Discipleship means accepting an ongoing challenge. It means a continuous choice around our priorities. We have to be more guests of Jesus and less self interested and entitled. Prioritisation is required to make good on the invitation made to us. Repetition, familiarity, and the regular pattern of religious life can cause us to forget the urgency of opportunity. The gospel is about a choice, to choose life over death, but we have to keep making this choice, we cannot enter the kingdom of God based on membership in any group.
In Luke 14 Jesus was at a feast hosted by a Pharisee. The in-crowd were testing Jesus but he takes control of the situation to swing the lens onto his host and fellow guests. Jesus points out that generosity really is giving to those who can’t repay and encourages the host to use his hospitality for the poor rather than the elites. One hearer responds, seemingly awkwardly, with:
Blessed is everyone who will feast in the kingdom of GodLuke 14:15 NET
Was this a genuine comment or an awkward interjection to deflect the uncomfortable comments of this northern rabbi? Regardless of its intent, Jesus uses it as a springboard to challenge the entitlement of his fellow diners. As Nolland notes:
Jesus does not question the sentiment, but his story does bring the matter from the future into the present, and it does place in question a corollary of the sentiment: that such a prospect would automatically be first priority for all for whom it became a possibility.1
Jesus will demonstrate via parable that all the privilege in the world is irrelevant if there is not priority given to God’s calling.
Other versions of the Luke 14 parable
A very similar parable exists in Matt 22, albeit with some differences. In Matt 22 the event is a wedding feast, in addition to excuses, some guests abuse the servants, the king sends an army to punish them and then the story ends with an individual incorrectly attired (probably not wearing the correct wedding garment). So there are some significant differences to Luke 14. Is this the same parable or a different telling by Jesus reworking the base story? It seems sensible to agree with Snodgrass that the extent of variation points to the passages not being parallel.2
A very similar parable occurs in a similar form in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. The excuses are a little different and the conclusion of the parable is overtly anti-wealth with Jesus purportedly saying:
Dealers and merchants [will] not enter the places of my Father3
This seems to be a pretty clear distortion of the views of Jesus on wealth and those reflected later in the New Testament where money, while creating issues, can be a force for good (eg 1 Tim 6:17-19). The gospel of Thomas version provides little insight to the parable other than perhaps an example of how parables can be reshaped by new audiences in a way which can distort or even destroy the original message.
Some misleading approaches to the parable
Parables are prone to overinterpretation. Bro Harry Tennant (a popular now deceased Christadelphian) allegedly said words to the effect of ‘don’t focus on the furniture of the parable’. Exactly. Too much attention is given to the minutia of a parable which can detract from the main point. Even worse, over exposition can undermine the parable.
A strange example to demonstrate. Augustine taught that
The five pairs of oxen are the senses of this body4
He went on to explain the positives and negatives of each sense based on the fact that there are pairs of oxen. Such enthusiasm is misplaced and distracts from the power of the parable. A further quite negative example of misinterpreting the parable is the way Augustine (among others) used the urging of the third round of guests to justify forceful conversions – especially of heretics.5
Various readers of the parable spend (waste) time claiming the host is God and the servant Jesus, others put Jesus as the host and servants as the disciples. For some there is a mission to Gentiles in the supplementary invitations to strangers. Yet the subsequent rounds of invitees are not the focus of the parable. They are merely a foil to the first group. It is to the first group that the parable returns at its conclusion
none of those who were invited will taste my dinnerLuke 14:24 NET
This should direct our interpretation. The lesson of the parable is bound up in the experience of the first invitees. It is from them that we should derive instruction.
Focussing on the furniture of the parable dilutes the message. The religious and social elites, who know they will be at the banquet table, may miss out if they don’t prioritise the invitation. There’s probably two issues to focus on right there.
The background – Jewish expectation
Jesus parables did not arise in a vacuum but reflect the context of first century Palestine. This included using parables to teach. In Jesus’ case, as a popular and powerful teacher, parables were often used to deliver unexpected and challenging messages. The cultural background included a collection of stock symbols and motifs which Jesus drew on.6 The banquet was a common well understood symbol:
Texts reflecting Jewish expectation (as early as Is 25:6–9) often portrayed the kingdom of God as a banquet7
Isaiah 25:6-9 presents an invitation from God to all people to a rich banquet. At this banquet – or in connection with the invitation, death itself would be abolished and all tears removed by God. This idea of universal or global blessing but a local focus on Jerusalem isn’t unusual in Isaiah. Isa 2:1-4 provides a similarly expansive and positive view of God’s intentions with all nations, using Jerusalem as His capital.
