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The parable of the great banquet
Luke chapter 14, verses 15-24
When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, “Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.”
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 said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’
“Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’
“Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t 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.’
“‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’
“Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’”
Earlier, a question had been put to Jesus: “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” (chapter 13, verse 23). In his answer, Jesus did not enter into the numbers game. Rather, he urged all his listeners to strive to enter the banquet hall by the narrow door. He also told his audience that there will be some surprises among those seated at the feast of salvation. Jesus continues to carry out that thought in this third parable told at the dinner given by the Pharisee.
The parable of the great banquet is prompted by a remark made by one of Jesus’ table companions: “Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.” This beatitude reminds one of a number of earlier such pronouncements by Jesus and others (chapter 6, verses 20-22; chapter 11, verses 27 and 28). It is very similar to the words of Revelation 19:9: “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” Yet it becomes obvious from the parable which Jesus tells that not everyone really regards God’s salvation banquet as something so wonderful. A man who prepared a great banquet made provisions for many guests. Invitations had gone out. When all is ready, the host sends out his servant to bid the invited guests to come and eat.
But, surprisingly, the servant is met with a barrage of excuses. Three samples are given as characteristic of the many that are made. The first two put property and possession above partaking in the banquet of salvation. The claims of money take precedence (chapter 16, verse 13). In businesslike fashion, they politely ask to be excused from coming.
The third excuse involves family responsibilities. The one just married is somewhat like the disciple who could not follow Jesus since he was obliged to bury his dead father (chapter 9, verse 59). This rejection is less courteous than the first two. This man considers family matters more important than accepting the invitation. Thus he misses out on God’s banquet.
In this parable’s servant we see none other than Jesus Christ, who has come to invite his contemporaries to enter the narrow door to the feast of the kingdom of God. The call to repentance and faith is greeted with hostility and criticism by the prominent. The Servant of the Lord is deeply disappointed in this reception (chapter 13, verse 34).
The host is angered by such rejection of his kind invitation. He has made preparations for many and is determined to fill the hall. He sends his servant out again to go into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. Note that these are the very same categories of people whom Jesus previously had urged his dinner host to invite (chapter 14, verse 13). These are people living nearby in the same town, but people who know nothing about being invited to great banquets. This is the kind of people who responded positively to the preaching of Jesus.
But still there is room for more. So for a third time, the servant is sent out. He is to go to people in rural areas, into the country lanes and roads not often traveled. The host tells his servant to “make them come in, so that my house will be full.” Here is a marvelous picture of people streaming into the banquet hall from the far corners of the earth. Those who were first invited have missed their chance; the door is locked and they will not taste of the banquet. They refused to hear the preaching of Jesus and find themselves excluded.
No one can enter God’s kingdom without an invitation. The good news is that God has made all things ready and extends his invitation to all. Those who remain outside, refusing his gracious offer, have only themselves to blame. People cannot save themselves, but they can damn themselves.
This parable supplies a partial answer to the original question as to whether only a few people are going to be saved. It is an answer that emphasizes the abundance of God’s love for sinners. But it is an answer that also warns of the danger of rejecting God’s gracious invitation.
The cost of being a disciple
Luke chapter 14, verses 25-35
Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’
“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.
“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out.
“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Jesus is finished with his table talk and is back on the road again, followed (as always it seems) by large crowds. They have not lost their curiosity and anticipate the next miracle with enthusiasm. The words they now hear from the mouth of Jesus are meant to cool some of the shallow ardor the crowds so often displayed.
Jesus sets forth three conditions for following. First, there must be a willingness to leave behind family ties including the tie to oneself. The word “hate” sounds harsh to our ears, so much at odds with the earlier command to love even one’s enemy (chapter 6, verse 27). Jesus means to shock his listeners with this word, to make them realize that nothing dare come before him in the life of the disciple.
The second condition is to carry the cross. What this means is explained in the commentary on chapter 9, verses 18-27. The third condition for following is the willingness to give up all earthly possessions. This is the demand that the rich ruler will not able to fulfill (chapter 18, verses 22 and 23). These three conditions must be set alongside of those given in chapter 9, verses 57-62.
Jesus adds to these conditions three illustrations. The first is about a man who plans to build a tower. The builder will make sure that he has enough money to finish the job before even starting. Otherwise, he will be a laughingstock to his neighbors.
And no king thinks of starting a war without having a big enough army to finish the job. If he finds himself on the short end of things, his best course of action is to plead for peace.
