Out to the streets and highways. Luke 14:15-24

The literary structure of Luke 14:15-24

Our Scripture today is sometimes called the parable of the great banquet. It’s part of a larger set of material in Luke 14 where Jesus is at a banquet or fancy meal in a Pharisee’s home.

And there is some tension. Have you ever been at a meal where there was tension? Jesus has just healed someone on the Sabbath right in front of them, which we know wold make them unhappy. Then he went on to criticize how they all wanted the best seats at the banquet. And then we come to our passage, where the tension increases even more.

The parable of the great banquet

Eating bread in the kingdom.

15When one of those who reclined at table with Jesus heard these things, he said to him, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!”

“Eating bread in the kingdom” is a reference to the end time banquet that will take place on the final day. This is talked about in several places in Scripture (e.g. Luke 22:16; Revelation 19:9) but the root idea comes from Isaiah 25:6-8. This Scripture talks about how, after the resurrection, all God’s people will gather and have a great feast of celebration of God’s salvation and love.

Now, those at the table with Jesus were all assuming that as outstanding people of Israel, the chosen ones – and Pharisees at that, the best of the best in their minds, they would surely be a part of this. But Jesus’ parable challenges this assumption.

 The story.

16But Jesus said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. 17And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’

Giving “a great banquet” was a practice of the upper class in this part of the ancient world. It would have been an important social event where connections were made and strengthened.

This double action of inviting people, and then going to summon them when the meal was ready was common practice for such a banquet (for a biblical example see Esther 6:14). So the food is on the table, as it were.

By way of interpretation, here Jesus is talking about many in Israel, especially the leaders and other outstanding members of the nation, who have been invited or chosen, if you will, to take part in the kingdom banquet and God’s salvation on the final day.

18But 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. Please have me excused.’ 19And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ 20And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21So the servant came and reported these things to his master.

These three representative excuses are all inadequate:

  • The one who bought a field could have seen it another time.
  • The one who bought the oxen could go examine them at another time.
  • The one who just got married wasn’t forbidden to come to a social event.

In any case, none were forced to accept the invitation in the first place, so to bail out at the last minute is a rude rejection of the host.

These verses speak to how many in Israel, including the leaders and other important people, didn’t have time for Jesus. Why didn’t they have time? Because they were caught up in their earthly lives with  finances and possessions – the first two examples are of people  who are relatively well off, and family with getting married and the responsibilities of family life. They were so immersed in this life that they rejected his call to the kingdom banquet.

And this is exactly what was happening in Jesus’ ministry at this stage.

Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’

He is angry at their unjustified rejection. Yet he has a meal ready and really wants to share it, so he instructs his servant to go find some other people. And the servant is to do this “quickly,” because the meal is ready.

This second round of summons focuses on the city. The “streets and lanes” refer to city streets and back alleys. More literally, both wide roads and narrow roads.

The servant is to bring in “the poor and crippled and blind and lame.” Since in this day these would have relied on begging, it makes sense that they would be found on the streets and lanes of the city. (These are the same people that Jesus teaches us to invite to banquets that we give – 14:13). Those who were more upper class rejected the invitation, so now those who are rejected by society – the lowly, needy and broken are invited to come.

These verses speak to how the elites of Israel by and large rejected Jesus, despite his calling them to come. And how those who were outcasts have responded to him, those thought to be rejected by God. (Luke 7:22)

22And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ 23And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and urge people to come in, that my house may be filled.

The master really doesn’t want any empty seats. And so he sends out his servant a third time. If before the focus was on the streets and lanes of the city, now “the highways and hedges” seem to refer to the more rural areas outside of the city. “Hedges” can also refer to fence rows or dividers between fields.

Some translations use the word “compel,” but certainly there is no idea of force here, just as the original invitees were not forced to come. Rather the idea is that the servant is to urge them to come, perhaps especially since these others would not usually partake in such a banquet and would need some encouragement.

By way of interpretation, here Jesus speaks about continuing to find whoever to bring them in to the banquet – whether others in Israel, or later on as we see in the book of Acts, Gentiles.

Jesus’ words to the Pharisees.

24For I tell you (all), none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’”

Here we see that the story has ended and Jesus is speaking directly to the Pharisees. The ‘you’ here is plural. (There is only one servant in the story and so the master’s speech is singular). Although the parable has ended, we learn here that Jesus is the master or literally “Lord” of the story. And the great meal at the end of the world is, in his words here, “my” banquet.

