The Gospel reading today is sometimes known as the “Parable of the Great Supper” or, as the heading in the Orthodox Study Bible has it, “Who enters into the Kingdom?” Perhaps that heading, above all, should make us sit up and take note. In this homily I shall be quoting from both the Matthew version that we heard this morning, and from the Luke version in order to give a fuller picture.
The scene is a supper. One of the guests, in Luke’s account, but not in Matthew’s, exclaims “Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God.” And this provides the lead-in to the Parable.
A king gave a great supper, and many guests were invited. There seems to have been no set date or time for this event, but when the time came, the King sent his servants to proclaim to those who had been invited that “All things are now ready”.
The response was not quite what might have been expected. One by one the invited guests made their excuses. “I have bought a piece of land: I have bought five yoke of oxen, and am going to test them: I have married a wife.” No doubt there were other excuses in the same vein. Some of the servants were even beaten up and killed. The surviving servants returned to their master to report.
The king was angry. He sent his servants out to the streets and the lanes of the city, to bring in the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind. The servants did this, but still there was room, so they were sent out again, this time to the countryside, to the highways, and the hedges to compel them to come in, “that my house may be filled.”
The final words in the Luke version of the parable are “I say to you that none of those men who were invited”, that is those were invited first, “shall taste of my supper.”
The scene that this parable is intended to invoke in Jesus’s hearers is the Messianic Banquet. The great celebration in the Kingdom of God, that is Heaven, at the end of the Age, following the general Resurrection. At the sound of the angelic trumpets announcing the return of the Lord, and following the last Judgement, there will be a great celebration.
God will make all things new; and the whole of creation, the entire cosmos, which has been subject to death and corruption since the Fall will return to its primal state of blessedness
Jesus makes a number of points during the course of the parable. There are those who were first invited, the Jews. These as a group, although as we know there have been, are, and will be exceptions, rejected the invitation. However, the banquet will take place, and all the places will be taken.
So we are reminded of the announcement of the coming kingdom to the Jewish people first, an invitation which was rejected by many, perhaps most of those people, represented by their contemporary leaders, the Priests, the Scribes, and the Pharisees.
Then the invitation is to be extended to all and sundry – to the nations, the Gentiles, that is to us. This is a theme that is to be found in all the Gospels, but the invitation, or announcement, is brought in the Gospels first to the Jews, God’s people, and the signs of rejection are already there, as in today’s parable.
After its rejection by the Jews the invitation was to be broadcast throughout the world. Luke’s second book the Acts of the Apostles relates the beginnings of this process, as missionaries were sent out into “the streets and lanes, the highways, and the hedges”.
The Christian expectation has always been that, having received an invitation lacking a date and a time these will, in due course, follow at very short notice, so we are to be ready at all times. It may come after our individual deaths. It could be at some time during the next few minutes or so, but happen it will, and it will be an event of such un-precedented magnitude that “All flesh shall see it ….”
In the meantime each of us is here this morning is here by invitation, to share in what is a foretaste of something, the reality of which will be so wonderful that it is beyond description. It is beyond description because we have no reference points by which to describe it.
The Eucharist, the Divine Liturgy is itself a foretaste of the Great, or Messianic, Banquet. Even the words “Banquet”, or “Feast” can offer only a poor and inadequate description of the great heavenly celebration that is to be, not in earthly time, but into all eternity, a concept which has no beginning and no ending.
We are invited to the Divine Liturgy week by week. Many make excuses. We do know the time and the place, but that does not seem to prevent many from accepting more apparently pressing invitations – “Worldly entanglements: Poor excuses.”
Bishop Kallistos once described an icon that on an occasion he once saw in a church. At first sight it appeared to represent the Great Entrance, that we shall shortly perform in this Liturgy; but as he looked at it more closely he realised that those represented in the scene were not men, but angels, and the priest was Jesus Christ himself.
Here, at the Holy Table we stand, as it were, before the Heavenly Altar surrounded, invisibly, by the Cherubim and the Seraphim. So the priest sings “Christ is in our midst”, and all reply, “He is, and ever shall be.” This is made very clear in what we shall then sing:
Let us who in a mystery represent the Cherubim, and who sing the Thrice Holy Hymn to the All Creating Trinity, lay aside all earthly cares, that we may receive the King of All, who comes invisibly up- borne by the angelic hosts… Alleluia.
Try to follow these words carefully today. If we truly accept this, or even just begin to understand it, our hearts will be raised little by little and, in time, more and more as we are drawn closer and closer to the Great Banquet that is to be.
Be in no doubt about it. The invitation to be here at 10.00 on a Sunday morning is the most important and significant that you will ever receive. Participating in the Divine Liturgy, week by week we also participate in some degree, by anticipation, in the Great Heavenly Banquet.