Finally, Jesus uses the illustration of salt that loses all its taste. Such salt becomes totally worthless, not good for use even on a manure pile.
There needs to be mature, prior self-examination before joining the crowd of pilgrims surging after Jesus on the road to the cross. Being a follower calls for renouncing family, self, and possessions. Unless this happens, the follower will be like a builder who can’t finish his tower or a king who can’t win his war. When the going gets tough, lukewarm allegiance to Jesus will grow cold. Halfhearted commitment won’t do.
The closing admonition to hear was sounded previously at the end of the parable of the sower whose seed fell into four kinds of soil (chapter 8, verse 8). Fruitful hearing of the Word is choked by the trials and temptations of this world, by both its hardships and pleasures. The follower of Jesus needs to listen to everything Jesus has to say, not only what one wants to hear. It means hearing him tell us about the great supper of salvation and God’s gracious invitation to all. It means hearing him describe the narrow door of entry into the banquet hall.
The parable of the lost sheep
Luke chapter 15, verses 1-7
Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law mettered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
The previous section of Luke’s gospel had the cost of being a disciple as its subject. It concluded with Jesus’ admonition: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” This new chapter tells us who did gather to hear: tax collectors and sinners. And not only did they listen to Jesus—they were even welcomed to eat with him!
The word “sinner” may refer to people who were especially immoral and wicked; it may, however, refer simply to people who were not strict about fulfilling all the varied requirements of the ceremonial law. They were “sinners” in the eyes of the Pharisees because of their neglectful attitude toward religion. Tax collectors are one striking example of such sinners.
The question of eating with tax collectors and sinners was raised previously in chapter 5, verse 30 after Jesus had called Levi to become one of his followers. The Pharisees and teachers of the law again mutter about the table companions with whom Jesus fellowships. A Jewish commentary on Exodus chapter 18, verse 1 says, “Let not a man associate with the wicked, not even to bring him to the law.” Jesus is going totally against this rabbinic advice.
In answer to the criticism, Jesus tells three parables. All three have to do with joy over finding what was lost. First, a shepherd rejoices over finding the one lost sheep out of a hundred; next, a woman rejoices to find the one coin she had lost out of ten; finally, a father who has two sons gives a joyous banquet to celebrate the return of the one who had been lost.
Chapter 15 has been called “the lost and found chapter.” It has also been called the heart of the third gospel. This chapter introduces a larger unit, running through chapter 19, verse 27, that presents a series of stories about outcasts. We will hear Jesus say, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (chapter 19, verse 10). The lost find in Jesus a Savior; the proud and self-righteous find in him a judge.
For a shepherd to have a flock of one hundred sheep was quite normal. It also marked him as being moderately rich. That such a shepherd would leave his flock in open country in search of one lost sheep seems a bit unrealistic. Likewise unrealistic is the conduct of the father when his lost son returns home. Both point to a love for the lost that goes beyond anything human; it is a divine love which seeks the lost.
The description Jesus gives of the shepherd joyfully returning home carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders is heartwarming. He bids his friends to come and celebrate with him the recovery of one lost sheep. There is no mention at all of the 99 sheep out there in the open country. All attention is focused upon the lost sheep that was found. Jesus says that the same is true in heaven: there is more rejoicing over the lost sinner who repents than over the 99 righteous people who do not need to repent.
The suggestion that some people don’t need to repent sounds like heresy to us. Jesus had said to the crowds, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish” (chapter 13, verse 5). We need to understand the statement of Jesus as a criticism of the Pharisees who thought they were so righteous that they did not need to repent. Jesus is saying to them, “God is not rejoicing over you and your attitude; God is rejoicing over the lost sinner who repents.”
In the parable there is an invitation by the shepherd for his friends to share in the joy of finding the lost. The question needs to be asked, Are we able to share in God’s joy over the repenting sinner? This was something we will find that the older brother could not do. It was something that the Pharisees and law experts could not do. But the angels of God take part in his joyful celebration.
The parable of the lost coin
Luke chapter 15, verses 8-10
“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
This second lost-and-found parable presents a contrast with the previous one. Here the subject is not a moderately rich shepherd but a poor woman. There might be some rich people who would not make much of an effort to seek a coin that was lost. But this woman diligently seeks until she finds it.