Can you imagine? This guy talks about the end time banquet and the host of that is sitting next to him at this earthly banquet?

Jesus is saying here that those who were chosen to be invited, who assumed they would attend, certainly the leaders and supposedly devout ones of Israel, people like the Pharisees – they refuse Jesus’ invitation. And having rejected him, they certainly won’t taste of his kingdom banquet on the final day.

What we learn from this

1. Don’t make assumptions about your place at the banquet. I won’t say much about this. But anyone can fool themselves. The key is simply this, how have you responded to Jesus’ invitation to repent and be a part of the kingdom of God?

2. Jesus’ really wants his house to be full (v. 23). The ultimate reference is to the final day and the great feast. But for now it refers to his churches, the community of his kingdom people, who celebrate his meal, the Lord’s supper, as an anticipation of that final feast.

Jesus wants every seat filled on that day, and every seat filled among his congregations who await that day. And so we have some work to do.

3. Our job is to invite people to the banquet. We are the servant in this story. As we close, let me highlight four things about being Jesus’ servant.

  • To invite we must “go out.” This phrase is used in vs. 21 & 23. We must go out into the streets and lanes; and into the highways and hedges. Into the city; and into the country, that is, all over. We can’t stay to ourselves. People will not come to our congregation if we stay to ourselves. We have to go out to them.
  • We invite all.  In the first and second summons we get the two extremes – those who are doing well on the one hand, and the poor, crippled, lame and blind on the other. These should be seen as the two extremes which include all the others in between (a merism). And the third summons doesn’t specify who is invited. The point is that no one is excluded from the invitation.
  • We are to keep inviting, even if those we most expect to respond reject the invitation. And the special emphasis of this parable is on inviting the lowly, the needy and the broken. Just as in the parable, those who are doing well in terms of this life (finances and family) often don’t see their need because they are caught up in the things of this life and thus will reject our invitation. So when this happens we make sure we are inviting those who know their needs and are more likely to come.
  • We are to urge people to come. Encourage them to come and receive of the blessings of the banquet that Jesus is giving.

Samuel, Israel’s repentance and God’s deliverance. 1 Samuel 7:3-17

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 4-7

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 7:3-17

We are in 1 Samuel again today, chapter 7 if you would like to turn. We have come now to the concluding story of a set of five stories that began in chapter 4 and most of which have to do with the ark of the covenant.

  • In the first, the ark was taken to the battle of Aphek-Ebenezer, thinking that God would help them if the ark was there, even if they didn’t deal with their sin and unfaithfulness.
  • In the second, the ark was captured and the high priestly family of Eli was judged.
  • In the third, Yahweh took matters into his own hands and defeated the Philistines and their gods by means of the ark until they begged for it to leave.
  • In the fourth, the ark came back to Israel, but the Levites of Beth-shemesh were judged for their disrespect to the ark and so the ark ended up in Kiriath-jearim.

At the very end of this fourth story it says, “a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord” – 7:2. After judgment on their high priests and Levites, after Philistine oppression year after year, after seeing God’s power displayed through the ark, but not for them – they hit rock bottom. Things were so bad, for so long that they knew something had to change. And so they reconsidered their ways and began to long for the Lord God.

Well, Samuel saw this godly sorrow, which leads us to –

The story of God’s salvation

3And Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” 4So the people of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the Lord only.

baal
Baal

The phrase, “foreign gods” covers a lot of ground, but Baal and his female consort Astarte (Ashtar) here named as Ashtaroth are specifically mentioned. He was the storm god and a god of fertility. She was the god of war, love and fertility. (The name “Ashtaroth” is plural for Ashtoreth, which is a deliberate distortion of her name so that it is to be read as “shame” or “abomination.” The vowels for this word are added to the consonants of her name.)

In these verses we have a beautiful portrait of what repentance looks like. It means turning, or in this case, “returning to the Lord with all your heart.” Negatively this involves putting away idols, those wrong systems of belief and practice that go against God’s will for us and which harm us and others. And positively it means relying on the Lord alone and doing his will.

You have to realize, Israel’s temptation was seldom not to serve Yahweh. Rather, it was to place Yahweh as one of many gods who can be served for their various specialties and help, depending on your particular life crisis or need. So let’s say you want a husband, then you pray to Astarte. This is what she does. And if you want rain you pray to Baal. And then in a national crisis you might pray to Yahweh as a tribal god.

