Ephesians 5:8-19; Luke 14:16-24
Most of us have a great talent for convincing ourselves of complete nonsense when that helps to distract us from facing uncomfortable truths that we would rather ignore. Instead of seeing ourselves, other people, and the daily challenges of life with clarity, our vision is often obscured by our own passions. We then become blind to reality in ways that block us from living faithfully before God.
That is what the people in today’s gospel reading had done to themselves, for they actually thought that it was a good idea to refuse the invitation to attend a great banquet that represents the Kingdom of God. They chose to use their perfectly normal daily routines and worldly responsibilities to excuse themselves from entering into joy. 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. After the invited guests excused themselves from the banquet, 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.”
There may be deeper spiritual significance to the symbolism of the yoke of five oxen in the parable, for there are five books of law in the Old Testament. Having a field of land may represent those who wanted the Messiah to set up a religious kingdom on Earth. Marriage may represent the belief that God’s blessings were only for their family line or ethnic group. There is no doubt that many rejected our Lord because He interpreted the law in a way that challenged the authority of the Pharisees, refused the temptation to become an earthly king of the Jews, and extended the blessing of His Reign even to Gentiles and Samaritans.
In the historical setting of the passage, “the poor and maimed and blind and lame” brought in from the streets to the great banquet represent the Gentiles, who were not the descendants of Abraham and did not know the law and prophets of the Old Testament. Of course, we must learn to see ourselves as the “the poor and maimed and blind and lame” from the parable. Our salvation has nothing at all to do with having the right ethnic or cultural heritage or having earned something by obeying religious laws. To the contrary, it is a matter of accepting with humility the gracious gift of God to those with no claim to the great spiritual heritage of those who foreshadowed and foretold the coming of the Savior across the centuries before His birth.
Even those who looked forward in faith to the coming of Christ in the Old Testament did not do so merely on the basis of their ancestry or religious observance. They looked forward in faith to God’s fulfillment of the promises to Abraham, who lived before the law came through Moses. The law was necessary for sinful people as a tutor in preparation for the coming of Christ. The ancestors of the Lord hoped not merely for a great teacher, but for One Who would liberate us from slavery to sin and death, which the law lacked the power to do. The forefathers of the Savior trusted God that their hope would not be in vain. Though it was often forgotten, the original promise to Abraham extended to the Gentiles, for God told him, “In you all the nations of the world will be blessed.” (Gen. 22:18) Now all who are in Christ “are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Gal. 3:29) Jew or Gentile, “those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham.” (Gal. 3:9) The Savior is born to bring all who bear the divine image and likeness into the joy of the heavenly banquet.
The Hebrews of the Old Testament who prepared for the Messiah’s coming through faith did so of their own free will in response to their calling as the descendants of Abraham. That is true also for the Theotokos. She is the highest offering of the Hebrew people as one who became God’s living temple in a unique way as His virgin mother. She was chosen for this astounding vocation and responded in freedom to the message of the Archangel Gabriel. No one forced her at all. Since our salvation is the fulfillment of our calling to become like God in holiness, we must also be free in order to embrace our healing as persons in the divine image.
The same was true for those in today’s parable who convinced themselves that the normal cares of life excluded them from entering into the joy of the heavenly kingdom. The Old Testament contains many prophetic denunciations of worshiping other gods, engaging in sexual immorality, and exploiting the poor. The prophets warned against these and other sins because they were so tempting, common, and dangerous. Many of the Hebrews ignored or distorted what God required of them as they abused the freedom they should have used to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, Who would fulfill God’s promises to them and extend His blessings to the entire world. The consequences of their choice were profound. As the master said in the parable, ‘”For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
The same grave warning applies to us when we become so spiritually blind that we choose to make our work, possessions, family life, or other responsibilities excuses from accepting the invitation to enter into the joy of the Kingdom. We all have the ability to offer the good things of this life to God for blessing and fulfillment. They are all part of His creation and nothing but our own sin keeps us from doing so. Our jobs provide opportunities to serve Christ in our neighbors, while our possessions give us opportunities for generosity. Opportunities for overcoming self-centeredness and growing in faithfulness, humility, patience, forgiveness, and love abound in marriage and family life. These perfectly normal dimensions of living in the world do not have to separate us from God in any way, but instead provide us with more to offer to Him as points of entrance into the joy of the heavenly banquet as both a present reality and a future hope. The problem is not with any of God’s blessings, but with our distorted relationship with them according to our passions.
Today we commemorate St. Spyridon of Trimythous, a shepherd who was married with children. After his wife’s death, he became a bishop, but maintained his simple lifestyle, tilling the soil, caring for his animals, and giving away most of the fruits of his labor to the poor. God worked many miracles through St. Spyridon, who was present at the Council of Nicaea in 325, where he defeated the sophisticated arguments of heretics with the power of his holy simplicity. He was able to do so because he had learned to use the blessings and challenges of daily life for the healing of his soul.
The spiritual disciplines of the Nativity Fast give us opportunities to grow in the holy simplicity of St. Spyridon as we gain the clarity to discern what is truly at stake in how we live each day in the mundane circumstances of our lives. As St. Paul taught, “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as unwise, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” As “the poor and maimed and blind and lame,” we must prepare to accept the extraordinary invitation that is ours in Jesus Christ by gaining the strength to make our daily responsibilities points of entrance to the heavenly kingdom. They are not reasons to shut ourselves out of the heavenly banquet, but opportunities to unite ourselves ever more fully to Him in freedom.