The word “coin” here is a translation of the word drachma, the only time this particular Greek silver coin is mentioned in the Bible. Much more common is the Roman denarius. Both were worth about the same: a day’s wages of a hired hand. This peasant woman lived in a house only dimly lit with small windows and a low door. It would be hard to find the lost coin on the dirt floor. But she uses every possible means to recover what she had lost. To her the coin is very valuable.
That a poor woman should search so diligently for a lost coin does not surprise us. But that she should invite her friends and neighbors to join in celebrating her find is a bit much. It’s the way in which Jesus stresses the divine joy over the repentance of a single sinner.
The parable of the lost son
Luke chapter 15, verses 11-32
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
The traditional title for this third parable is “The prodigal son.” This title is found in 16th-century English Bibles and goes back to the Latin Vulgate. The NIV calls it “The parable of the lost son.” Yet the central figure in this parable is not the son but the father. It has been suggested that a better title might be “The parable of the father’s love.”
The first two parables in this series raised a question: “Does he/she not . . . ?” But the action of this father is so out of the ordinary that Jesus does not even dare to ask such a question in the case of the reception given to the returning son.
Here is a father more than human. Yet the son speaks of having “sinned against heaven and against you,” distinguishing his earthly father from the heavenly Father. This father is not so otherworldly that he is unable to serve as a model for the listeners of this parable.
Whereas the first two parables dealt with a lost animal and a lost coin, what the father loses is his son. The portrayal of this son evokes negative feelings. He does live up to the designation “prodigal.” He is recklessly wasteful. He can’t wait until his father dies to get his share of the property, which he immediately converts to cash. He does not remain at home to care for his aging father but goes to a country far off where he lives among Gentiles. There he squanders his money in wild living. The older brother adds the detail that the money was spent with prostitutes.
The time comes, however, when the money is gone; famine grips the land, and the prodigal son is forced to work on a pig farm caring for unclean animals. The pigs ate pods from the carob tree. This tree is found all over the Mediterranean area. Its long pods contain a sweet pulp and indigestible seeds, and they were used as food for animals, sometimes even for humans.
The prodigal son has plenty of time to think as he toils at his dirty job. He compares his condition to the far better status enjoyed by the hired servants of his father. He resolves to go back to his father, confess his sin, admit his unworthiness as a son, and beg to work as a hired hand.
But even before he is able to make his confession, the waiting father spots his returning son on the road. He runs to his son and welcomes him with hugs and kisses. He loves the sinner even before that sinner makes his statement of repentance. He orders the best robe, a ring and sandals, and a feast. The fatted calf kept for special occasions is killed. The celebration begins at once. The dead son lives—the lost has been found.
The excesses of the prodigal son are matched by the excesses of the loving father. What the father does is amazing. He runs to meet his wayward son. He does not put him on probation or lecture him for his sins. He is bountiful in the welcome he gives to his son. These are not the normal actions of a human father. Here is a portrayal of divine joy over a repenting sinner.
This joy is not at all shared by the older brother. We may feel a bit negative toward him but can surely understand why he might be upset. On returning from the field where he has been laboring faithfully in his father’s service, he hears music and dancing (the Greek words used here are carried over into English: symphony and chorus). When the older brother hears the reason for this expensive party, he refused to enter the house. He stands outside fuming.
The loving father again comes into the picture. He pleads for his older son to take part in the joyful celebration. What the father hears is criticism of his love. The older son reminds his father of the years of dutiful service he has rendered. But his virtue was not rewarded even with a young goat for a fun time with his friends. Yet the vice of “this son of yours” (the older son does not call him “brother”) is forgotten and a fatted calf is killed in his honor. There seems to be every reason for this older son’s bitterness.
One cannot fail to see Jesus here drawing a portrait of the Pharisees and experts in the law. They were proud of the dutiful way in which they observed all of God’s commands. They felt fully justified in criticizing Jesus for his fellowship with sinners and tax collectors. And they were not about to join in joyfully celebrating the repentance of a sinner.
The parable ends with one last attempt on the father’s part to explain his actions. He speaks of the prodigal son as “this brother of yours” and repeats the reason for celebrating. Jesus does not tell us whether or not the older son was persuaded. The parable is open-ended, inviting the listener to respond—do we participate in the joy?
This has been judged by some to be the greatest of Jesus’ parables. It has often been interpreted in music, art, and drama. Who can fail to be moved by the boundless love and joy of this father who welcomes back his lost son? Such is the nature of our heavenly Father, as demonstrated by his one and only Son, Jesus Christ.