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The Great Supper
by Richard Chenevix Trench
Chapter 21 from Notes on the Parables of Our Lord
Luke xiv:15-24
I shall not repeat the arguments which leave no doubt on my mind that this parable, and that recorded at Matthew 22:1-14, are essentially different, spoken upon different occasions, and with (partially) different aims.  On the present occasion the Lord had been invited to eat bread with one of the chief Pharisees (ver. 1).  The meal must have been a costly and ceremonious one.  It included probably friends and kinsmen and rich neighbours of His host (ver.12); among whom there was silent contests for precedence (ver. 7).  But among these guests, hostile as no doubt for the most part they were to the young Galilaean teacher, there was one who could not forbear expressing his sympathy with some words which fell from the Lord’s lips (ver. 15).  To Him, and in Him to us all, this parable was vouchsafed.

‘A certain man made a great supper, and bade many’ – ‘a supper,’ it has been often explained, because, as such takes place at evening, so in the evening of time, in the ‘last hour’ (I John 2:18; I Cor. 10:11,) Christ came and invited man to the fulness of Gospel blessings.  But this is pressing too far a word of fluctuating use; which, even if it does in later Greek signify predominantly a supper, was not upon this account selected here, but as expressing the principal meal in the day.  Men’s relish for things heavenly is so little, their desire so faint, that God graciously presents these things to them under such inviting and alluring images as this, that so they may be stirred up to a more earnest longing after them.  The ‘many’ whom the rich man bade are the Jews; yet not so much the entire nation, as those who might be presumed the most favourably disposed for the embracing of the truth; the most religious among the people; and thus, as guardians of the faith, the priests and elders, the Scribes and Pharisees, in opposition to the publicans and sinners, and the more despised portions of the nation, whose turn only arrives when these others have made light of the invitation.

‘And sent His servant at supper-time to say to them that were bidden, Come; for all things are now ready.’  Some will have it that the guests, in needing thus to be reminded that the hour of the festival had arrived, showed already how lightly they esteemed the invitation.  But this is a mistake, such having been, as is noted elsewhere, the usual custom; and their contempt of the honour vouchsafed them, with their breach of promise—for we must presume they had pledged themselves to come—is first displayed in their excuses for not appearing at the festival.  There was, beyond doubt, in the world’s history, a time when, more than at any other, it might be said, ‘All things are now ready;’ a fulness of time, at the arrival of which, and not till then, the kingdom of heaven was set up, and men invited, the Jew first, and afterwards the Gentile, to enter into that kingdom, (Gal. 4:1-4).  The servant who shall bid the guest is not, as Theophylact will have it, the great ‘Apostle and High Priest of our profession’ Himself, who ‘took the form of a servant,’ and might therefore fitly bear this name.  Nor yet can we include under this single servant the prophets of the Old Covenant, for it is not till ‘supper-time’ has actually come that he is sent forth.  We behold in Him not the heralds who preceded, but those who accompanied the King—Evangelists and Apostles, all who, reminding the Jews of the prophecies concerning a coming kingdom, and their share in that kingdom, bade them now enter on the enjoyment of those good things, which were no longer good things far off, but near.

‘And they all with one consent began to make excuse.’  Whether there is any essential difference between the excuses which the first guest offers, and the second, whether these represent hindrances different in their nature and character, by which different men are kept back from Christ, or whether both would alike teach us the same general lesson, that the love of the world robs men of all desire and relish for heavenly things, it is not easy to determine.  Probably there is a difference.  Perhaps the first, who pleaded, ‘I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go and see it,’ represents those who are elate of heart through already acquired possessions.  He is going to see his estate, not exactly in the spirit of Ahab when he visited the vineyard made his own by wrong, (I Kin. 21. 15, 16;) for there lies no guilt in the thing itself which he is doing; and it makes greatly for the solemnity of the warning here conveyed, that no one of the guests is kept away by an occupation in itself sinful: while yet all become sinful, because the first place, instead of a place merely subordinate, is allotted to them.  But he is going to see his possession that he may glory in it, as Nebuchadnezzar gloried as he walked in his palace and said, ‘Is not this great Babylon that I have built…by the might of my power, and for the honor of my majesty?’ (Dan. 4:30)  While he then represents those whom ‘the lust of the eye and the pride of life’ detain from Christ; with the second guest it is rather the care of this life, not the pride of having, but the anxiety of getting, which so fills his soul that there is no room for higher thoughts or desires.  He has made an important purchase, and cannot put off for a single day the trial of how it is likely to turn out;  ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to prove them.’  Both of these offer fair words, ‘I pray thee have me excused,’ even while they evade the invitation.

