The Invitation You Can’t Refuse

This week we studied the parable of the wedding banquet from Matthew 22:1-14. This parable is very similar to Luke 14’s parable of the great supper. But there are some significant differences as well which means they were probably two separate parables told at different times in Jesus’ ministry. So, without further ado, let’s jump right in!

“There was a certain king who arranged a marriage feast for his son” (vs. 2). In Luke’s version of this parable it was a “certain man” who gave a “great supper.” But in Matthew, it’s a king throwing a wedding banquet. Matthew wants us to realize that no one in their right mind would refuse such an exciting invitation! The wedding banquet, after all, was one of the most joyous occasions in Jewish life! The lavish feasting and celebrating went on for days. Such an invitation from a king was not just an immense honor – it was a command. “But they made light of it and went their ways, one to his own farm, another to his business.” (vs. 5) Unlike Luke, Matthew doesn’t spend anytime detailing the excuses of the invitees. He wants us to see that there is absolutely no excuse worth refusing such an honor and command to attend the King’s banquet. These invited guests are exercising nothing less than full-out rebellion against their King and the King’s Son! “And the rest seized his servants, treated them spitefully, and killed them. But when the king heard about it, he was furious. And he sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city.” (vs. 6-7). You see, unlike the somewhat milder version of this parable in Luke, Matthew’s point is that “sitting on the fence” over this invitation or “declining with regrets” is absolutely not an option! You’re either for the King and you attend the banquet or you are rebelling against the King!

But the wedding party is still on, right? So the King told his servants: “The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. Therefore go into the highways, and as many as you find, invite to the wedding” (vs 8-9). I like Matthew’s irony here: The guests who were originally invited (who would have been noblemen and “aristocrats”) were not worthy enough – so, instead, go out and invite the riff-raff on the streets and the gangs in the alleys! “Worthiness,” then, has nothing to do with position or rank, but it has everything to do with willingness to accept the invitation – which is good news for you and me, by the way!

But our parable isn’t quite over yet… “But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment. So he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless” (vs. 11-12). It’s not that the man couldn’t afford to dress up fancy enough for such an important occasion. It’s not that he didn’t have time to go home and change (after all, he was invited off the streets). You see, in Jesus’ culture, the host of the wedding actually provided special wedding garments to the guests at the door! That’s why the guest is speechless in response. There’s absolutely no excuse we can make up for him. He had simply decided that he did not need the provided wedding garment. He thought that what he was wearing would be good enough. (Perhaps he even thought his looked better?) Isaiah 64:6 calls our attempts at righteousness “filthy, dung-ridden rags.” But Christ wants to take our filthy rag robes and homemade fig leaf aprons and replace them with HIS spotless robe of perfect righteousness! (See Rev. 7:9, 14.)

Jesus’ punch line in verse 14 can leave us a little unsettled sometimes: “For many are called, but few are chosen.” It makes us ask questions like, “What do I have to do to be in those chosen few?” “If so many of the guests were not worthy to attend, what hope is there for me?” But the answer to these questions is in the parable itself. Partaking in the wedding feast is only contingent on accepting the invitation and accepting the provided wedding garment! The moment we think we think that we don’t need to change out of our filthy rags of sin, or when we think that our own virtuous works will be good enough to get us through the door, we’re missing the boat! Many are called, but few accept.

The Parable of the Minas

Our Stepping Stones class studied the parable of the ten minas in Luke 19:12-27 this week. This story is of course very similar to the parable of the talents in Matthew 25, but they are actually different parables told at different times. Luke helps us see the setting for this particular parable when he adds that “they were getting close to Jerusalem by this time and expectation was building that God’s kingdom would appear any minute” (v. 1, The Message). Jesus begins his parable in an intriguing way: A royal prince departs on a journey to receive the right to rule his country. In his absence, he commits ten minas (about a four-month’s wage) to ten of his servants with the simple instructions, “Do business until I return.” Verse 14 then states, “But his citizens hated him, and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We will not have this man to reign over us.'” Jesus’ audience would have immediately remembered how, just a few decades earlier, Archelaus, son of Herod the Great, had departed for Rome to secure the right to reign in Palestine. His citizens promptly sent a delegation to Rome as well to oppose his rule. You see, Jesus was leveraging a story that his audience would have been extremely familiar with to teach them that God’s kingdom would not appear immediately and that the Son’s rule would be bitterly opposed. But, what really matters, Jesus goes on, is our faithfulness as we wait for Him to return. Hence, the servants with the minas.

