2nd Sunday after Trinity
June 14th/15th, 2015
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
Excuses. We all make them from time to time. Sometimes, the excuses are completely made up. “I didn’t turn in my project because my dog ate it.” “I can’t go on a date with you next Saturday because I’ll be washing my hair.” Sometimes, the excuses are legitimate. “I can’t make that meeting because there was a death in the family and I’ll be at a funeral.” “Officer, I was speeding because I just heard that my son was in a car accident and I’m rushing to the ER.” We often times act as if it’s only the flimsy excuses that are really excuses, as if the valid excuses are something else: justifications, reasons, explanations. But that’s just semantics; the result is the same: you missed a meeting, you broke a law, you cannot fulfill an obligation of some sort, and this is your reason why. This is your excuse. Be it good or bad, that’s still what it is.
Jesus speaks today about excuses. There was a certain man who gave a great banquet and invited many people. When the time for the banquet arrived, they all began to make excuses as to why they could not come. The first said that he needed to check on a new field he had just purchased. Another said that he had to go examine a pair of oxen he had just acquired. Another said that he was a newlywed and therefore had to miss the banquet. A lot of commentators spend a lot of time debating whether these are good excuses or not. Many argue that the first excuse was a poor one. Why would you need to go see this newly acquired field right at the same instant that you have been invited to this banquet? And shouldn’t you have seen it already before purchasing it? Who buys real estate sight unseen? Others have argued that there’s no reason to think that the guest scheduled his trip to inspect the field after the invitation to the banquet came in. Maybe he had been planning this business trip for a long time and could not easily miss it. We have all had schedule conflicts before – you can’t do everything. The same is true of the second excuse with the oxen. Maybe it’s a good excuse, maybe it’s not. But the result is the same: Neither man attended the banquet. The third excuse is based on a cultural practice that we don’t normally follow any longer, at least not to this extent. The book of Deuteronomy says that a man who has taken a bride is free from public obligations for a year in order that he might be happy at home with his wife. We don’t typically honeymoon for a full year, but we still observe the legitimacy of taking time off when you’re newly married. Some argue that this hardly applies to a social event like a banquet, others say that this because this banquet was thrown by a man of such high standing in the community that it could be considered more of a business networking opportunity, which should excuse the young groom’s absence. Good excuse or bad excuse, the result is the same: these people missed the party.
I think that’s the point we need to be aware of. Whether the excuses were good or bad ultimately doesn’t matter. I think that’s a red herring. I think getting lost in that question will cause us to miss the point Jesus is trying to make. Each person thought he had something more important to do that this silly party. Each person chose to miss the party. Each person was so wrapped up in the things of their daily lives, in their property investments, in their material possessions, in their relationships, that they missed the banquet. They each thought they had something more important to do. They each had a reason why this banquet was beneath them. Good excuses or bad, the result was the same. None of them came to the party.
This becomes even more poignant when we consider the wider context of the conversation Jesus is having, and the people he’s having it with. Jesus himself is at a dinner party himself when he speaks these words, at a banquet that spans Luke chapters 14 and 15. He’s surrounded by a veritable who’s-who of the Pharisees. As he watches their behavior at the party, he tells them it is foolish to take for themselves the most honorable seat at a banquet because someone more important than you might show up and you’ll be forced to take a walk of shame to the back of the room. In fact, Jesus goes on to tell his host that next time he invites a group of people over for dinner he should skip those who can repay the favor and instead invite the poor, lame and homeless people outside. That’s the type of party God throws, Jesus says. Parties for the outcasts. Parties for the losers. Parties for the lost. God doesn’t throw parties just to impress his friends. God doesn’t throw parties just to invite people into his beautiful home so that they can envy his lifestyle. God doesn’t throw parties so that he’ll be invited to other people’s parties. God throws a party like a woman who had 10 coins and, having lost one, searched high and low until she found it. And because she could not contain her joy at having that which was lost restored to her, she had a party. God throws a party like a shepherd who lost a sheep but then found it. God throws a party like a father whose son ran away, dead to the family, but who came back and was restored. Here at a dinner party hosted by one of the leaders of the Pharisees, at a table filled with high ranking religious leaders and socially important people, Jesus tells everyone that God’s parties are nothing like this. God’s parties are no for the self-important or the social elite, they are for all the outsiders who have been restored to him.
With this parable, it’s as if Jesus is asking, “But you don’t want to come to that party, do you?” The older brother didn’t want to come to party thrown for his returned sibling. He refused to join the celebration. He had an excuse. Was it a good one? Doesn’t matter. Good excuse or not, the result was the same: he missed the party. The three men in today’s reading didn’t want to come to the banquet. They had more pressing things on their schedule. They had higher priorities. Were they legitimate or not? Doesn’t matter. They missed the party.