If in these two it is the pride and the business, in the last it is the pleasure of the world which keeps him from Christ.  ‘See you not that I have a feast of my own?  Why trouble me then with yours?  I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’  According to the Levitical law, this would have been reason sufficient why he should not go to battle, (Deut. 24. 5;) but it is none why he should not come to the feast, (I Cor. 7:29)  He, however, counts it more than sufficient.  The other guests, conscious of the inadequacy of the excuses which they pleaded, gave at least courteous denials, would have the servant carry back fair words to the master of the feast; but this one has a reason perfectly valid why he should not attend, and, except in so far as his ‘I will not’ clothes itself in the form of ‘I cannot,’ does not trouble himself to send any apology for his absence.  One may trace here the same ascending scale of contumacy in the bearing of the guests, although not so strongly marked, as in the other parable (Matt. 22:5,6) where some make light of the message, others evil entreat and kill the messengers.  The first of these guests would be very glad to come, if only it were possible, it there were not a constraining necessity keeping him away.  It is a needs be, so at least he describes it, so he would have it represented to the maker of the feast.  The second alleges no such constraining necessity, but is simply going upon sufficient reason on another errand; yet he too prays to be excused.  The third has engagements of his own, and declares outright, ‘I cannot come.’  It is beautifully remarked by Bengel that there is another buying of a field, (Matt. 13:44,) another setting of the hand to the plough, (Luke 9:62) the participation in another wedding, (2 Cor. 11:2,) which would not have hindered the accepting of this invitation, since rather they would one and all have been identical with it.

In what remarkable connection do their excuses stand to the declaration of the Saviour which presently follows:  ‘If any man come to Me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple;’ and how apt a commentary the words of St. Paul supply, that have wives be as though they had none, and they that weep as though they wept not, and they that rejoice as though they rejoiced not, and they that buy as though they possessed not, and they that use this world as not abusing it’ (I Cor. 7:29-31;) since it was not the having—for they had nothing which it was not lawful for men to have—but the unduly loving these things, which proved their hindrance, and ultimately excluded them from the feast.

‘So that servant came, and showed his Lord these things;’ declared the ill success which he has met—reported to Him the excuses which all had made—even as hitherto in all likelihood not so much as one among the spiritual chiefs of the Jewish nation had attached himself openly and without reserve to Christ, (John 7:48).  ‘Then the Master of the house, being angry, said to His servant, Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind.’  There lies a distinct reminiscence here of the precept just before given to him at whose table the Lord was sitting; ‘Call thou the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind,’ (ver. 13.)  It is even thus with the great Giver of the heavenly feast.  He bids to His table the spiritually sick, the spiritually needy; while the rich in their own virtues, in their own merits, at once exclude themselves, and are excluded by Him, (Luke 6:24, 25; Rev. 3:17).  The people who knew not the law, the despised and the outcast, these should enter into the kingdom of God, before the wise, the prudent—before those who said they saw, who thanked God that they were not as other men, who had need of nothing.

