The Pharisees had decided to test Jesus’ view of the Great Banquet at the end of the age. The Jews had taken the vision of bringing all the nations of the world into the banquet and turned it into a story where the Gentiles are brought to the banquet only to meet their doom as God’s people are lifted up. Here is the parable Jesus offered in response to their challenge as Kenneth Bailey has translated it and placed it in stanzas.
15 When one of those who sat at table with him heard this,
he said to him, "Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!"
16 But he said to him, "A man once gave a great banquet and invited many.
17 And he sent out his servant at the hour of the banquet 'Come;
Because already it is prepared.’
18 But they all alike began to make excuses.
The first said to him, 'I have bought a field,
and I must go out and see it;
I pray you have me excused.'
19 Another said, 'I bought five yoke of oxen,
and I go to examine them;
I pray you have me excused.'
20 Another said, 'I have married a wife,
and therefore ….
I cannot come.'
21 So the servant came and reported this to his master.
Then the householder in anger said to the servants, 'Go out
into the streets and lanes of the city
and bring in the poor, maimed and blind and lame.'
22 And the servant said,
'Sir, what you commanded has been done,
and there is still room.'
23 And the master said to the servants, 'Go out
to the highways and hedges,
and compel people to enter, that my house may be filled.
24 For I tell you, none of those men were invited will taste my dinner.'"
Jesus begins with the image of a man who is throwing a great banquet. Bailey explains that in Middle Eastern culture when you are going to throw a banquet like this you send your servant around to invite folks and find out who is going to come the day before the banquet. You then prepare the meal accordingly. On the day of the banquet, when the food is ready, the servant is sent back to those who have said they would come, and he says to them “Please come. The banquet is ready.” Bailey says that this is how it is done to this day and the wording used in verse 17 is the same wording that is used today.
Note also that in verse 17 Jesus says “at the hour of the banquet.” Bailey points out that there is strong eschatological meaning to this statement. It refers to the “hour” at which the messiah comes. But then Jesus tells us in verse 18a that those who had been invited all began to make excuses. Understand that to accept an invitation to a meal and then not attend is a serious insult in Middle Eastern culture. If one must be excused, then it had better be for a very good reason. Let’s take a closer look at the excuses.
18b: A field is bought.
Bailey explains that land transactions do no happen in a day. They happen after long periods of negotiation. Furthermore, the arable land available for agriculture is very limited. The plots of land in traditional villages actually had place names. That is how well demarcated and understood these pieces of land were. People in the community knew each other’s land. They knew who had owned each piece for the last fifty years. They knew it, as Bailey says in Arabic, “handbreadth by handbreadth.”
Now this character suggests he cannot come to the banquet because he has bought a field and has to go look at. Bailey likens this to some guy calling home and saying to his wife, “Honey, I can’t make it for dinner tonight because I just bought a house over the phone and now I have to go look at it and see what part of town it is in.” The man’s excuse is outrageously absurd! We know he is lying.
19: Oxen purchased
The character in verse 19 has bought five pair of oxen and he says he must go “examine” or “test” them. How does one make a purchase of a team of oxen? First, you must know that each member of the pair of oxen is of equal strength and of equal endurance; otherwise they will be worthless in the field. Therefore, it is important to observe them in action. How is this done? Bailey explains that in large villages there will sometimes be a large field near the marketplace. The person with a team to sell will take the oxen out in the field and work them for half an hour or so, so that prospective buyers can see them perform. In smaller villages, a seller will let others know that he plans to sell his oxen and interested parties may show up at a given date and observe the oxen at work throughout the day.
With this in mind, reflect on the excuse the man is giving. Just to heighten the absurdity, Jesus has this guy is buying not a yoke of oxen but five yoke of oxen which he has never examined! Again, contemporizing the idea, it is like calling up and saying, “I won’t be home for dinner because I just bought five used cars and I’m going to go down to the lot, see which ones they are, and find out if they will start.” It is outrageous! The man is lying through his teeth.
20: Just married.
Here Bailey points out a significant difference between Middle Eastern culture and our own culture. Men do not talk to each other about their women folk especially as it regards private matters in the home. Did the man not know he was getting married the day before when he said he would come? But today his excuse is spoken with shameless candor about what activities he and his new bride will be doing that evening. Again, it is outrageous behavior.
Bailey also invites us to note a subtle aspect to the communication that begins in verse 18b. The excuse makers are talking to the servant as though he is the master. They do not say, “Tell your master such and such.” They speak as if the servant and the master are one. Jesus is the servant of the Father with whom he is one.
We learn in verse 21 that the master is angry. However, he does not choose to strike down those who have so outrageously dishonored him. Instead, he sends the servant back out to invite others in. Who are these others? They are the outcasts who live in the streets and the lanes. Remember from the previous post who the Essenes at Qumran said would not enter?
And every person smitten with these impurities, unfit to occupy a place in the midst of the Congregation, and every (person) smitten in his flesh, paralyzed in his hands and feet, lame or blind or deaf, or dumb or smitten in his flesh with a blemish visible to the eye, or any aged person that totters and is unable to stand firm in the midst of the Congregation: let those persons not enter.
But the Master in Jesus' story says (verse 21):
…and bring in the poor, maimed and blind and lame.
These are the lowly and despised among the Jews. It is a direct and unmistakable refutation of the image offered by the Essenes.
The servant does as he is told but reports that having done so, there still is room for more. Therefore, the master sends the servant out again, this time to go outside the community into the “highways and hedges” and bring these folks into the banquet (a euphemism for the inviting the Gentiles.)
Bailey focuses on the word “compel” in verse 23 and laments how this word has been horribly misunderstood at various times in history. It has been interpreted as an instruction to bring people into the Kingdom of God by force. Bailey points out that in Middle Eastern culture when someone of higher status invites you to a banquet and you are unworthy to attend, you must assume they do not mean it. Therefore, the messenger must be diligent and persuasive in inviting the person to the banquet or the person invited will simply dismiss it is a nice gesture they are obligated to refuse. The master sends his servant and tells him to compel them to come into the kingdom.
Notice something about the three types of folks receiving invitations. The religious folks got their invitation and refused to attend. They have decided not to attend and they insult the master. They presume that by so many not attending they will bring the master’s party down around his ears. The master in essence says, "I have no need of you." He sends out his servant to invite in the outcast of Israel and they have showed up at the banquet. These make up a great many of the people who are keeping company with Jesus at the time. But there is still room. Therefore, the master gives the command to the servant to go to those outside the community. And here is the critical point: The servant has received the command and is on the brink of responding to the command but he has not yet left as the story ends. It is a foretelling of the mission of the Church to bring the Gentiles into the household of God for the Great Banquet.
Jesus ends in verse 24 saying “I tell you…” The “you” is in the plural. Jesus has ended the story and is now talking to his hearers. He informs them it is not the Gentiles who are in for a big surprise at the Great Banquet. They are the ones who are rejecting Jesus' invitation to be at table at the Great Banquet. They are the ones who are going to discover that they have missed it of their own choosing. The household of Israel expands to become the household of God, which includes all peoples and nations.