So, we come to the first servant. The first servant takes the biggest risk of all and ends up increasing his master’s profits by 10X! The master is delighted and gives him ten cities to rule over. The second servant gains 5X and gets five cities. But then we come to the last servant. Verses 20-21 in The Voice put his words this way: “Lord, I have successfully preserved the money you gave me. I wrapped it up in a napkin and hid it away because I was afraid of you. After all, you’re a tough man. You have a way of taking a profit without making an investment and harvesting when you didn’t plant any seed.” Let’s pause for a second at verse 21 – “Because I was afraid of you.” You see, the first thing that goes wrong here is that the servant misunderstands the character of the Master. As a result, he is paralyzed by fear. (As Christians, fear should never be a part of our relationship with God! See Rom. 8:15.) The servant dreads that he will be punished for trying and failing. So instead, because he misunderstood the character and the purpose of the King, he refuses to risk anything for the kingdom.

Now, this may all seem a little abstract when we try to apply this lesson spiritually, but let’s remember what the “economy” of God’s kingdom is all about. It has nothing to do with money or financial resources – it has everything to do with people! The unfaithful servant in God’s kingdom is one who never took a risk to help and invest in his fellow brothers and sisters in this world. We have all kinds of excuses we can throw: “It’s not safe out there,” “I’m afraid of failing,” “I don’t want to get involved in their messiness,” “They might take advantage of me!” Like the servant, we may think we will be rewarded for “playing it safe” all of our lives and safely tucking away our spiritual blessings, but at the end of it, the Master will respond that we completely missed the point! It’s all about giving of ourselves and investing in others, just as Christ poured Himself out for us!

So how do we get to this place in our lives? Maybe we can start by spending time each day getting to know the character of our Master and the purpose of His kingdom. As our hearts grow more and more in harmony with Him, it will become only natural for us to live out His mission!

The Two Worshippers

After telling the parable of the persistent widow, Jesus told another parable to his audience – “this one addressed to people who were confident in their self-righteousness and looked down on other people with disgust.” I like how The Voice paraphrases this parable:

10 Imagine two men walking up a road, going to the temple to pray. One of them is a Pharisee and the other is a despised tax collector. 11 Once inside the temple, the Pharisee stands up and prays this prayer in honor of himself: “God, how I thank You that I am not on the same level as other people—crooks, cheaters, the sexually immoral—like this tax collector over here. 12 Just look at me! I fast not once but twice a week, and I faithfully pay my tithes on every penny of income.” 13 Over in the corner, the tax collector begins to pray, but he won’t even lift his eyes to heaven. He pounds on his chest in sorrow and says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

In the surprising punch line of the story, the publican walks away righteous before God while the religious Pharisee does not. You can imagine how shocked Jesus’ audience must have been at this surprise twist. I like how it says that the Pharisee prays “in honor of himself.” His position to God is one of arrogance and self-worship. He does not ask for forgiveness because he does not believe he needs any – and so none is given. The publican, on the other hand, approaches God only with his need. He has nothing to offer heaven and can only throw himself on the mercy of God. I found this thought from Christ’s Object Lessons intriguing:

“The Pharisee and the publican represent two great classes into which those who come to worship God are divided. Their first two representatives are found in the first two children that were born into the world. Cain thought himself righteous, and he came to God with a thank offering only. He made no confession of sin, and acknowledged no need of mercy. But Abel came with the blood that pointed to the Lamb of God. He came as a sinner, confessing himself lost; his only hope was the unmerited love of God.”