And now we have to wonder: is Jesus still talking to the Pharisees he was having dinner with, or is he talking to us? What excuses do we make for skipping out on God’s party?
The truth is, we all have a little bit of Pharisee in us. Actually, we have more than we like to admit. We spend our entire childhood vilifying the Pharisees in Sunday School, and they are certainly the antagonists in the stories of the Gospels. It is easy to think of the Pharisees as being “those people” over there. We want to identify with the followers and disciples of Jesus. But if we are honest, we all play the Pharisee more often than we like to admit. We don’t really want to be the outcasts – we want to be in the club. We all have some people we consider outcasts, those we want nothing to do with. Maybe it’s those who are literally poor or lame, and maybe not. Maybe we’ve chosen for ourselves another standard of judgment. The point is, we all like to stand before the altar of our Lord and pray, “God, I thank you that I am not like that guy over there.” Whatever standard we judge by, the effect is the same. Lord, I thank you that I am not intolerant and hateful like that person over there. I thank you that I am open-minded and loving. Or our prayer might be the exact opposite: Lord, I thank you that I am not foolishly progressive and post-modern like that person over there. Or, Lord, I thank you that I am not greedy like that person over there. Lord, I thank you that I am not careless with my money like that person over there. We change the prayer to fit our personalities, but the result is the same: Lord, I thank you that I’m better, that I understand better, that I love better, that I trust better, that I confess better, that I please you more with my life and actions than that person over there.
When we hear Jesus speak about excuses for missing the party, it would be easy to sit back and bemoan the multitude of excuses that keep people from enjoying the gifts of God, lies that the sinful flesh convinces us are true. The church is full of hypocrites, that’s why I don’t go. I don’t trust organized religion. The church just wants my money. Sunday is the only day I can sleep in. I can worship God from my bed or in nature. The church is self-righteous and judgmental. And the list goes on. Are they good excuses? Are they bad excuses? Doesn’t matter. The result is the same: you miss out on the party. You miss the gifts that are being given.
But to stop there would miss the point. The parable is not really about those outside the church who refuse to come in. In the parable, all the outsiders joyfully received the invitation to the master’s banquet and happily attended. No, the parable is about those who are already in the church, those who are already in the kingdom of God who are so preoccupied with the distractions of this world that they miss the party. The parable is about us. It’s about our excuses. It’s about our missing the party. It’s about our refusing to consider ourselves outsiders and outcasts. It’s about our thinking we have something more important to do. So ask yourself, what excuses do you make for missing the party? What area of your life are you unwilling to turn over to the Lord? Is it your finances? “Lord, I’ll begin supporting the work of your kingdom once my debt is under control.” Your career? “Lord, I’ll begin to make time for you a priority once I get that promotion.” “Lord, I’ll start personal Bible studies or devotions with my kids when things slow down at work.” “I’ll make it a point to bring my kids to church when they’re older.” Where do we, like the people in the parable, decline our Lord’s invitation because you are too tied up in the things of this world? What are your excuses? What are mine? Are they good? Does it matter? What are we actually excusing ourselves from? What are we trying to get out of? A party. A celebration.
So thanks be to God that the excuses of our sinful flesh are not the final word. Just as we have to recognize that we often play the part of the Pharisee in this parable, we also have to recognize that our true identity is that of the outcast. Just as we have to repent of our silly excuses, such repentance reveals to us our true standing before God, which is no standing at all, but lying down flat on our face in the sewage of our own sin. But when we see the depths of our sin, when we see the filth of our hearts, that is exactly when we are truly prepared for the feast. That is the exact moment when our Lord raises us up and gives us eyes of faith to see beyond the things of this life and into the life to come. That is the point Jesus is trying to get us to see today. We need to repent of acting like the man who excused himself to go check on his field because in reality we are a coin that was lost but now is found. We need to repent of acting like a man who had to go examine his livestock because in reality we are a sheep that wandered off but that has been rescued by the Good Shepherd. We need to repent of acting like a newlywed who is too busy on a honeymoon to join in the celebration, for in reality we are the lost son who has been restored to the family of God. For the Lord is near to the broken-hearted and saved the crushed in spirit. We who were far off in the streets and lanes of our sin have been brought near by the blood of Christ. He himself is our peace. He has knocked down the dividing wall of hostility. Through him we have access to the Father, access to the banquet celebration.
What kind of excuse would justify missing out on that? Whether the world considers it legitimate or not, the result is the same: missing out on the joy of the Father. So let us leave the worldly excuses behind and fix our eyes on Jesus. Through humble repentance, we embrace our place as the outcasts and join our Master’s party. The table is set. The feast is prepared. The wine has been mixed. All that’s left to do is rejoice and celebrate.
 Deut. 24:5
 Psalm 34:18
 Ephesians 2:13-18