TEXT: LUKE xiv.18-20. "And they all with one consent began to make excuse; . . . I pray thee have me excused."
WE need no more than these few words to recall to us the whole parable from which they are taken. From the different accounts of this parable in the gospels we must conclude that the Saviour often repeated it. Its substance is that an invitation was issued to a great supper, and the guests at first promised to appear; but when the appointed hour was come, and they were required to present themselves, one made a pretext of this, and another of that piece of business, and said, "I pray thee have me excused."
The first thing to be noticed about this parable is the frequent occasion which the Saviour had to repeat it. He lived, as we know, entirely among His own people, saying that He had come only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Them He did not cease to call to Himself, and proclaimed to them that the kingdom of God had come nigh to them, that they might enter it, and to that end might gather around Him; He told them He would take care of them, protect them against all danger, and conduct them safely into that blessed kingdom of God. And there were many who gave ear to His first invitation. Where His voice was heard, men gathered around Him by hundreds and thousands, and their eagerness to hear the words of wisdom from His lips seemed more and more to increase, as if they could never have enough. But when they were required to take a decisive step, to show that they wished really to take their place in this kingdom of God, such as He represented it to them; when He, for that purpose, gave them clearer indications of the nature of that supper to which they were invited, -- then they drew back and turned away.
That which led me to take these words as the subject of our meditation to-day was my having occasion to remember our recent harvest-thanksgiving. For this was my thought. It is bad, no doubt very bad, if a man invites himself to the enjoyment only of earthly comforts and possessions, forget ting the word, "Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee;" but far worse if a man in this short and fleeting earthly life misses hearing the divine invitation, and so little heeds this significant warning voice, that when the message comes to him, Come, for all things are ready, he brings forward this or that as an excuse. The higher the position of him who invites us into his society, even for fleeting moments, which are therefore all the more memorable; the less would we venture to offer an excuse, even when we ought to do so on account of some duty that hindered us. But when those who bring to us the invitation to the great feast receive so often the answer, "I pray thee have me excused"; when we are still constantly hearing this around us, and note the consequences; what a crowd of sorrowful reflections must stir the hearts of those who have themselves accepted this divine invitation, and who know the glory and beauty of the feast! To what class, then, do we belong? I can only ask in order to give an answer which all take for granted. We who meet here to remember Him who has called us into the kingdom of God, to nourish and strengthen ourselves with His words, certainly present ourselves as those who have not only heard but accepted His invitation; otherwise we should not be here at all. Whether there may not be here and there among us individuals who are in the position of saying, "I pray thee have me excused," is another question which may remain for the present undecided. But if we have indeed given ear to the invitation of the Lord, then we are all without exception what He called His disciples from the beginning, His servants; sent by Him, as He was sent by the Father, to invite men in the Father's name and in His. And this duty of inviting men into the kingdom of God is a work which may be done well and skilfully, or quite otherwise. Many a one who is called to this great work is urgent with souls, and constrains even those to heed and accept his invitation who, perhaps, if they had been addressed and called on in a different way, would only have said, "I pray thee have me excused." And if it is an experience too frequent to be disregarded, that still excuses are constantly being made, not only by those to whom the gospel is brought as something new from afar; but not less, and in various ways, by those who live among us and are familiar with the name of the Lord and His Word: we may depend on it that there has been something amiss in the manner of the invitation. Let us therefore consider these two points as they stand connected here: how it is that so many refuse the divine invitation, and then some of the mistakes into which we may fall in conveying that invitation to them.
