An Offer We Can’t Refuse

When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.” Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ “But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’ “Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’ “Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’ “The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ “‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’ “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.'”—Luke 14:15-24

There are more than 38,000 Christian denominations around this world. Over 3.5 million congregations that identify themselves as Christian churches formally gather together, on a regular basis, around this world.

But did you know, in spite of what I’ve just said, that there is only one Christian church in Germany? Only one in Italy? Only one in India? Only one in China? And only one in the United States and Canada.

I’m speaking, of course, about the church of Jesus Christ —not about a humanly incorporated corporation or institution—but about the one church of the body of Christ.

Our passage speaks of a great banquet. Here is a picture of being joined together by virtue of sitting at one table. This parable is not about multiple banquets for 38,000 denominations. This parable is not a story about 38,000 different fast food pizza enterprises—nor is it a story of 3.5 million pizza franchises around the world.
Without speculating about how many of several million individual church buildings and the over 2.2 billion self-identified Christians in the world really are Christ-followers, we consider the one banquet Jesus uses as the centerpiece of this parable.

This story Jesus tells is about those who either accept the invitation to be a part of the banquet, or reject it. As we read this story and consider those who made excuses as to why they would not accept the invitation, assuming God to be the master in this parable, why does he actually become “angry” with people who turn him down? Or would disappointment be closer to what he feels?

Almost four decades ago my wife and I invited some dear friends for dinner. In order to ensure that the calendar was clear, we made the invitation several weeks ahead of time, and our friends accepted. Karen worked all day, making a special dinner and dessert (all the while having to juggle her responsibilities of taking care of two small, pre-school-aged children). I came home from work and immediately tried to stay out of the way and to keep the children busy while the time we had given our friends to arrive for dinner approached. The arrival time came and still no dinner guests.

After they were 30 minutes late I called their home (they only lived a mile away). Their baby sitter said that they had gone out for dinner. I thought, of course they did—they’re coming to our house. So, knowing that our house was a five-minute drive away I asked, “When did they leave?” She said , “I think about 30 minutes ago.”

Not wanting to be too intrusive, and certainly not letting the babysitter in on the fact that we had apparently been forgotten, I asked if they had left a phone number for the restaurant to which they were going. She gave me the number, and I called the restaurant (these were the days long before cell phones), gave the restaurant the name and description of a couple dining in their dining room, and asked them if they could ask the husband to come to the phone.

When the husband came on the phone I reminded him that dinner was waiting at our house. My reminder was followed by a long pause as he eventually remembered that they had accepted the invitation but had forgotten. My wife and I were not angry with our friends, but we were disappointed that they accepted the invitation but apparently did not value it highly enough to write it down and remember it. My wife’s entire day of cooking was sitting there, getting cold.

The couple had just finished their main course at the restaurant, but in an effort to salvage the friendship, they agreed to rush over for dessert.

When people did not show up for the banquet described in this parable, “Then the owner became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame'” (Luke 14:21).

After the servant issued this invitation there was still room at the banquet. Verse 23 describes what happened next: Then the master told his servant, “Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full” (Luke 14:23).

The idea behind the order given to the servant to compel them to come in is, forgive the illustration, somewhat like the idiomatic expression Vito Corleone, the Mafia don, used in the movie The Godfather: “Make them an offer they cannot refuse.” The difference of course between God’s invitation and Vito Corleone’s offer is that God does not coerce or force anyone to accept his invitation. God does not threaten, as the Godfather did, but God does relentlessly pursue those he invites.

When people don’t show up, God will, to use my previous example, remind them of the offer by calling them on the phone. And, I am convinced, God does not stop after calling, texting or e-mailing us once. He relentlessly pursues us.

I have some good friends who are involved in a ministry to folks who traditional Christianity tends to disregard or ignore. The ministry is called “highways and hedges,” after the traditional translation of the master’s command to his servant, as translated in the Authorized King James Version, to search for people who may not be reached with more traditional invitations.

