Many but Few
One of the most beautiful, hopeful visions of the future in the bible is the banquet table at the end of time.
Everyone is there – old friends, family, generations – all seated together. I love the way Isaiah pictures it as:
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
This is what everyone is looking forward to. It is known as the Banquet of Messiah.
It is there, at that banquet, that the Lord will finally
wipe away the tears from all faces, because he has swallowed up death for ever.
So why in the world would Jesus take this beautiful picture of the banquet at the end of time, and put it in a parable with so much death and misery?
And other questions arise:
- Why would people reject the invitation to the banquet?
- Why are their excuses so lame?
- Why do they kill the servants who invited them?
- Why would the king need to burn their city down for the guilt of a few?
- Why is that man at the end not dressed properly?
And what does this have to do with us, today?
The central question of life is how can we know God: how can we have a relationship with God?
This parable is all about that question, but it is scary: not everybody makes it; not everybody gets a seat at the table. Some do not want a seat, and others think they have one, but they loose it.
In these times, especially, we are aware of how much we need God in our lives – we do not want to miss his invitation to the banquet, and we certainly do not want to be forcibly removed.
So what is going on? Jesus is clearly using Isaiah’s image, so let’s start there.
First, in Isaiah’s vision of the great end-time banquet, there are two groups of people. One group is sitting at the table of rich food, but the other used to be in a fortified palace, but the people in it were “ruthless” Isaiah says (3 times). Now their city is a heap of ruins.
God put an end to their ruthlessness so that he could hold his banquet. Who are the ones that need to take shelter from these ruthless people? Specifically Isaiah says,
you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress
The poor and the needy are always the targets of the ruthless, but God will reverse their plight. The great banquet at the end of time will be, Isaiah says, “for all people“. Not just the lucky elite few.
But in Jesus’ telling, not everyone is happy with this banquet.
Why would anybody turn down an invitation to this feast as they do in Jesus’ parable?
Precisely because of the invitation list.
In Jesus’ day, it was common to invite people to a wedding banquet twice. First, the invitations were issued, then potential guests would ask around and find out who was coming and whether all the arrangements had been made properly. If the right people were coming, all would come. If the right people stayed away, all would follow suit. Trivial excuses followed. (source: Malina & Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p. 111)
Obviously, in Jesus’ parable, people were not coming to the banquet because the “right people” were not coming. The proud, the pretentious, the classy people were taking a pass and making excuses.
Why? Because there was simply no way they were going to be seen in public sharing a table and food with the low class poor and needy who were going to be sitting at that table.
Exactly the kind of people who were going to be finding refuge at this table, according to Isaiah, the poor and needy, were the ones whose presence made the table intolerable to the rich and powerful.
So what happens? Isaiah said that the city of the ruthless would become a heap of ruins. The way Jesus tells it, the city of the people who are too good to accept the invitation gets sacked.
Isn’t this extreme vengeance?
Remember this is a story, and in the story, the invitations are given by a king. That means the people who are invited are his subjects.
When they killed the servants who delivered the invitations, they were committing high treason; they were in open, armed rebellion against the king. We will come back to this important fact in a minute.
Next, the king goes out to round up exactly the kind of people Isaiah predicted would be there: the invitations do not go to the palaces and estates, they go to the streets. The fruit sellers, the butchers, the day-laborers are all there – the poor and the needy are there – and they get the second round of invitations.
Now, here is the way Jesus’ audience would have understood God an his purposes: “We are God’s chosen people. We are subjects of his kingdom. We are going to be sitting at that banquet table of Messiah; it is for us.”
But Jesus was saying to them in effect: “You are dead wrong. You have rejected the very goal of that table. If you are subjects of the kingdom, you are in open rebellion against its king.”
Jesus is saying to them, “You have proven your hostility to the king by your hostility to the people he came to save; the poor and the needy.”
You rejected the banquet invitation because the “right people” were not going to be there – well the “right people” are indeed going to be there because the king gets to define who the “right people” are.
“But,” they protest, “we are the chosen people!”
This is the point: the criterion of chosen-ness has changed. Now it is not your blood line and family tree that makes you a member of the chosen people anymore. Those days are gone.
Now, being a chosen person is defined solely by allegiance to the king.
Jesus is saying to them, “Do not say that you are chosen because Abraham is your father. Rather, you are chosen if you are a loyal subject of the king – and you will show that loyalty by gladly accepting his invitation to the banquet to sit with all kinds of formerly excluded people.”
Jesus’ whole life demonstrated the fact that this banquet table is open to everyone – come lame, blind, lepers, women, children, hungry, needy, former tax collectors, former prostitutes, soldiers, Romans, Canaanites, even people with demons!
Do you want to be among the “right people”? These are they!
Behind this whole story is this fact: God loves us people – and the weaker we are, the more he loves us. The more helpless we are, the more he extends his mercy.
This is good news! God is for us. He is the one who made the refuge for the poor and defended the needy against the ruthless. He is the one who prepared the feast. This is all about his loving concern for all people.
The only way you can un-choose yourself; the only way you can become the object of his wrath, is to be in open rebellion against love. The only way you can loose your place at that table is by thinking you are better than anyone else he has invited to the table.
But there is one more part to this story:
The same criterion applies to the street people just as it did to the original high-class citizens. If you want to sit at the banquet table you must honor the wishes of the king who invited you.
Recall that the setting of this story is a society where rules of honor and shame are taken with utmost seriousness.
The high-class people showed their dishonor by their open rebellion against the king. So too, the low class people from the streets can show their dishonor by trying to sit at the table without wearing the wedding gown that the host has provided.
By that act they are trying to get the benefits from the king without honoring him. This is the wedding banquet of the prince: don’t you dare treat it with contempt.
In other words – even the poor and needy who come to the table must be willing to embrace the ethical vision of that table. No one gets a pass.
There is a deep irony here: the common expression of the chosen people is “many are called but few are chosen” (“and we are the lucky few”). But look at the story! The chosen ones, at the end, are many – very many.
But the ones who thought that being chosen meant that they could live for themselves and exclude others were wrong.
Now, this story ends on a bad note because it is one of these conflict stories: Jesus is confronting people who have made a career out of rejecting God’s values.
They are in open opposition to Jesus precisely because they reject the idea that God can love the untouchables of their day.
But let us let the other shoe drop. The whole point is that God’s love knows no bounds.
The whole point is that we, here, today are chosen and loved by God – not because of blood lines, but because God loved the world so much that he has sent his son to folks like us!
And now, it is our joy to embrace his banquet vision. Now it makes our mouth water to anticipate sitting at that feast along side people we didn’t go to school with and didn’t live next to.
And now, it is our goal to embrace the king’s goal. It is our goal to go out onto the streets and find people who are hungry for a feast of acceptance and love.
This is what it means to be rightly related to God! This is what it means to know God – it is to embrace his love-mission to the world.
These times are not easy times for us – and it looks as though they will get harder for most of the world. In times like this, we need to be in close contact with God. We need to have a vital, healthy relationship with God.
We come here to worship, to pray, to learn from scripture. This is vital to our relationship with God. But also vital to our relationship with God is our manner of life outside these walls.
The God we love, loves the people that may be quite unlike us. The Jesus who redeemed us from the evil in our hearts considers ruthlessness evil.
The Lord who loves us and invites us to his banquet requires us to extend that invitation. This is true spirituality: to love the way the King loves; the people the king loves!