Joy of All Who Sorrow

29th Sunday after Pentecost / Sunday of the Holy Forefathers

Gospel [Luke 14:16-24 (§76)]

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear father, brothers and sisters:

In this week’s Gospel, we move from the healing miracle we heard last week, of the 10 lepers on the road south to Jerusalem, and turn again to another of our Lord’s parables of the Kingdom of God. This passage is appointed on the Second Sunday before Christmas the Commemoration of the Holy Forefathers, the Ancestors in the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ. Having just passed the shortest day of the year, Holy Mother Church is calling us and reminding us that the end of the Fast is draws near, the time of the Great Feast of the Nativity, the Incarnation of the Lord approaches. But, are we ready for it, and will we come, not just externally, outwardly with our bodies, but will we come inwardly with our hearts and accept the invitation and come? To help us understand this great parable, let us turn to our own Apostle, St Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome for assistance.

In his homily for this Gospel reading, St Gregory starts by making an important and all to relatable distinction between bodily and worldly pleasures on the one hand and spiritual pleasures or spiritual joys on the other.

Bodily pleasures, when we do not possess them, arouse in us a great desire for them, but as soon as we possess and devour them, our satisfaction turns to distaste. Spiritual pleasures, on the other hand, seem distasteful when not possessed, but once we possess them, we desire them.

Whilst it might seem strange and certainly countercultural to say so, how much time, brothers and sisters, do we waste longing and hungering over different material and worldly things. Maybe it is a new car, a new shirt, the latest toy. Maybe it is a new cake recipe or kitchen gadget. Maybe it is a new book or a new tune. Whatever it might be, all of us can also empathise that the time we spend looking and wanting is hugely disproportionate to the time we spend appreciating the glittering, brand new thing we have spent all our time thinking about. And yet, after wearing it once or twice, or consuming it, or flicking through it whatever “it” might be. How quickly does that allure, glamour and excitement wear off? It is then that we feel rather empty inside, perhaps guilty too about all the time we have wasted. It is here that we can sometimes feel very negatively disposed towards the new object on our shelf or in our wardrobe. Does this experience cause us to learn, brothers and sisters and yearn rather for spiritual things. No. Sadly, for most of us, the answer is probably no. Instead, to fill this emptiness inside we immediately turn to the next, new glittering thing and so the disordered cycle of desire and emptiness continues. However, with spiritual things, with spiritual joys. How different is our response and relationship. In truth, the prospect of spiritual joys – undertaking pilgrimages, attending long church services or vigils, spending time reading the Holy Scriptures or an extended time in our ikon corner in prayer – does not instantly fill us with the same overwhelming desire and the same kaleidoscope of endorphins that those material and bodily pleasures aroused. However, all of us here today can also testify to differing degrees and in different ways that the spiritual joy we may have glimpsed and experienced, however, small and however, fleeting it may have been stays and remains with us long, long after the happiness or excitement of the cake, the dress or the toy has evaporated. The experience of the joy of Pascha, of our inward realisation of the eternal joy of the Risen Christ is a joy which doesn’t just abate or disappear from us. Rather, it is a joy which awakens our desire for Christ all the more. Yet despite this, we still have to literally force ourselves to pray and coerce ourselves to make the effort to come to church or to pick up the dusty and unread bible on our bookshelf. A good question for us to ask is why do we feel this way? Why don’t we ever learn or remember what is really good for us? St Gregory answers this question by reminding us of our fallenness and our nature’s participation in the Fall of Adam and Eve in paradise which all of us still experience the impact and effects of in our very human nature.

We too are born amid the hardships of exile. We have come to this place (the church) with a feeling of loathing. We do not know what we ought to desire. The more we separate ourselves from partaking of this sweetness (spiritual sweetness), the more does the disease of our loathing increase.

However, the Merciful Lord, sees his children suffering, this cycle of despair and our disordered relationship to spiritual things and spiritual joy and it is in this context that our Lord introduces today’s parable –

Then said he unto him, A certain man made a great supper, and bade many:

This certain man, is the Lord and the ‘great supper’ is a great feast of spiritual food and delights which our Merciful Lord has prepared for us to heal us from our fallenness.

And sent his servant at supper time to say to them that were bidden, Come; for all things are now ready.

In his homily St Gregory draws particular attention to the fact that it is now supper time, tea time rather than lunch time. As he says –

Because God’s eternal meal will be made ready for us at the very end, it was appropriate to call this not a lunch but a dinner.

At the end of the age, in the Kingdom, there is no further meal to await, for this is the eternal Pascha. In terms of who this servant is, St Gregory interprets this as the order of priests and preachers.

When I counsel you to reject the world, I am coming to invite you to God’s dinner.