This is why the call is to give God all your heart, not part; and to serve him only, not along with other gods. Samuel is calling Israel to trust God for everything, because he can take care of everything.

We also see here that repentance is something that comes from the heart, or the very center of us – our will; it has to do with a choice of life direction.

What are our idols? I can tell you how to find them. When you are in a crisis what do you turn to for security, help and comfort? Is it wealth, social status, inappropriate sexual expression, drug or alcohol abuse, overeating? It could be anything. What do you turn to? 

Here the repentance is communal, the whole community of Israel is returning to God. How might we need to repent as a community?  Where do we allow sin in our midst as a church?

5Then Samuel said, “Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord for you.” 6So they gathered at Mizpah and drew water and poured it out before the Lord and fasted on that day and said there, “We have sinned against the Lord.” And Samuel judged the people of Israel at Mizpah.

It’s not clear why they poured out water, but it is a part of their repentance, as is the fasting. Notice that confession, and intercession on behalf of Israel by Samuel, was also a part of their repentance and restoration to God. This is most likely a covenant renewal ceremony.

When it says Samuel judged them, it means that he taught them once again God’s will and called them to accountability to practice it, as well as decided difficult cases. (e.g. 1 Samuel 12:23).

7Now when the Philistines heard that the people of Israel had gathered at Mizpah, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel.

The Philistines still exercised dominance over Israel, so a gathering like this would have been provocative – most likely indicating a rebellion. So they come to reassert their power.

And when the people of Israel heard of it, they were afraid of the Philistines. 8And the people of Israel said to Samuel, “Do not cease to cry out to the Lord our God for us, that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines.”

God allows them to be tested in a big way, right away. Will they remain faithful and trust God to deliver them?

Their call for prayer is the right response. They have put all their eggs in Yahweh’s basket. In a practical way they are fully relying on him.

Do we commit to serve the Lord only and then run back to our old idols? Do we go back to our old life patterns when things are bad? Or do we trust fully in God and God’s promises as we pray? Israel is an example to us here.

9So Samuel took a nursing lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the Lord. And Samuel cried out to the Lord for Israel, and the Lord answered him.

(For Samuel as an intercessor see also Jeremiah 15:1; Psalm 99:6; 1 Samuel 12:19-23)

The story goes on to give the details . . .

10As Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel. But the Lord thundered with a mighty sound that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion, and they were defeated before Israel. 11And the men of Israel went out from Mizpah and pursued the Philistines and struck them, as far as below Beth-car.

God himself fought for them. They only took action after God gave the victory. The Lord’s thunder here shows that Baal, the storm god, who often used thunder, was a pretender – Yahweh is the true God and rules in the heavens. (It is also a partial fulfillment of Hannah’s praise in 2:10).

12Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, “Till now the Lord has helped us.”

Ebenezer means “stone of help.” The idea is that God has helped by saving them. “Till now” means, OK, you have decided to rely only on Yahweh, and see, he has helped us thus far. God is faithful! The stone monument is a reminder to them and later generations of God’s great work here. God can be trusted.

Do we remember how God has worked in our lives? What stones of remembrances do you have that build your faith and the faith of others as you share your testimony of God’s faithfulness? 

Notice how in the first story of this set of stories Israel was defeated under the leadership of Eli, as Israel thought they could win just because the ark was with them, despite their sin and unfaithfulness. And this happened at a town called Ebenezer. But here in the last story, Israel defeats the Philistines under Samuel’s leadership after they have turned wholly to the Lord and this is memorialized by an Ebenezer stone.

13So the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel. And the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. 14The cities that the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron to Gath, and Israel delivered their territory from the hand of the Philistines. There was peace also between Israel and the Amorites.

During Samuel’s days as the leader of Israel God gave Israel peace. The Philistines were defeated, Israel’s land was restored and the other Canaanites didn’t bother Israel. This was a gift from God; a blessing that they could receive because of their repentance and trust in God.

Finally, our story ends –

15Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life. 16And he went on a circuit year by year to Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah. And he judged Israel in all these places. 17Then he would return to Ramah, for his home was there, and there also he judged Israel. And he built there an altar to the Lord.