My paraphrase of God’s instruction to those who carry this invitation goes something like this: “Take this invitation to anyone and everyone, take this invitation to people who are convinced they have no spiritual worth, and make them an offer they will find difficult to refuse.”

Institutionalized religion has, by and large, failed to make God’s offer compelling. It has failed with many because the invitation of religion is an offer to join a specific church, to sign on a denominational dotted line and to get involved in an exclusive, earthly spiritual country club. The message of Jesus can often be overlooked and forgotten in the rush to make people into ritual-observing, law-keeping, faithful attendees who regularly and consistently give lots of money.

The larger context of this parable is an earlier parable of Jesus in chapter 14. Jesus advised the practice of taking a lesser seat when you are invited to a wedding banquet. He explained that taking a lesser seat would guard against humiliation if and when the host asks you to relinquish the place of honor you selected (Luke 14:7-11).

Jesus followed the parable, teaching the host who had invited him to dinner that he should not simply invite his equals to dinner, with the expectation of being repaid, but instead to invite people who could never repay his generosity. Invite, he said, the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind (Luke 14:12-14).

At the dinner table where Jesus was speaking, one of the religious guests said, “Well, this talk about banquets is interesting—but the real banquet we all want to attend is the banquet of the kingdom of God” (my paraphrase of Luke 14:15).

Within the strict, observant and legalistic religious community of Jesus’ day there were those who believed that the Messianic Banquet—that great feast to be given when the Messiah finally came—would only be for those who carefully and meticulously obeyed and observed the law. More than that, they believed that those who were marginalized by society in some way—those who were blind or deaf or crippled—would not be invited. That is, the “church-going” folks of Jesus’ day believed that the very people Jesus said to go out of your way to invite to banquets would not be invited to the ultimate spiritual banquet.

What these folks wanted Jesus to say was that “keeping the law” would be the way to punch your ticket into the great Messianic Banquet at the end of time. But Jesus—who of course was, and is, the Messiah (though that fact was not known or accepted by the religious establishment of his day) gave them an answer in direct opposition to their religious training, beliefs and traditions.

Jesus told them that God was already throwing a banquet but people were making all kinds of excuses as to why they couldn’t accept God’s grace. They were too busy with their religion to give God’s grace the time of day. So the invitation was extended to people religion-at-large would consider as obviously disqualified people—misfits, religiously marginalized and without spiritual standing whatsoever.

Jesus was not only talking about how he was being and would continue to be rejected by his own people, the Jews —and how the gospel would then be taken to the highways and hedges of the world, to the despised Gentiles—but he was also talking about how the religious establishment was rejecting the gospel and how the gospel would be taken outside of religious boundaries and institutions.

What a contrast with institutionalized religion that often presents the kingdom of heaven as being composed primarily of its own denomination, plus perhaps a few others. Legalistic religion doesn’t like it when anyone talks about the population of the kingdom of heaven numbering into the multiple billions. Religion, by its very nature, is exclusive. Christ-less religion wants us to think of a small group who will barely make it into the great banquet, and that our place will be assured only after we work our spiritual fingers to the bone, convincing God that we are good enough to “grace” his table.

This parable is not about people being good enough to grace the table of the Lord, is it? God is making an offer, in his way and in his time, to the whole world, that is just too good to refuse. Of course, there are some who will refuse God’s offer—some who will reject his invitation. But you know, when we normally think of people who will refuse God’s invitation we think of the outcasts of society.

We think of criminals, drug addicts, homeless, down-and-out people as not being qualified to be in God’s kingdom of heaven. Christ-less religion wants us to think that the table of the Lord will be populated with people all dressed up in their Sunday-go-to-meeting finest, quoting their memorized Scripture verses, with their spiritual noses arrogantly held high in the air.

But the kingdom of heaven is not filled with people who know that they are good enough to grace the Messianic Banquet table. The people who accept God’s invitation to his kingdom of heaven believe that his offer is an incredible, almost too-good-to-be true invitation, an offer that can’t be refused—because they are well aware that they are incapable of deserving a seat at the table of the Lord.