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  • Writer's picturePastor Brett

An Empty Seat at the Feast

We had an unexpected pleasure this week: a friend we hadn’t seen in 24 years called and said she was in Sioux Falls and hoped to visit us. It is great to renew friendships like that; Facebook is simply not equal to the task of staying in touch.

Her visit reminded me of an experience we shared with this couple way back in the 80s. We were at a waterfront park in Burlington, Vermont, enjoying a summer picnic. We’d finished our lunch when we noticed a homeless man had come into the park.

After a brief conversation among ourselves, we decided to put together the remainder of our lunch to offer the man a meal. I was “voluntold” to take it over to him. (None of the rest of them had the guts to do it.) I took the plate and a can of Coke over to him. He received it with little fanfare and sat at a nearby picnic table to eat. I don’t suppose we exchanged a half-dozen words.

I don’t offer this story to boast about our generosity. After all, we could have invited the man to join us at our table, included him in our little party, offered to pray with him and witness to him. We could have done more.

This story illustrates the value of having a seat at the table; being invited to join in the feast. Jesus told a parable about a wedding feast in order to prove a point about God’s gracious offer of salvation and the deadly consequences of our refusal to accept.

To treat God’s grace with contempt is to invite condemnation.

A bit of cultural context will help us understand this parable. In Jesus’ day it was customary, especially on occasions like a big wedding, to sending out two invitations. The first invitation precedes this parable; it is assumed, not mentioned. That invitation was a warning that an important event was about to take place. These are like the “Save the Date” cards people are in the habit of sending nowadays.

A second invitation was sent on the day of the celebration, delivered by servants to inform the invitees that all was ready, and they should come immediately. It is this kind of invitation – the one that came on the day of the wedding – that is mentioned by Jesus in this parable. We will refer to the “day of” invitations as the first, second, and third invitations of this parable.

1. A tale of a feast, in five acts.

Act One = the first invitation is made. (1-3) This passage is part of a series of confrontations between Jesus and the Jewish religious authorities. These confrontations followed Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, which understandably worried the Jewish leaders and whipped them into action.

The focus of this parable is on the Kingdom of Heaven and how the Jewish authorities’ rejection of Jesus as Messiah would bring disaster on the nation. The KING is God. The GREAT WEDDING FEAST is the celebration of His Son the groom being wed to His bride, the people of God (as depicted in Isaiah 54:1-7).

There is an unexpected twist right away in v. 3; the invited guests REFUSED TO COME! The word REFUSED is tamer in English. In the Greek, it is an ongoing refusal to attend. A more dynamic translation might be “I’ll NEVER come!” Who turns down an invitation to a royal wedding AND does so in a rude fashion?!

Act Two = a second invitation is made. (4) This time the king attempted to “sell” the invitees on the prospect of coming. His servants are order to tell the invitees about the great meal that has been prepared; THE BULLS AND THE FATTENED CATTLE HAVE BEEN KILLED may not sound particularly appetizing to you, but it was meant to be an offer of good food to motivate them to come after all.

The king’s SERVANTS deliver his “elevator pitch” in verses three and four. The SERVANTS can be understood to be the priests and prophets, people who spoke God’s messages to His people. History shows they were ignored, mistreated, and even killed by their own countrymen who hated the truth and didn’t want to hear it.

Act Three = the replies were refusals and the king’s reaction was retribution. (5-7) We see two kinds of refusals, both of them surprising. One refusal to attend was passive, rudely ignore the invitation. This group of invitees made no answer to the invitation and went about doing everyday activities like farming and conducting BUSINESS. This group symbolizes worldly people who are so wrapped up in material things, they can’t be bothered with the things of God.

The other kind of refusal was aggressive. These people went so far as to SEIZE, INSULT, and kill the king’s MESSENGERS. This group symbolizes the people of Israel who historically persecuted the prophets. To Jesus’ listeners, the behavior of both these groups is bizarre, inexplicable. The story is so weird, Jesus must be making a point. He is. The point of the parable is to treat God’s grace with contempt is to invite condemnation.

The king’s reaction to their refusal is also surprising, because it feels a little out of proportion to the offense. But we need to remember four things.

- Some of these people were murderers. They’d KILLED the king’s MESSENGERS after treating them poorly.

- The rest were just as disrespectful and disobedient but were more passive-aggressive about it.

- The KING acted within his rights. He had the authority to deal with these disobedient people any way he thought was right.

- With these parables, Jesus was deliberately provoking the Jewish religious leaders to take action against Him. They understood that they were the disobedient people of the town that dared to refuse the KING and KILL his messengers. Jesus warned and provoked them in this parable.