Here we have a summary of Samuel’s life work, carried out in the cities of this central region of Israel. There isn’t much detail about what else happened during his time as a judge, but he continues to show up in the stories of Saul and David which come next.

I want to end with a few thoughts on what I think is the chief message of these five stories.

No repentance, no blessing

I’m not saying that all people aren’t blessed by God in some ways, because God gives mercy even to his enemies. What I am saying is that to receive the fullness of God’s blessing – his salvation – we have to repent and trust God.

We have seen Israel try to have it both ways. They want God’s best for them while clinging to their sin and unfaithfulness. They seek after God’s best by pursuing it according to their own wisdom; by doing what they wanted; by not serving God alone.

But here in this story they get it! They turn to God and receive God’s blessing, deliverance and salvation. The title for this sermon could be, “Finally, they get it!!!” This is the way it was always supposed to be. Finally, they put away their sin and experienced all that God wanted for them – life, peace and blessing.

Well, I think, we are just like Israel. We want it both ways. We want God’s best for us, but we want to make our own choices and do things our own way, also relying on our idols. But it doesn’t work that way. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. If we want God’s blessing, deliverance and salvation, like Israel we have to repent and trust God. We have to submit ourselves to God and God’s ways. We have to serve God with our whole heart and him only. There are no shortcuts.

Have you come to this point yet? Where you can say, “I get it! If I give myself fully to God he will bless me and be present with me, even when I go through hard times. I know that because of my repentance and trust, God’s blessing and salvation will always define my life.” Maybe some of you came to this realization 50 years ago. Maybe some of you came to it last year. Or maybe some of you are still on the journey.

Let me just say, you don’t have to hit rock bottom first. It’s a choice you can make at any time. I encourage you today, submit yourself fully to God and trust in him and know his blessings.

Israel hits rock bottom: Judgement on the Levites of Beth-shemesh. 1 Samuel 6:12-7:2

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 6:12-7:2

This morning we come to the fourth of the four ark stories in 1 Samuel. It’s been a little while so let’s remember together:

  • In the first, the ark was taken to the battle of Aphek, thinking that God would help them against the Philistines if the ark was there, even if they didn’t deal with their sin and unfaithfulness.
  • In the second, the ark was captured and the high priestly family of Eli was judged; he and his two sons died.
  • In the third, the ark wreaked havoc on the Philistines and their gods, as Yahweh took matters into his own hands and defeated the Philistines. They begged for it to leave because of the plagues on them.
ark-travels
The journey of the ark of the covenant

Today, we have the story of how the ark came back to Israel.

Remember from last time the Philistine test. They were sure that their plagues were from Yahweh, but just to be doubly sure they said – if the cart with the ark on it went straight to Beth-shemesh, that would be a sign for them.

And they stacked the deck against this happening by having no one lead the cart, by picking two milk cows that had never carried a cart before, and by locking up their calves in the barn so that the cows would have to overcome their instincts not to go to them, but to Beth-shemesh in Israel.

And then our story begins . . .

The ark returns to Israel

12And the cows went straight in the direction of Beth-shemesh along one highway, lowing as they went. They turned neither to the right nor to the left, and the lords of the Philistines went after them as far as the border of Beth-shemesh.

Yahweh takes control of the situation and leads the cows to the right city – even though the cows were lowing for their calves. Now the Philistines know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Yahweh was the one who judged and defeated them, since the Philistine lords are sneaking around to see what  would happen, and saw this.

A cause for celebration

13Now the people of Beth-shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley. And when they lifted up their eyes and saw the ark, they rejoiced to see it. 14The cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh and stopped there. A great stone was there.

This harvest would have been in May or June. And this is why so many people are out in the fields to see this cart with two cows and the ark on it. Can you imagine? The ark of God pulling up next to your field with no one leading it?

And they gave thanks and gave offerings to God.

And they split up the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. 15And the Levites took down the ark of the Lord and the box that was beside it, in which were the golden figures, and set them upon the great stone. And the men of Beth-shemesh offered burnt offerings and sacrificed sacrifices on that day to the Lord.

And then the humorous scene of the Philistine lords sneaking around Beth-shemesh comes to an end.

16And when the five lords of the Philistines saw it, they returned that day to Ekron. 17These are the golden tumors that the Philistines returned as a guilt offering to the Lord: one for Ashdod, one for Gaza, one for Ashkelon, one for Gath, one for Ekron, 18and the golden mice, according to the number of all the cities of the Philistines belonging to the five lords, both fortified cities and unwalled villages.