And if St Gregory the Dialogist could call himself unworthy, how much more unworthy am I. Yet, I too call you to that same supper that St Gregory did, however, more unworthy I may be in so doing.

And they all with one consent began to make excuse.

How deeply perverse are these words, yet as we spent some time uncovering, they go to the very heart of the tragedy of our human condition. God takes all the initiative and comes to us, prepares and readies everything ready for us, to truly satisfy our hunger and slake our thirst with lasting joy and what do we humans do? Mess it all up. We reject the most gracious and wonderful invitation we could ever have.

God offers what we should have asked him for; and when he is not asked, he desires to give what we could scarecely have hoped for … We are invited to God’s banquet, and we excuse ourselves.

The first said unto him, I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go and see it: I pray thee have me excused.

So the first man when asked to come to this wondrous spiritual feast excuses himself as he must go and see a ‘piece of ground’. What a thoroughly prosaic excuse. St Gregory sees the farm or piece of ground here as symbolising ‘earthly possessions’, and indeed it is difficult to think of a more realistic representation of material things, worldly things than a patch of muddy ground. Yet it was precisely this piece of mud which the man, in his madness and fallen state prefers to heavenly food and the banquet of paradise.  

And another said, I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to prove them: I pray thee have me excused.

St Gregory equates the five yoke of oxen with the five bodily senses. This man goes out to prove or examine his oxen in the same way in which our five senses are restricted to giving us sensory information about the external reality of things. The holy apostle of the English, also sees in the response of this man a general nosiness and inquisitiveness which is inherent to those who are enthralled to their bodily senses. This nosiness and inquisitiveness into material things and his neighbours can cause him though to become strangely ignorant of himself and his own heart.

The more an inquisitive person’s mind is acquainted with the deserts of another, the more it is unaware of its own.

St Gregory also notices in the excuses given by both of these men a patently false humility in the way in which they both exclaim ‘pray thee have me excused’. As St Gregory pithily puts it –

When they say ‘ask’ and yet refuse to come, there is humility in their words, but pride in their actions.

Finally we here the sad and predictable excuse of a third man –

And another said, I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.

This saying perhaps needs less spiritual interpretation as its meaning and excuse is made fairly plain as it focuses on carnal lust, lust of the flesh which draws the newly married man away from Christ the Bridegroom of the Soul.

So that servant came, and shewed his lord these things. 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.

Because the proud decline to come, the poor are chosen. It is interesting to see that after those that were invited first have proved themselves unworthy, it is the poor, the sick and the blind that our Lord then invites to come. Those that are Lord invites are still sick with sin in their different ways, none of them are fully healthy or whole, but all see and recognise their need for healing and where that source of healing and wholeness can truly be found. As St Gregory says, ‘Proud sinners are rejected, so that humble sinners can be chosen.’ Those that are poor, those who lack material possessions, as well as those who are in sick, in pain or difficulty can find it easier to see through the illusory glow and pull of this world.

And the servant said, Lord, it is done as thou hast commanded, and yet there is room.

And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.

For St Gregory, all the people who were called first up to this point had been of the House of Israel. Perhaps the haughty excuses of the three men that are listed could represent the views of the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people, the Scribes, the priests and the Pharisees. It is at this point that the poor, the broken, the lepers, the paralysed and possessed are called and readily come in. However, as the servant says there is still room in the Kingdom of God, for the scope of salvation has now been widened beyond those of the city of Zion to the “countryfolk” who St Gregory clearly interprets as the Gentiles. That’s you and me, here in the very rural, sleepy village of Mettingham in the Waveney Valley. Even out here, we too and now invited to come to the supper.

For I say unto you, That none of those men which were bidden shall taste of my supper.

Dear father, brothers and sisters, let this last punch line of the parable hit home with us today. Let us not find that through our addiction to the things of this world, and this earthly life, that we fail to take the Saviour’s invitation to come to the feast and be found unworthy. Today as we celebrate the memory of the Holy Forefathers, the Ancestors of Christ’s human nature, we can recognise that all of us have inherited from Adam the same fallen and flawed nature. Yet, through the coming of our Saviour, we have finally been given the grace to overcome and heal our broken, perverse and sickly nature. Christ – the new Adam – comes to be born in humble cave, a humble manger in Bethlehem precisely to heal this broken nature of ours that wills one thing and does another, that knows what is truly good, yet chooses again and again what is harmful, that is offered heaven but chooses hell. As St Gregory, the great pastoral shepherd ends his beautiful sermon –

When you are unable to leave behind everything of the world, outwardly conduct your external affairs well, but inwardly hasten to those that are eternal. Do not let anything stand in the way of your heart’s desire.