I. In hearing of the invitation of the Lord to this great feast, which is meant to figure to us the kingdom of God, we think first, and quite rightly, of the universal call that comes in the name of the Saviour to all men without distinction, to turn their backs on the transitory things with which, unhappily, most people are taken up, and to enter on a higher life by turning to eternal things. This is the great, all-embracing invitation which had certainly been issued before in, as it were, a preliminary way, and often repeated; but that all things were ready for the enjoyment of this life in God could not be announced to the race of men till the fulness of the time had come, and the Son of God had appeared on earth. And even now among ourselves we distinguish between that preparatory news of all being invited, as we make it known from their youth up to those who grow up among us, and that decisive and urgent invitation, which we delay until, having made them acquainted with the Saviour, we count them capable of distinguishing for themselves what is mean and what is noble, what is perishable and what is divine in human nature. What is it then that hinders so many, even if they do not flatly and openly refuse this invitation, from accepting it as it is meant? If we adapt the call which we address to them to the sympathy with the spiritual life which Christ imparts to us, there would not easily be found among us any one who would utterly and once for all excuse himself, entirely renouncing his portion in the blessed life to which we are invited from above; and if he did, we should take no notice of it, but again and again renew the invitation. But many excuse themselves for the present, and would like to put off to an indefinite time. And why is this? Why do they think that they could not be ready yet, and could not resolve to comply with the divine invitation? With many it is certainly nothing but the indolence and inertia so natural to men. They prefer to go on in the way that they have hitherto followed; and if any kind of change is to be effected with them or in them, they do not care to calculate on what is unknown and uncertain, and would rather have everything happen to them without their needing to take any resolution or exert their own will in the matter. With others again the predominant feeling is a love for their present manner of life and for the things they possess and enjoy, in proportion to the satisfaction they find in them; and what keeps them back from obeying the call into the kingdom of God is the idea that in doing so they must give up everything in which they have found pleasure; that the kind of work which has easily and comfortably sufficed them must be set in the background, or be entirely abandoned; and for what? Only, in the first place, to enter on a hard and painful struggle. But if we ask what kind of enjoyment it is which a man must renounce in order to comply with God's invitation, is it anything but what the apostle meant when, speaking to the Christians in Rome of their former life, he said, "What fruit had ye then in the things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of these things is death." It is only the pleasure that is steeped in sin, only the work that ministers to selfish passions that must be given up; for these cannot but deaden the capacity for true life; and then shall the fruit be unto holiness, and the end everlasting life. For let it be remembered that we cannot say of any kind of work in which it is worth while for a human being to occupy his time in this world, that it will be repudiated or held in contempt in the kingdom of God. That kingdom is wide enough to give scope for every right exercise of the human faculties.
Now, this being the case, when the difference is so undeniably great and obvious between the unsatisfying pleasures and vain toil which men are to give up, and the blessedness of the divine life which is offered to them; have we not cause to suspect, when so many, instead of accepting the Lord's invitation to His great and blessed feast, still draw back and put it off, that the fault must lie, in great measure, with our manner of giving the invitation? There are, indeed, manifold errors which we may commit in this work; but the one which is most hurtful, and which is very common among us is this: that instead of showing men the happiness of the life to which they are called, we first set before them a death through which they must pass; we tell them of an anguish of soul over their past condition, which they cannot be allowed to escape; we demand of them a sense of utter loss and ruin, as that from which alone the new life can begin. But in so doing we go beyond our commission, and thus we must miss our aim with many. For such is the nature of man (a nature that we cannot change), that if we hold up to him the greatest and most glorious objects only very far off, and as nearer facts nothing but struggle and toil, sorrow and tears, self-sacrifice and abnegation, he holds back; he does not wish to make his way through all these to the higher things, great and excellent as they may appear in themselves. And therefore the Saviour Himself did not act on this plan. It was not at all His way to proclaim to men that they must, as the first thing, endure agonies of repentance, or to lead them to despair as to their own position. When He calls Himself the Physician who has come for the good of the sick, can you say that He presents Himself to them with the red-hot iron in His hand to cauterize their wounds? or are the medicaments which He employs internally of such a kind as to produce, though