Act Four = a third invitation is made. (8-10) The KING rightly decreed that those who’d been INVITED were not WORTHY OF THE HONOR. However, to the degree that the KING represents God, the KING is gracious, like God is. So, with grace and practicality, the KING ordered his SERVANTS to invite everyone to the FEAST. No longer would the guest list include only a select group, now all people would be welcome to attend. This too was an unexpected twist.

The king ordered his servants to search the STREET CORNERS (literally, the “forks in the road” or “city gates”); places where people typically gathered to converse and conduct trade. Now HONOR is no longer a consideration. It seems the plan had changed from collecting a set of quality people to gathering a quantity of people, enough to fill the BANQUET HALL with guests, GOOD AND BAD ALIKE.

In broad strokes, this parable anticipates the Gentiles being invited into the Kingdom of Heaven. It was because the first invitees, the Jews, had rejected God’s Messiah and, in so doing, brought God’s condemnation down upon themselves.

Act Five = an unwelcome guest is rejected. (11-13) The king’s instructions were, “INVITE EVERYONE YOU SEE.” (9) It should not have surprised anyone listening that if you shook the tree hard enough, a few “bad apples” would also fall into the basket.

You may want to feel sorry for the guy. Maybe you imagine he didn’t happen to have a tuxedo hanging in his closet. However, you need to know that one of the wedding customs of the day – something you could easily expect at a royal wedding – was that the groom supplied special garments for the wedding.

The fact that this guy is sitting at the table with the improper clothes means that he refused to wear the clothes the prince supplied him. That seems like a dumb move, doesn’t it? That may explain why, when he was confronted by the KING personally, he had NO REPLY.

The KING knew an insult when he saw one. This man, for whatever reasons, had ungratefully rejected the offer of fancy wedding clothes, preferring to sit at the table wearing his street clothes. Still, the king approached him gently, asking him, “FRIEND, HOW IS IT THAT YOU ARE HERE WITHOUT WEDDING CLOTHES?”

The king’s reaction to this insult was final: He ordered the man bound and thrown out of the banquet hall. His chair would now be empty. Know that the phrase “OUTER DARKNESS, WHERE THERE IS WEEPING AND GNASHING OF TEETH” is frequently Jesus’ way of referring to Hell.

2. The moral of the tale, in one statement.

“MANY ARE CALLED” means God does not discriminate; He offers salvation to all people. This fits precisely with the king’s instructions for the third invitation: “INVITE EVERYONE YOU CAN FIND.”

The sacrificial death of Jesus Christ is universal in scope. All people, indeed, all creation, is affected by it. That does not mean all people are saved. There are many – most, in fact – who are ungrateful and unfaithful and want to come to the table on their own terms. This is not an option. Such persons have defied the KING just as much as did those who refused his first two invitations.

“FEW ARE CHOSEN” means that few will choose to accept Jesus as their Savior and live eternally. While Jesus achieved universal salvation, it will not be universally effective because FEW will choose to believe. That’s a sad truth Jesus acknowledged in Matthew 7:13-14. God does not force anyone to choose Him. Part of His image in us is free will.

I think the word CHOSEN applies equally to God’s sovereign choice; His decision to accept those whom He foreknew would receive Him. It also refers to the Old Testament promise of God choosing a “remnant,” a number of His people who would survive a coming day of worldly opposition to continue to serve God.

In this passage we see three responses to God’s offer of salvation.

- Flat refusal is the response the KING received to his first two invitations.

- Full acceptance is the response symbolized by the people who sat at the table wearing the wedding clothes supplied by the prince. (They had to change to be seated at the table – get it?)

- False acceptance is the guy who refused to change but sat down at the table anyway. This is the hypocrite, the person who dares to set terms to God. They deserve no place at the table and when the King stands before them, they will be outed and cast into Hell. Judas Iscariot may be the ultimate example of this person.

To treat God’s grace with contempt is to invite condemnation.

The question before every one of us at this critical moment is, “Where are you sitting?“

- If you have refused God’s offer of salvation, you have no seat at the table. Be warned; the end of this decision is deadly.

- If you have only pretended to accept God’s offer of salvation, you will soon be removed from your seat. Be warned; the end of this decision is deadly.

- If you have accepted God’s offer of salvation and embraced the changes it makes in you, you are sitting at the banquet table, about to be served the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. Be joyful: heaven is your eternal reward!


Message #838

The Cornerstone Bible Commentary, Vol. 12, Matthew, 2015, David L. Turner

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