A chain of connected lessons, consisting of several links, immediately precedes the parable in the evangelic history; but we may appreciate all the meaning of the parable without reference to the circumstances in which it sprung. In some cases the connection with the context is such that light from the history preceding is necessary to elucidate the meaning of the lesson that follows; but it is not so here. Although one thing suggests another in the conversation which the Evangelist records, the lesson ultimately given is independent of the things that suggested it.
Touched by the solemn teaching of the Lord Jesus, one of the company, well-meaning, but dim and confused in his conceptions, made the remark, "Blessed is he that shall eat bread in the kingdom of God." Observing that this man and the Pharisees around him were clinging to the notion that to be invited to enter the kingdom is the same thing as to be in it, he spoke the parable to point out the difference, and to show that the invitation will only aggravate the doom of those who refuse to comply with it. He intends to teach the Jews, and through them to teach us, that those who are near the kingdom may in the end come short of it -- that those who stand high in spiritual privileges may be excluded -- may exclude themselves from the kingdom of God.
Both in the natural objects employed, and the spiritual lessons which they convey, there is, at some points, a marked resemblance between this parable and that of the royal marriage; but the two, though similar, are manifestly distinct.
"A certain man made a great supper and bade many." In this case it is not a king but a person in a private station who provides the feast; and the occasion of the rejoicing is not the marriage of the entertainer's son. It is an ordinary example of hospitality exercised by an affluent citizen.
Both here and in the analogous parable of the royal marriage it is assumed, as at least not altogether incongruous with custom, that invitations should be issued some days before, and that the invited guests should a second time be warned by a messenger to repair to the banqueting house when the time drew near. This summons to attend immediately was sent out at supper time. We know that the term [Greek: deipnon] was in ancient times employed generally to signify the principal meal, without reference to a particular period of the day; and, from the circumstances of this case, it plainly appears that the feast was a dinner at an early hour, and not a supper in our sense of the word. At the moment when the warning reached him, the man who had bought a field intended to go and see it, and the man who had bought five yoke of oxen intended on that same afternoon to try whether they would go well in harness; these excuses, although not sincere, must in the nature of the case have appeared plausible, and consequently the feast must have been ready at an early hour of the day.
It is implied that these men had tacitly, or in some other well-understood way, accepted the first invitation. They gave no intimation that they intended to decline -- they gave the provider of the feast reason to expect their presence. Probably they were well pleased to be invited; if they met any of their poorer neighbours in the interval, it is probable they would take occasion to show their own importance. These common people in the town, and these labourers in the country, are not admitted as we are into good society. When the moment arrived they were unwilling; or rather they were so intently occupied with their own affairs, that the attractions of the feast were not powerful enough to tear them away.
"With one consent" they all made excuses. The servant saw them separately and received their answers. There is no reason to believe that they met together and framed a plan to insult their entertainer. They acted all on the same method, although they did not act in concert. The creatures were of one kind, and though they answered separately they answered similarly. Off one carnal instinct -- [Greek: apo mias (gnomes)] -- the excuses were taken, and accordingly, although spoken by different persons, and moulded by different circumstances, they were all of the same type.
The first had bought a field and must go to examine his bargain; the second had bought live stock for his farm and must see them tried immediately; the third had married a wife, and held himself absolved for the time from the ordinary rules of society. They are fair samples of the things that occupy and engross men's hearts and lives.
The servant, having no authority to act, simply reported the facts to his master. The master was angry, and immediately invited all the poor of the neighbourhood to the feast. When many of the most destitute had assembled, the householder, not satisfied as long as there was room at the table, and a poor man within reach to occupy it, sent out another message still more pressing, to sweep into the feast all the homeless wanderers that could be found, the very dregs and outcasts of society. Satisfied when his house at length was filled, the owner announced that none of those who had made light of his invitation should now be permitted to partake of the feast.
We are now ready to examine more directly the spiritual meaning of the parable, and as the lesson is in the main coincident with that of the royal marriage in its earlier portion, a brief exposition will suffice.
In the Gospel, God has provided a great feast. Israel, or his Church at any period, are a privileged class, and enjoy, through his sovereign goodness, a perpetual invitation, -- a standing right. The charge which the parable brings against this privileged people is, that they were satisfied with the honour of being invited, and refused actually to comply with the invitation. They were content with their name and their outward privileges, and would not in their own hearts and lives obey the Gospel; clinging to the form of godliness, they peremptorily denied its power. Not they who are invited, but they who partake of the feast, are blessed. To get the first invitation will be not a blessing but an aggravation of guilt, if you despise the Giver and refuse his gifts. The last invited shall be first in ultimate position if they accept the invitation, and the first invited will be last and lowest if they refuse to comply: the condition of men, ultimately, turns not on pardon to them offered, but on pardon by them received.
The servant obviously represents the ministry of the Gospel in every form and in all times. The message is addressed in the first instance to them "that were bidden." The Gospel was not first proclaimed to the heathen: begin at Jerusalem was the Master's command, and that command was fulfilled in spirit and letter by his servants. To the lost sheep of the House of Israel the Lord came in person, and to them the apostles addressed their Lord's words at the beginning of their ministry. The history of the event in the Acts of the Apostles corresponds exactly with the prophetic delineation in this parable: it was when the Jews rejected the Gospel, that the messengers turned to the Gentiles.