only as their first effects, pain and terror? And when He makes Himself known as He who has come to seek that which was lost, does He speak of using measures of terror and intimidation towards the lost sheep, that they may be driven back to His arms? Does He not tell only of going after them in faithful love into the wilderness, alluring and drawing them back to Him, and then rejoicing over them? But it by no means follows from this, that we are to make light of the difference between the higher life to which man can attain only by the Holy Spirit being given to him, and the earthly life as it appears in any well-ordered community. The effect of that might be that men would not be invited at all to the great and glorious feast to which we are to call them. But as regards the vanity of their life beforehand, oh, they will feel that of themselves all the more keenly, the more clearly we show them, as we are bound to do, the glory of that state to which we invite them; the warfare which they must maintain against all the memories and habits that would hold them still in captivity under the law of sin in their members will not fail to begin, if we have only first awakened in them a love for the blessed communion of .the Spirit. Hence we shall most fully execute our commission as His messengers if we enter into the closest possible social intercourse with those to whom we are sent, and so be able to show them in ourselves the happiness to which they are invited. In this way we shall both attract those who have been kept back by indolence from complying with the Lord's invitation, and win over those who are absorbed in other pleasures or pursuits. Even in other connections we see men drawn to a new forth-putting of their faculties by coming into association with more highly cultivated powers with which they can ally themselves. Therefore, if we are to invite others successfully to share with us the abundance of the new life, we must ourselves be cheerful -- not full of fretting anxiety, as if we might easily lose our share of this treasure. And we shall do this still more by gladsome deeds than by joyful expressions of faith -- deeds that furnish them with ample proofs of the power of our own spiritual life, and awaken in them the desire for such a life. Then, when they are deeply impressed with the peace and happiness of the children of God, some will be helped to overcome their slothfulness, others their evil desires; and when once they have their eye fixed on the aim which we have pointed out to them by word and example, then will power be given them from above to carry on the conflict which, it is indeed true, none can escape.
II. But we must not confine our attention to this very general view of the subject. It is not only the call in a general way to the heavenly life in God, which is addressed to men under this figure of an invitation to a great and solemn feast; let us also consider this feast in its full abundance, in its great, inexhaustible variety. Once when the disciples of the Lord had left Him alone while they went to buy food during a journey, and He had meanwhile had an opportunity of preaching the kingdom of God to a lost soul, He said to them, when they returned and invited Him to eat, "I have meat to eat that ye know not of . . . to do the will of My Father in heaven that sent Me, and to finish His work." That was His meat, that is ours, to accomplish the will of our Father in heaven, and in this view, to what a rich and varied feast, to what an abundant table are we set down! Who can overlook the great mutual relations of human affairs in which we are all called to do the will of God? Who can overlook the great, divine work which is to be accomplished by the Saviour and those who are his faithful servants and fellow-workers? And what ever part we take in this important work -- whether it seem great or small, it is a part of the great whole; it is one of the meats at this divine feast to which we are invited. And as in such feasts the wealth and affluence of him who gives them are made known; so, in the inexhaustible abundance and variety of the spiritual viands, all rich with the savour of the blessed fellowship into which we are brought with God, we recognise the unutterable riches of the blessedness of God, who has invited us to this spiritual feast. If, then, everything to which any of us feels called for the furthering of the Saviour's work is at the same time that which forms our enjoyment in this royal feast, let us be ever inviting others to every work of God as to the highest kind of pleasure. The opposition between work or duty and enjoyment, which makes so much difficulty for us in our earthly affairs, is not found in the kingdom of God: for every work that we accomplish is to the consecrated soul at once nourishment and pleasure. And to such a soul there is no pleasure that cannot be turned to practical effect; all the refreshment found in quiet meditation on the grace of God either leads to active work for others, or it becomes operative in the inner life, rooting us more firmly in the common soil of the divine kingdom, so that we may produce new flowers and fruits. In what rich abundance, in what inexhaustible variety, does this union of spiritual work and pleasure in the strength and blessed fellowship of the love of God lie before us! And in truth, when we see how, from one age to another, the kingdom of God has extended without losing its divine power, in the midst of all conflicts with the world -- of all the conflicts that each man must carry on with himself, which indeed are just his conflict with the world, which has