How to Accept the Invitation to the Great Banquet of the Messiah: Homily for Hieromartyr Eleutherios, Bishop of Illyria, and the Sunday of the Forefathers (Ancestors) of Christ in the Orthodox Church

                                

2 Timothy 1:8-18; Luke 14:16-24

          One of the great challenges of life is to learn to size things up, to gain the ability to see clearly what is at stake in the situations we encounter each day.  Experience is a great teacher in this regard, but it must be the right kind of experience.  Otherwise, our bad habits will become second nature to us such that we will become blind to whatever we have not seen before.

In today’s gospel lesson, there were people so used to focusing on their daily routines and worldly responsibilities that they had lost the ability to recognize something new and joyful.  One owned real estate, another had animals, and a third was married.  Even though these are commonplace conditions, they used them to justify their refusal to accept the invitation to the great party.  No one forced them to do so; instead, they excused themselves.  As a result, the master commanded 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.”  Because there was still room, the master ordered him to go out even further to “the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.”

We have in this parable an image of the Kingdom of God, of the great banquet of the Messiah. Most of those who had the benefit of the law and the prophets of the Old Testament did not have the spiritual eyes to recognize Jesus Christ as the One in Whom all the promises to Abraham and his descendants were fulfilled. They typically expected a new King David to make their nation powerful and the recipient of earthly blessings. Christ’s disciples struggled to understand a Savior Who, instead of conquering the Roman occupiers, died on the Cross after being rejected by the leaders of His own people.  No one expected the Lord’s resurrection or could grasp that He was truly the God-Man until after He had risen in glory.

Because His Kingdom is not of this world, those who want a religion that simply gives them what they want in this life will inevitably end up excusing themselves from entering into the great joy of the heavenly banquet, no matter how religious they claim to be.  “Many are called, but few are chosen” because self-centeredness so easily corrupts even the most profound spiritual truths into subtle forms of idolatry.  Then as now, people easily forget that God’s gracious promises are for the salvation of all people through faith in Christ, not merely for the benefit of one national or ethnic group. Instead of viewing the good things of life as blessings that enable us to serve God more faithfully in all our neighbors, we often consider them merely as our own possessions to be used in a vain effort to give meaning and purpose to our lives.  Since we all bear God’s image and likeness, that is simply a path to despair, for our fulfillment as human persons is not in serving ourselves, but ultimately in serving the Lord Who made us for personal union with Him in holiness. If we do not offer our lives to Him, we will end up worshiping a false god and refusing to enter into the great joy for which He created us.

In the historical context of today’s parable, we must remember that “the poor and maimed and blind and lame” brought in from the streets to the great banquet are the Gentiles, who were not the descendants of Abraham and did not have the benefit of the law and prophets of the Old Testament.  Yes, we ourselves are the “the poor and maimed and blind and lame” from the parable. Our salvation is not a matter of having the right human or cultural heritage or of having earned something by being extremely religious.  Instead, it is a matter of accepting with humility the gracious gift of God to broken people like you and me with no claim at all on the fulfillment of the great spiritual heritage of those who foreshadowed and foretold the coming of the Savior.

The good news of the gospel is that Christ invites all with faith in Him into the great joy of the heavenly banquet, into the eternal life of His Kingdom.  It would be tragically ironic if we were to distort our faith into a way of trying to exalt ourselves over others spiritually as those who deserve something that they do not.  If we have truly become participants in God’s grace, we must relate to our neighbors graciously.

Instead of becoming religious chauvinists who somehow corrupt the way of Christ into a way of praising ourselves, we must remember St. Paul’s advice to St. Timothy:  “Share in suffering for the gospel in the power of God, Who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not in virtue of our works but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus ages ago, and now has manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus…” To resist the common temptation to use religion to serve ourselves and condemn others requires the suffering of purifying our hearts from domination by pride so that we may become filled with love of God and neighbor.  It requires taking deliberate steps to reorient ourselves from searching for the fulfillment of our own will to embracing the joy of uniting ourselves to Christ in holiness from the depths of our hearts.  It requires the pain of refusing to gratify our own corrupt desires for making success in this world a false god.

Those who prepared for the coming of Christ across the generations certainly suffered, often at the hands of false prophets and wicked kings who distorted the faith of Israel into idolatry and immorality of various kinds.  The Theotokos, who provides the ultimate example of receiving the Savior, was no stranger to suffering.  She did not excuse herself from accepting her unique and unbelievable calling as the virgin mother of the Son of God.  Our Savior came to us through the free obedience of a teenage Palestinian Jewish girl.  She was prepared to become His living temple by embracing the discipline of devoting herself to prayer and purity.  She surely endured criticism from those who doubted the circumstances of her pregnancy and then she saw her Son rejected and killed.

It probably sounds strange to think of these weeks of the Nativity Fast as a time for suffering, but preparing ourselves to welcome the Lord at Christmas presents a struggle because there is so much within us that does not really want to make room for the Savior.  Like most of the Jews of old, we would often prefer an earthly ruler who promises good things for us and bad things for those we consider our enemies.  We would prefer a simple set of rules to follow that will make it clear that we are the sheep and those not like us are the goats.  We would prefer a religion that serves us and requires no deep personal sacrifice.  It will require great effort on our part not to fall prey to such temptations, for we must die to our addiction to self-centeredness.

Even though we are the spiritually “poor and maimed and blind and lame,” we may all use the remaining weeks of Advent to follow the example of the Theotokos in accepting the invitation to enter into the heavenly banquet.  We prepare ourselves to welcome the Savior when we struggle against our pride as we confess and repent of our sins.  We do so when we carve out time to open our hearts to God in prayer each day, regardless of what else is going on in our lives.  We do so when we share generously of our time, energy, and resources to show His love to our neighbors.  We do so when we keep a close watch on our thoughts, words, and deeds, especially being on guard against anything that encourages us to excuse ourselves from the great joy of welcoming Christ more fully into our lives at Christmas.   Doing so will never be easy, but it is necessary if we are to avoid the tragic fate of those who refuse to accept their calling to the heavenly banquet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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