The invitation addressed to the favoured circle first is, "Come, for all things are now ready;" all preceding dispensations were a preparation for Christ. When the fulness of time had come, those who had been all along brought up within the lines of the privileged people, were invited to behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world. This is repeated in the experience of every generation, and every individual, that grows up within the circle of Christian ordinances, as soon as the mind comprehends the message of mercy. As each attains maturity, he is informed that all things are now ready; he is invited and pressed to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ that he may be saved.
To "make excuse," does not here mean to invent an excuse, and falsely state, as a reason, that which is, in point of fact, not the motive of the act. To make excuse, both in the original Greek ([Greek: paraiteisthai]) and in the English translation, signifies simply to plead to be excused. The grounds on which the plea is urged, may in any case be true or false; but in this case, it is highly probable that the grounds stated were in themselves facts, and that they were, in part at least, the true grounds of refusal. Whether the first would have gone to the feast, if he had not at that time bought a property, we do not certainly know. A man who is intensely unwilling to go, when one reason fails, will find or make another; but in this case, the probability is, that anxiety to see his purchase was the real, or at least, a real obstacle. The same observation is applicable to the other two examples.
But although we concede that the obstacles are real, we do not thereby help the case of those who neglect the Gospel; we must go one step deeper into the strata of deceit that are piled over each other in a human heart. A secret unwillingness to partake of the feast may induce the invited to time his purchases, so that he may have a good excuse at hand, or at least to abstain from effort to regulate the incidence of other cares, so as to leave a time of leisure for the great concern. Here in the highest matters, as elsewhere in lower, "Where there's a will there's a way." If the desire were pure and true, -- the desire to attend the Giver, and receive his unspeakable gift, the field may be inspected and the oxen proved early in the morning, or postponed till the following day. Without supposing a conscious falsehood representing that transactions which had no existence stood in the way, you have the evil in all its bulk and all its virulence, when the deceitful heart tries to persuade neighbours, and to persuade itself, that the emerging necessities of earthly business interfered with the waiting on Christ for the salvation of the soul.
We might be put on our guard against this species of deceit in the highest matters, by observing how readily we glide into it, in things of smaller moment. Deceits of every shade, from the lie direct to the most attenuated equivocation, spring in the complicated intercourse of modern society, like weeds in a moist summer on a fallow field. Assuredly, unless our hand be diligent in digging out these bitter roots, we shall not grow rich in the graces of the Spirit. You are invited to a neighbour's house: you don't like to go, and you determine that you will not go. Forthwith your wits go to work to discover an excuse, and you soon find that which you seek for: you must travel on business that day; or some other excuse equally convenient and plausible occurs. You are invited to the house of another neighbour; difficulties unforeseen spring up; but being bent on accepting this invitation, you brush them all aside, and contrive to reserve the evening for the company that you love. There is much danger of staining the conscience in affairs like these. The Lord requires truth in the inward parts: watch and pray. But the difficulty of the path should not make any disciple sad: the effort to walk circumspectly, when honestly, prayerfully, lovingly made, is pleasant and healthful exercise to the spirit.
Neither on the natural nor on the spiritual side does the expression, "with one consent," intimate that the parties met and consulted together regarding the terms of their answers. As birds of the same species build their nests of the same material and the same form, without deliberation or concert; so the carnal mind, being in its own nature enmity against God, produces, wherever it operates, substantially the same fruits. In an alienated heart there is an intense unwillingness to be or to abide near to God; and there is, consequently, great fecundity in the conception and production of partition walls to shield the conscience from the glances of his holiness.
The three species of thorns that grew up and choked the word in this instance, are fair specimens of their class -- fair samples from the heap. These and such as these slay their thousands still in the Christian Church. At this point, however, it is of very great importance to observe that all the transactions which are represented in the parable as having come between a sinner and the Saviour, are in themselves lawful; to overlook this would be to miss half the value of the lesson. In point of fact acts and habits of positive vice keep many back from the Gospel; but it is not with these cases that the parable deals -- it is not to these persons that the Lord is here addressing his reproof. Everything in its own place and time; the lesson here is not, "A drunkard shall not inherit the kingdom," but "How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation?" When the material of the temptation is lawful and honourable the temptation is less suspected, and the tempted is more easily thrown off his guard. The field and the oxen must be bought and used; the affections of the family must be cherished; but woe to us if we permit these seemly plants to grow so rank that the soul's life shall be overlaid beneath their weight!
 I do not set much value on the elaborate and minute discussions which some expositors have raised regarding the distinct and specific significance of the several excuses. It is enough for me that they point to the possessions and the pleasures of life, -- the possessions being distinguished into two kinds, the field and oxen, corresponding to the farm and the merchandise of the cognate parable.
The mission of the servants successively to the streets and lanes of the city, and to the highways and hedges, with the urgent invitation to poor labourers and homeless beggars, the maimed, the halt, and the blind, is a vivid picture, given in prophecy, of what the Gospel of Christ does and will do in the world till the end of time. When many, and these the most wretched, are brought in redeemed and sanctified, the Lord is not satisfied; yet there is room, and the servants must go forth again to new, and if possible, more needy objects, with new, and if possible, more urgent appeals. "Whosoever will, let him come." It is thus that the numbers are filled up in the kingdom of God; but let it be well observed that to be in a spiritually wretched state does not confer a favour or imply safety. These men were saved, not because they were spiritually very low, but although they were spiritually very low: they were saved, although the chief of sinners, because Christ invited them, and they came at his call. The more moral, and more privileged, who were first invited, would have been as welcome and as safe if they had come.