still some part in him -- we are constrained to say that this is all the effect of successful invitation. And therefore we must believe that our invitation will still succeed in accomplishing a work of God, if we only make sure that it bears about it the spiritual savour and offers the spiritual nourishment that are found at this divine feast. How much friendly readiness do we find even in the great Christian communities to unite their efforts, when the Divine Spirit has awakened in hearts here and there a new resolution to take out of the way what is dangerous, to bring together all that is profitable, and here and there to produce some new thing that is still wanting to the beauty of the whole! And if every single purpose suggested by the Spirit of God finds friends and supporters, how sure we may be of not inviting in vain where a new ideal of life is demanding help against difficulties, and fresh exercise of newly-awakened powers that new work may be accomplished! But it must be admitted this is not always the case. When we address calls of this kind to men in the name of the Lord, and claim their help for some work of God, we sometimes find that, like those in our text, they say, "I pray thee have me excused." What can it be, then, that keeps back our brethren from responding to the call to a work of God? The chief mistake seems to me to be that there is still a distinction made between earthly and spiritual, between our duty in social and business aspects and our duty in the kingdom of God. But these ought never to be separated. For if a man is moderately busy in his worldly calling, and thinks his energies should all be expended on what it requires of him; if he is entirely taken up with his business, and considers, seeing that earthly business has its distinct claims, that he will be able to render a good account of the use he has made of his powers, although he has been able to give no help in anything, how ever beautiful or excellent, for the fathering of the kingdom of God -- how are we to answer such an excuse? As long as our invitation takes for granted this opposition between the duties that are binding on us as members of society and those to which we are called by the voice of the Holy Spirit, in the name of the kingdom of God; just so long shall we have no certainty that our invitation is right, and it will always depend on a peradventure if it is to be complied with. For it is not easy to find a rule of universal application by which to accommodate to each other things of different kinds not already connected: every one has his own plan of how much he will give to the one or limit the other, and no one can assert that another has laid down an unfair rule, where each has his own. Therefore if there is to be a ready compliance with our invitations to an active interest in the works that concern the furtherance of the kingdom of God, we must set aside this distinction by regarding everything incumbent on each of us in our social position, as a part of our duty in the kingdom of God. We must, in fact, regard that position, as the place appointed for each at this great feast, and therefore expect from each in the first place that he fulfil all those duties as for that kingdom. There is certainly no earthly condition that more entirely claims all men's powers for the earthly life than did that of servants at the time when Christianity began. Yet what does the apostle say to those who, as slaves, were utterly subject to the sole will of their masters, and spent all their strength in ministering only to their earthly comfort? He bids them remain in the calling in which the Divine Spirit had found them; but to do what they did in that calling not as unto men, but unto God. And just so it may be and ought to be with each of us in our earthly calling. What we do in it, let us do as the work of the Lord; for everything that calls forth and strengthens the mental faculties, all that gives man mastery over human things and the forms of nature, may be of service in the kingdom of God, and is therefore connected with the Lord's work, which we are all to for ward; and in the same way, whatever we may fairly expect others to do, must be what can be accomplished in this connection. And hence what a difference it makes whether we do a thing merely with a view to the outward life, or for some one person, or do it as to the Lord! I do not only mean that in the latter case the thing is better and more thoroughly done; but that what is done in a mere earthly way depresses our spirit, while in the other way it is lifted up and elevated; the consciousness of having done our work for the Lord will cheer and support us against all depression and amid all suffering. And will not he who has once gained this consciousness, be always finding that he has a surplus of strength to take part, beyond the narrow circle of his own business, in all kinds of work for the kingdom of God, and to do something more than his regular work when it is a question of helping to build the temple of the Lord! This employment of surplus strength and helpfulness will be seen wherever there is not a lack of hearty love of work; and where it is so, we may be sure that the difference will come out very clearly between those who, while doing everything to the Lord, are also obeying this invitation of His by always finding some new work to do for Him and strength in themselves to help in it; and those who, besides their ordinary business, aim only at perishing pleasures, and find their life in works of vanity, and therefore are always falling back into anxiety about trifling and transitory things.