By the time of Jesus though, the banquet as a symbol of God’s kingdom, had become much narrower in scope. Bailey provides some examples of how the kingdom banquet was understood. A summary of his comments is below8:
- In the Targum Isa 25 is radically re-interpreted to mean “Yahweh of hosts will make for all the peoples in this mountain a meal. And although they supposed it is an honor, it will be a shame for them and great plagues, plagues from which they will be unable to escape, plagues whereby they will come to their end.” Quite a different picture to Isaiah!
- In the Book of Enoch, Gentiles get to the banquet but are then destroyed by the angel of death. The Jews have to wade through the gore of the dead to Messiah’s table. One way of building up an appetite!
- According to the exclusive Qumran community, only the most pious Jews can attend the banquet and even then there are more restrictions as “no one can attend the banquet who is smitten in his flesh, or paralyzed in his feet or hands, or lame, or blind or deaf or dumb or smitten in his flesh with a visible blemish.”
When Jesus starts a parable about the banquet/kingdom of God, his hearers would not only recognize the motif. They would have a very specific (and narrow) understanding of who would be at God’s feast. It would be the height of arrogance to assume the practice of faith traditions getting an outsized sense of entitlement or becoming overly exclusive ended with them. Jesus in the parable takes these narrow readings on. According to Jesus, God will have people to His feast that may surprise the elites and won’t measure their expectations. The elites’ attendance at the feast is a more tenuous proposition than they imagine.
The invitation goes out and the call v16 & 17
Invitations to a banquet didn’t operate in a manner too far removed from a dinner party today:
As in ancient custom (see Esth 5:8 cf. 6:14; Lam Rab. 4:2; Philo, Opif. 78; Terence, Heaut. 169–70; Apuleius, Met. 3.12), invitations had been issued and accepted ahead of time, and at the appointed time when things were quite ready, the domestic slave was sent around to summon the guests on the day9
Snodgrass adds the observation that
Noteworthy is the fact that the time is usually designated on the invitation10
We might draw the comparison with inviting people to dinner and then after they have arrived, when the food is ready, inviting them up to the table.
It seems the guests of the master are well to do individuals, similar to those who heard Jesus speak that night. This is conveyed to us by the excuses of the only three guests we hear of. At least the first two have significant personal wealth. Jesus never specifically identifies who the “many” invitees are. In the context and given their wealth we could easily conclude that the Jewish elite are meant – those who had a genealogical claim on election but would go on as a class to reject Jesus. However as Nolland points out this “emphasis on historical election that goes beyond the concern of the parable”.11
Jesus – and Luke as the subsequent narrator – are not concerned to tell us who the first round invitees are. The specific identities are not the point and in fact can detract from the point. It is the quality of the first round picks and their attitude which is relevant to the hearer. If we imagine the first round of guests are the smug Jewish elite who assumed their salvation, are we not demonstrating the same dangerous smugness by defining ourselves as the second and third round guests who will sit at the master’s table without a doubt?
The excuses of the elite v 18 -20
The first round of guests find an unusual unity of voice in responding to the final call up to the banquet. Fitzmeyer highlights the phrasing:
they all at once began to decline. The prepositional phrase apo mias, lit. “from one,” is probably an Aramaism, related to later Christian Palestinian Aramaic12
This is most likely a rhetorical device to underline the surprising rudeness and shock of the situation. It suggests exaggeration to drive home the absurdity of the scenario.
In terms of the excuses, commentators like Blomberg13 note there is often a connection made to the text of Deut 20:5-8 which enabled men to escape military duty if they had just bought a house, planted a vineyard or married. However it seems unlikely that Jesus is drawing this connection. Only one of the three excuses align to the Deut 20 exemptions. Besides this is not a war, it is a feast.
What the excuses share is self-indulgence. Would any buy land without checking it first? Or a team of oxen? What we have is activities which broadly align to the “business as usual” preoccupations highlighted by the Lord when discussing judgment in the days of Noah and of Lot in Luke 17:26–31.14 In the story the host is appallingly shamed with each absurd excuse. What is obvious in a parable becomes less so in real life. We all have reasons for our choices. Some are good ones. The parable holds up a stark warning – no excuse is rational in the context of rejecting Jesus’ invitation to God’s banquet. Every excuse is absurd. The absolute priority must be making good on accepting the invitation.15
This parable has no fire and brimstone judgement. It contains a more frightening picture. Exclusion from God’s banquet is voluntary. Not necessarily in a conscious considered way. In the exaggeration of the parable, the point is made that the rejected self-select because they fail to prioritise God’s kingdom over their temporary pursuits. More than this, they fail to recognise that they are fundamentally out of alignment with the master. They imagine themselves worthy invitees – but they are anything but.