‘And the servant said, Lord, it is done as Thou hast commanded, and yet there is room.’  Whereupon, since grace will endure a vacuum as little as nature, he receives a new commission:  ‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.’  If those ‘in the streets and lanes of the city’ were the more abject among the Jews, the meaner, the more ignorant, the more deeply sunken in sin; then those without the city,—which we must take as the symbol of the theocracy,—in the country round about, wandering in the highways, and camping as gypsies now-a-days, under the hedges, will be the yet more despised and morally abject Gentiles, the pagans, in all senses of that word.  It will thus appear that the parable, hitherto historic, becomes prophetic here; for it declares how God had a larger purpose of grace than could be satisfied by the coming in of a part and remnant of the Jewish people,—those too being ‘fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.’  It is not that this is explicitly declared, for the time was not yet for the unfolding of this mystery; but it is here wrapt up, and biding its time.

‘Compel them to come in,’ has been always a favourite text with the persecutor and inquisitor; with all who, doing violence to the rights of conscience, would fain find in Scripture a warrant or a pretext for this.  And yet it is strange how there ever could have been drawn from them arguments for any compulsion but a moral one.  For first, dealing with the parable in the letter, to suppose any other compulsion save that of strong persuasion is idle; for how can we imagine this single servant,—he is but one throughout, —driving before him, from the country into the city, a flock of unwilling guests, and these gathered from the rude and lawless class unto whom he is now sent?  But indeed this ‘Compel them to come in,’ is spoken with quite a different intention.  The giver of the feast does not anticipate on their parts any reluctance to accept his invitation, nor any indifference toward it, which should need to be violently overcome.  What rather he expects is that these homeless dwellers in the highways and by the hedges will hold themselves so unworthy of the invitation as hardly to be persuaded that it was intended for them; will not be induced without a certain constraint to enter the rich man’s dwelling, and share in his magnificent entertainment.  And when we pass on to the spiritual thing signified, since faith cannot be forced, what can this compelling mean, save that strong earnest exhortation, which the ambassadors of Christ will address to their fellows, when themselves deeply convinced of the tremendous issues which are for every man linked with the acceptance or rejection of the message which they bear?  They will ‘compel,’ but only as the angels; who, when Lot lingered, laid hold upon his hand and brought him forth, and set him forcibly beyond the limits of the doomed city (Gen. 19:16); or the ambassadors of Christ will, in another way, ‘compel,’ for they will speak as delivering his message who has a right to be heard by His creatures,—who not merely entreats, but commands, all men everywhere to repent and believe the Gospel.  Anselm observes, that God compels men to come in, when He drives them by strong calamities to seek and find refuge with Him and in His Church; or, as Luther has it, they are compelled to come in, when the law is broadly preached, terrifying their consciences, and driving them to Christ, as their only refuge and hope.

The parable closes with the householder's indignant declaration, 'For I say unto you, that none of those men that were bidden shall taste of my supper.'  The plural 'you' is perplexing here, only one servant having been named throughout.  It cannot be that Christ is now speaking in His own person to the Pharisees round Him, for the words are plainly not His, but the householder's still.  Is it that this one servant is considered as the representative of many?  or shall we suppose those whom the householder thus addresses to be the guests already assembled?  Exclusion, total and final, from the feast, to which, when they saw others entering, they also might desire to be a bitter cry, the repentance as of Esau, when it is plainly seen that the birthright has been transferred to another; but it does not bring back the blessing (Hev. 12:17).  That is forfeited for ever; and no after earnestness will avail anything to reverse the doom (Prov. 1:28; Matt. 25:11, 12; John 8:21).

Comparing this parable and that of the Marriage of the King’s Son, we may note with how fine a skill all the minor circumstances are arranged to be in consistent keeping in each.  There the principal person, being the king, has armies at his command, whole bands of servants, to send forth with his behests.  The refusal to accept his invitation was there, according to Eastern notions of submission, nothing less than rebellion; and, being accompanied with outrages done to his servants, called out that terrible retribution.  Here, as the offence is in every way lighter, so also is the penalty, that is, in the outward circumstances which supply the groundwork of the parable, being no more than exclusion from a festival; though we must not forget that it is not lighter when taken in its spiritual signification; for it is nothing less than exclusion from the kingdom of God, ‘everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His power.’