We should pay attention to the warning inherent in this parable. It’s a warning against the lie of self-sufficiency – the kind of “self-sufficiency” that disgusts God about the Laodicean church in Revelation 3: “ Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” (verse 17). Sobering indeed. The bad news, of course, is that, because of our human weakness, we are completely incapable of curing ourselves of this disease of self-dependence and self-worship. But the good news is that we don’t have to try to cure ourselves:

“But no man can empty himself of self. We can only consent for Christ to accomplish the work. Then the language of the soul will be, Lord, take my heart; for I cannot give it. It is Thy property. Keep it pure, for I cannot keep it for Thee. Save me in spite of myself, my weak, unchristlike self. Mold me, fashion me, raise me into a pure and holy atmosphere, where the rich current of Thy love can flow through my soul. ” (Christ’s Object Lessons)

Lessons from a Persistent Widow

Luke 18:1-9 is the story of the tenacious widow who, against all odds, refuses to give up her cause. Even though the corrupt judge rebuffs her over and over again, she keeps persisting until she finally wears him down. What a lesson for us in persistency and dedication in our prayers! But remember that Jesus is not at all trying to compare our heavenly Father with this dishonest judge – rather, he reveals God’s character by a point of contrast. Jesus is basically saying: “Do you see how this dishonest judge finally gives in? Now, just imagine how infinitely more your loving Father will be willing to answer your cries to Him!”

I don’t know about you, but the real kicker of this parable for me comes in verses 7-8:“And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him…? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily.” That’s a tough one in my mind – especially when it doesn’t seem like God is answering my prayers very “speedily” at all. But here’s the interesting thing: Jesus doesn’t seem anywhere near as concerned here with God’s timing in answering our prayers as with our faithfulness in continuing to ask. For Jesus the real question is: “But when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (v. 8). As one insightful commentary puts it: “This parable teaches that the only legitimate reason to stop praying for something is the return of Christ” (bible.org). In other words, crazy as it is, it seems that Jesus fully expects us to keep praying for answers and interceding for others all the way up until His coming!  Christ’s Object Lessons challenges us this way: “There is no danger that the Lord will neglect the prayers of His people. The danger is that in temptation and trial they will become discouraged, and fail to persevere in prayer.” I’m not going to pretend this isn’t tough for us. Why would Jesus put such high demands on His people? Perhaps one reason is because prayer is the key to a relationship. If we think of prayers as our soul’s lifeline, as our connection with our heavenly Father, then the purpose of continued prayer takes on an entirely different meaning, doesn’t it?

In closing, I hope you will be blessed by these beautiful thoughts on prayer:

Not one sincere prayer is lost. Amid the anthems of the celestial choir, God hears the cries of the weakest human being. We pour out our heart’s desire in our closets, we breathe a prayer as we walk by the way, and our words reach the throne of the Monarch of the universe. They may be inaudible to any human ear, but they cannot die away into silence, nor can they be lost through the activities of business that are going on. Nothing can drown the soul’s desire. It rises above the din of the street, above the confusion of the multitude, to the heavenly courts. It is God to whom we are speaking, and our prayer is heard. (Christ’s Object Lessons)

Regarding Fairness: The Parable of the Vineyard Workers

I can’t wait to study our Stepping Stones lesson of the parable of the vineyard workers with you! If you have some time, please find a Bible and read Matthew 20:1-16… Now, let’s just imagine ourselves for a minute as the first group of workers. How would you feel after a boiling day in the sun as you watch the group of workers who showed up at the very last hour getting paid an entire day’s wages? Wouldn’t you be excited at the anticipation of an even better reward because of your diligent hard work? And then, bam, you end up getting paid the same amount as they did! How is that fair?

