In that culture, the unexpected invitation must be refused, and especially if the guest was of lower status than the host. It was a matter of honor. Those he was now inviting would be sure the host didn’t mean the invitation—that it was a gesture of some sort. Nothing good could come from accepting an invitation that wasn’t meant to be accepted. Thus the servant must gently compel the newly-invited guests, not with physical force, but with reassurance that yes, this invitation is completely sincere, as unbelievable as that is.
This must also have floored those listening to Jesus. Whatever the merits of the poor, crippled, blind and lame, they’re at least members of the community. They belong to some degree; they have an interest in the welfare of the city, and some connection to the host, however tenuous. But outsiders? Foreigners? To Jesus’ audience, that was unfathomable.
They knew what he meant. Some of Jesus’ parables confused his audience, but this wasn’t one of them. This is the banquet Isaiah promised, and Jesus’ point is painfully clear: some who expect to be there won’t be, and they’ll be excluded by their own hand, because they’ve rejected God’s invitation. In their place will be many whom the world calls “unworthy,” and many outsiders—Gentiles—including us. Those who accept the invitation will be there. Those who refuse it because they have rejected the Servant, Jesus, will be outside, no matter how they argue. Jesus makes that clear with his closing comment, which is not part of the parable—the “you” is plural, so this is Jesus talking directly to his audience: “None of those who were invited will taste my dinner.” They’ve excluded themselves, and their self-exclusion is final.
The banquet of the Messiah isn’t for good churchgoing people who live moral lives. It isn’t for respectable folks who are upstanding members of society. It isn’t for those who stand for traditional values. Not that any of those are necessarily excluded—it isn’t not for them, either—but you can’t get in that way. Living a moral life won’t get you in. Campaigning for biblical values won’t earn you a ticket. Even faithfully attending church won’t qualify you. The only way in is through the Servant, the Messiah, Jesus. The banquet of the Messiah isn’t for those who think they deserve to be there. It’s only for those who know they don’t. It isn’t for those who think they’re good enough to make it by their own work; it’s for those who know they’ll only make it by the grace of God. It’s by his grace alone, for those who accept that the only way is grace alone, through Christ alone.