V. 18 goes on . . .

The great stone beside which they set down the ark of the Lord is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh.

The stone is a witness to these amazing events, of how God single-handedly defeated the Philistines and brought the ark back to Israel.

But then disaster strikes. 

 19And he (the Lord) struck some of the men of Beth-shemesh, because they looked upon/into the ark of the Lord. He struck seventy men of them, and the people mourned because the Lord had struck the people with a great blow.

If before they rejoiced about the ark, now they mourn.

According to Numbers 4:15, 20 no one was to touch the ark, and only priests were allowed to look at it. Here it appears that some of the men of Beth-shemesh were looking it over or even looked into it, which would have involved touching it. And so they are judged for failing to obey the Law of Moses.

Now, this might seem harsh but consider this. This was a Levitical town, that is, a place where Levites lived (Joshua 21:16; 1 Chronicles 6:54-59).And not only that, they were from the clan of the Kohathites, which was in charge of transporting the ark and the other holy things of the tabernacle (Numbers 4:4). And they were specifically instructed that the priests must cover the ark, and “after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry these, but they must not touch the holy things, lest they die” – Numbers 4:15.

So they knew, or certainly should have known that what they were doing was very wrong (For a similar incident see 2 Samuel 6:6-9) (The LXX or Greek Old Testament has an alternative explanation for the judgment. It says, “the descendants of Jeconiah did not rejoice with the people of Beth-shemesh when they greeted the ark of the Lord, and he killed seventy men of them.”) (70, and not 50,070 seems to have been the original number in the text.)

20Then the men of Beth-shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God? And to whom shall he go up away from us?”

Instead of acknowledging their wrong, they blame God, as if God is arbitrary. And then they are like, ‘how do we get rid of this thing?’ And so they look for a new town for the ark.

21So they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kiriath-jearim, saying, “The Philistines have returned the ark of the Lord. Come down and take it up to you.” 7:1And the men of Kiriath-jearim came and took up the ark of the Lord and brought it to the house of Abinadab on the hill. And they consecrated his son Eleazar to have charge of the ark of the Lord.

As we saw, Kiriath-jearim is 9 miles north of Beth-shemesh. The ark was put in a house, not out in open view. It appears that Eleazar was a priest (it was a common priestly name; 2 Samuel 6:3-4 and 1 Chronicles 13:7-11 portray his brothers as priests), so he could rightly care for the ark.

Then the story ends.

2From the day that the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord.

Things were just really bad for Israel.

  • Despite God’s punishment of the Philistines, militarily and politically they were still dominating Israel and causing great suffering.
  • There was not a functioning high priestly family to lead the people.
  • The tabernacle at Shiloh was destroyed and things were in disarray.
  • And now the Levites of Beth-shemesh, who were the ones who should have known how to care for the ark are judged. Even when God gave them something to rejoice about, they are so disconnected from God that they also offed God, just as the Philistines had done, and were judged.

And so now the ark is in Kiriath-jearim, with Israel afraid of it and it has been there for twenty years and nothing is changing. And this is where they hit rock bottom. They can’t take it anymore. Something has to change.

And so finally it says, “all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord.” They knew what could be from their history as a people when God blessed them. But they saw where they were and they mourned. This is what Paul calls godly sorrow that leads to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10).

They moved from blaming God, ‘you didn’t help us at Aphek, you judged us at Beth-shemesh’ to taking responsibility for their sin and unfaithfulness. And this is what we will see in the next story, the whole nation repents and begins to follow the Lord under Samuel’s guidance.

Here’s a question –

Why?

Why as individuals or even as a congregation, do we so often have to hit bottom to come to our senses? Why does it have to get so bad before we make the difficult choices that need to be made to set things right? So that we submit to God and walk in his ways? Why are we so stubborn, or as Scripture sometimes calls it, “stiff necked”?

And finally an exhortation –

Act!

 If this is where you are, or where you are headed (you don’t actually have to hit rock bottom) act! Right now! Act to make things right!

Set aside your sin and unfaithfulness and come back to a right relationship with God and serve him with your whole heart. Stop blaming God or others or life circumstances, and take responsibility for your own choices and repent.