V21-23 the reaction of the master and subsequent invitees
The master is, understandably, furious at the rudeness of his guests. However rather than retaliate and exact revenge against those who shamed him, something remarkable happened:
the master creates a new and unprecedented option. He chooses to reprocess his anger into grace16
God’s purpose is not thwarted by the self-elevated “righteous”. As Isa 55:11 promises, God’s purpose will be accomplished, His word, which found its highest expression in Jesus, will accomplish its purpose in entering the world. God will call out a people for His name (Acts 15:14), whether individuals respond to Him or not.
In a concerted effort, the servants invite all and sundry to the feast. The master will not let his preparations be in vain, his table will be full. He tells his servants to urge the outcasts to come in. Yet while the invitation is urgent and powerful expressed there is no conversion by force, rather:
It is the constraint of love, the gentle violence of the one who convinces hesitant guests and persuades them to enter.17
The temptation is to read in round 2 or 3 of the invitees as being the Gentiles. If we assume it to be true we put ourselves in the same self entitled boat as those who heard Jesus speak. We are defining ourselves as the chosen ones who will enter the kingdom. Rather than define which group we might be in, our focus and attention should instead be on an understanding of the nature of our calling. As others have noted, perhaps we are not among those originally called, instead we are brought in, more than this we are urged in, which should be humbling.18 We are qualified for the kingdom by God, not ourselves Col 1:12-13. Our response determines whether we maintain or surrender the qualification. Jesus teaching is about self importance and priority, not a literal claim on the kingdom.
Perhaps because his gospel was intended for a broader audience than Palestinian Jews, Luke is no stranger to presenting a broad view of the gospel’s reach. Hand in hand with this is the message that salvation will turn the natural order on its head. The last will be first and vice versa (Luke 13:30). The criteria for entry to the kingdom is not genealogy but rather making the gospel invitation a priority.
The parable makes clear that our imagined suitability for the kingdom, based on whatever criteria our community might imagine, is worthless. God’s generosity is not limited by our tradition. All and any excuses for not prioritising the call will one day sound lame to the point of being absurd. The question we should concern ourselves with is not our imagined privilege but where our priorities lie and therefore where we fit in the parable.
God’s generosity is not thwarted by the rejection of the “establishment,” because He extends his invitation even to the dispossessed of this world.19 The banquet will be held, that is not in question. We are qualified, rescued and transferred to the Kingdom by God (in prospect) by grace not by our doing. Yet the distinguishing feature of the final actual attendees is that they respond, they act on the call now and prioritise it above their daily interests.
Like all of the parables, the banquet story can be muzzled. We can read it to explain the failure of another group of people. However this dodging the issue. Parables are meant to point at us, if they don’t challenge us we are probably misreading them. This parable in Luke 14 invites us to consider our own response. What priority do we give to the master’s invitation really?
- Nolland, J. (1993). Luke 9:21–18:34(Vol. 35B, p. 758). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
- Snodgrass, K. (2018). Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus(Second Edition, p. 310). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
- Robinson, J. M., Hoffmann, P., & Kloppenborg, J. S. (Eds.). (2000). The critical edition of Q: synopsis including the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Mark and Thomas with English, German, and French translations of Q and Thomas. Minneapolis; Leuven: Fortress Press; Peeters.
- Augustine of Hippo. (1844–1845). Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament (Vol. 1, p. 460). Oxford; London: John Henry Parker; J. G. F. and J. Rivington; J. and F. Rivington.
- Augustine of Hippo. (1887). A Treatise concerning the Correction of the Donatists. In P. Schaff (Ed.), J. R. King (Trans.), St. Augustin: The Writings against the Manichaeans and against the Donatists (Vol. 4, p. 642). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.
- Blomberg, C. (1990). Interpreting the parables (p. 37). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Lk 14:15). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- Bailey, K. E. (2008). Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (pp. 310–311). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
- Nolland, J. (1993). Luke 9:21–18:34 (Vol. 35B, p. 755). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
- Snodgrass, K. (2018). Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Second Edition). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
- Nolland, J. (1993). Luke 9:21–18:34 (Vol. 35B, p. 755). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
- Fitzmyer, J. A., S. J. (2008). The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28A, p. 1055). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.
- Blomberg, C. (1990). Interpreting the parables (p. 85). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- Snodgrass, K. (2018). Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Second Edition, p. 307). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
- Bovon, F. (2013). Luke 2: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 9:51–19:27. (H. Koester, Ed., D. S. Deer, Trans.) (p. 370). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
- Bailey, K. E. (2008). Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (p. 316). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
- Bovon, F. (2013). Luke 2: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 9:51–19:27. (H. Koester, Ed., D. S. Deer, Trans.) (p. 373). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
- Augustine of Hippo. (1844–1845). Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament (Vol. 1, p. 459). Oxford; London: John Henry Parker; J. G. F. and J. Rivington; J. and F. Rivington.
- Blomberg, C. (1990). Interpreting the parables (p. 236). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.