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 one said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land and I need to go out and look at it; please consider me excused.’ Another one said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please consider me excused.’ Another one said, ‘I have married a wife, and for that reason I cannot 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.’
And the servant said, ‘Master, what you commanded has been done, and still there is 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. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste of my dinner.’”
Jesus was attending Sabbath dinner at the house of a prominent Pharisee. He has blasted them for being unwilling to heal on the Sabbath when they would work to save a valuable ox or a beloved child. He has condemned them for seeking the place of honor at the table and only doing good to those who can repay the kindness. He concludes in verse 14 that those who are truly humble will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. Most responded with silence, but one man clearly missed the point. He certainly thinks the previous parables were not about him and includes himself as one of the humble when saying that those who eat at the heavenly banquet will be blessed. He was proud to think himself as not too proud to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus follows this statement by telling an absurd story. A wealthy man invites people to a banquet. In these days without calendars and watches, a party planner sent out a pre-invitation. Then when the preparations were ready he would send another invitation. When the man in the parable sends his notice that the party is ready, it is impossible to imagine that anyone would not come. A really nice party could last for days of feasting and fun. In a world where daily life was repetitive and could feel mundane, such a celebration would not be missed.
But when the second invitation is received, all those invited make ridiculous excuses for not coming. The first needs to go check out the dirt in a field he has bought. The second, a clearly wealthy man, wants to see how at his five yoke of new oxen perform. The third has a wife who won't let him come. In this society the man was certainly the head of the house, so this is clearly an excuse. What wife wouldn't want to hit the party of the year?
The servant brings the shocking news back to the master. After all the preparation for an amazing feast, no one is coming! Beyond rudeness and breaching the social mores of the society, a refusal of this nature indicated that you wanted no friendship with the person throwing the feast. This group represents the Jewish leaders and the nation rejecting Jesus. They were pre-invited by the words of the Old Testament and were now the Messiah was telling them the banquet was ready. The master sends out his servant to invite the crippled blind and lame from the streets. This is the notably the same groups Jesus said should be invited to every banquet. This group would be confused at the invitation, knowing that they could not repay the feast. These attendees represent those in the Jewish nation who believed in and followed Jesus - those who mourned over their wretched spiritual state rather than believing they were entitled to salvation because of their Abrahamic ancestry and adherence to legalistic rules and traditions.
But there is still room at the banquet. The servant is sent out again to convince those in the countryside and byways to come to the banquet. This represents those outside the Jewish faith - the Gentiles. The master's house is now filled with a surprising guest list, and none of those originally invited taste so much as a slice of juicy lamb.
The Pharisees were self-sacrificing. They fasted, gave tithes to the temple, and followed minute laws added through the centuries to avoid even coming near sin. In Matthew 23 Jesus compares the weight of this burden as a cumbersome one, impossible to lift. The whole reason behind this was for personal glory on earth as well as the promise of eternal reward. They would not only be in heaven, but they would have the best seat at the table. This is why in Mathew 20 the mother of James and John requests that they sit at the right and left hand of Jesus in his kingdom. Your work on earth would be rewarded.
People today like religion to be comforting. As long as you do your best and believe something with all your heart, you're good. But Jesus always spoke to shatter false religious hope. He didn't tell his listeners, "Don't worry, we all worship the same God. You're good." No, Jesus said, "No one comes unto the Father except through me." He was tough.
We like to pat ourselves on the back as well. Yesterday the Barna Research Group released a survey examining whether modern day Christians are more like Jesus or more like the Pharisees. (Read an article about it here.) 51% of respondents chose beliefs and actions consistent with the Pharisees. 14% exhibit beliefs and actions consistent with Jesus. In the middle were Christians who show a mix of Pharisaical beliefs and Jesus' teaching. Evangelical Christians were more likely to have the actions of Jesus, but often had the actions of Jesus without the beliefs. Perhaps this is why Christians are branded as hypocritical. Even when practice the right behavior, we may have the wrong motives. Practicing Catholics were more likely to have Christ-like beliefs but Pharisaical actions. Women were more likely to be "Christ-like" than men, maybe because we tend to be more nurturing.
Authentic faith, in word and deed, is much more difficult than finding and following "religion". Only the transforming power of walking with God, through the forgiveness of Jesus, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit can change us into the image of Christ. No amount of "effort" on our part will amount to anything.
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” - 1 Corinthians 1:26-31