To really understand this parable I think we need to jump back to Matthew 19. Here Jesus and the disciples are having a discussion about how seeking the kingdom of heaven sometimes involves sacrifice. Peter then breaks the ice with a rather blunt question: “Look, we’ve given up everything to follow you. What will we get out of it?” Isn’t it interesting how Peter’s question revealed a spirit very similar to that of the vineyard workers? Even after the years they had spent with Jesus, the disciples “still worked with the thought of meriting a reward in proportion to their labor” (Christ’s Object Lessons). So, Jesus told them a story that was sure to agitate them. How is it fair for a group of lazy vagabonds (i.e, them) who no one in his right mind would hire to get rewarded the same amount as those who have diligently toiled all day long – i.e., us!?

But the whole point here is that it isn’t fair! It’s grace! You see, we get caught up in this parable trying to figure out which group we belong in (nearly all of us will identify ourselves with the first group, by the way) and trying to determine how “fairness” factor works out for each party involved. But this parable isn’t about the workers – it’s about the awesomely generous vineyard owner! It’s about realizing that we are all in that last rag-tag group of social leftovers who no one else would give a shot. After an hour’s pittance of labor, we get paid off as if we had actually done something useful! Our reward has nothing to do with our effort but has everything to do with the character of the gracious vineyard owner. When we finally view this parable from that perspective, we see that things are absolutely not fair – and that’s the most exciting news we can hear!

The Prodigal Son

As we read through Luke 15:11-32, let’s first remember the audience of this parable. Verses 1-2 tell us that all the tax collectors and “sinners” drew near to Jesus. You see, there was just something about Jesus that attracted people and made them feel accepted and loved – no matter what their sordid past may have been. But, of course, the Pharisees couldn’t stand this about Jesus! They grumbled against Jesus, complaining, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” This context sets the stage for our parable of the prodigal son.

We all know the story: A spoiled kid demands his father’s inheritance. The father agrees and divides his estate between his two boys. After packing up for a far country and then squandering his small fortune, the younger son eventually finds himself starving in the middle of a famine. So, dejected and humiliated, he decides to head home, practicing his apology speech: “‘Father, I have done wrong—wrong against God and against you. I have forfeited any right to be treated like your son, but I’m wondering if you’d treat me as one of your hired servants?’” (verses 18-19, The Voice) But even while the son was a great way off, “the father saw him and ran out to him, enfolded him in an embrace, and kissed him!” (You see, the father had never stopped looking for him!) And then, the party is on! The joy of the father knows no bounds – he lavishes his son with extravagant affection! And that’s where our story happily ends, right? Well, not quite yet.

The focus of the parable shifts to the older son. Rather than rejoicing that his brother has returned, the older son bitterly laments to his dad, “Listen, all these years I’ve worked hard for you. I’ve never disobeyed one of your orders. But how many times have you even given me a little goat to roast for a party with my friends?” These words show us that not only has the oldest son labored with the attitude of a begrudging servant, rather than a devoted son, but he has also completely misunderstood the character of his Father! The older brother continues: “So this son of yours comes, this wasteful delinquent who has spent your hard-earned wealth on loose women, and what do you do? You butcher the fattest calf from our herd!”

Jesus’ point in this story is that the youngest son represents the publicans and sinners while the oldest son represents the Pharisees. Like the older son, the Pharisees had been hard at work, strictly adhering to the law and their ceremonial traditions in the hope of earning the inheritance of the heavenly Father. Both the older son and the Pharisees were serving, not from love but from a sense of duty – the goal was to earn their righteousness. But Jesus’ point is that the Father’s extravagant love has nothing to do with what we earn – and isn’t that terrific news for us!? The Father pleads with his son: “My son [huios – my dear, beloved son], you are always with me, and all I have is yours. Isn’t it right to join in the celebration and be happy? This is your brother we’re talking about. He was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found again!” We don’t know how the story ends because this parable is actually an invitation – to the Pharisees of Christ’s day as well as to us. It’s an invitation to accept the Father’s extravagant, prodigal love. Because even though we may think we are the dutiful older son, we are, in fact, that runaway son in a far country. But in exchange for our filth and spiritual poverty, God offers to lavish upon us His robe of righteousness and the riches of heaven! He’s inviting us to biggest party the universe has ever seen! It’s simply an offer we can’t refuse.