Let us see, then, that we always take this right way of inviting -- confirming our words by our actions; and we may be sure of always finding a friendly and favourable hearing, and that there will always be many to join with us in a thoroughly efficient way in all kinds of Christian work. And thus the circle will be ever widening of those who share in the glorious enjoyment of the spiritual feast to which the Lord invites us all.
III. Let us now notice shortly a third particular. We have seen that in this universal call we are invited to take part in all kinds of Christian work, by means of which life as a whole is to assume an aspect worthy of the Christian name, and to expand into fairer bloom; in which spiritual fellowship will thrive and increase, while the one thing needful will more and more hold its due place. But does this include all that is conveyed in the Lord's invitation to His divine feast? If I was right in saying at the beginning that we who assemble here implied by so doing that we had not only heard but accepted His invitation, then a call to assemble ourselves thus for the pure worship of God must be included in that invitation. It is true, we know that though the Christian says, "A day in Thy courts is better than a thousand," he does not refer exclusively to the Lord's day and to seasons of public means of grace; for wherever we are doing anything to the Lord, we are in His courts and in His temple. Nevertheless, these our Christian assemblies are a special point in the invitation; for remember how the apostles charged the Christians not to forsake them, but diligently to gather together. But in saying this, you are well aware that I do not here speak of an invitation to the presence of those who are appointed to dispense the word of God to souls. You know well it is not my view of the purpose of our meeting that I come to instruct you, and you come to be instructed by me; but that I only desire to be edified together with you by the divine word of our Lord and Master, as we meditate on it together. And let us not conceal from ourselves, but recognise the fact, that this is indeed a beautiful and glorious portion of that great spiritual feast to which we are all called. This passing from active life to quiet, united meditation on the word of God on an appointed day, is an arrangement so fraught with blessing, that we cannot dispense with it if we are in earnest fully to appropriate and rightly to enjoy the abundance of the Lord's spiritual benefits which are here offered to us. And I must say it is the case among our selves that Christian people are diligent in assembling together, so that our gatherings are not thin and poor. But if we go no further than our near neighbourhood, there are many among the inhabitants of this great city to whom the pleasure of uniting with others for the animating of their hearts from the word of God is a more unusual thing than it ought to be; indeed, it is an ordinary remark among us that whole sections of the community are indifferent and deaf to this invitation. What is the cause of this?
There is one cause, certainly, which ought not to be found standing in the way of this invitation; that is, the pressing cares for the outward life, which so fret the soul that it has no power left for spiritual enjoyment; longing only for physical rest, when one more week of the toilsome life is past. And it is one great part of the problem which, looking from the standpoint of doing all to the Lord, we must ever be striving with united strength to solve; how the too great discrepancies in outward position, between those who are called to sit at the same feast may be more equalized, so that none may be obliged to be unduly engrossed in worldly business; that every one may have some time and capacity left for spiritual occupations and enjoyments, by which in turn, fresh vigour will be gained for every right kind of common work.
Another obstacle to the acceptance of this invitation is, no doubt, in many persons, their overweening self-sufficiency. What we hear at public worship, they say, we can say better for ourselves; there we are bound to a fixed time, but we can choose for our own meditation the time that suits us best; whatever we may do for our edification, whether from our own thoughts or in connection with the divine Word, will be more useful to us than what is not intended alone or even chiefly for us. But such ideas reveal a serious misconception; and if we are really concerned to gain a hearing for this part of the invitation, and to be always helping more of our brethren to this spiritual enjoyment, we must, if possible, correct those false ideas. How can this be done, do you ask? I think in this way; When we separate here, and each of us returns among his own circle, let the conversation be less about him who has been called on that day to explain the Word of God, than on the subjects themselves on which he has spoken; let the preacher disappear and the divine Word become the point of interest; let there be more said about the effect of such blessed Christian fellowship, -- how each has been strengthened by the consciousness of a common interest in prayer, and by the fresh stimulus we have received together on our way to the goal set before us, and what joy we have had in seeing so many with their faces directed thither. In this way others will see how much value we attach to Christian fellowship, and that this is the chief thing in our assemblies; and in this way they will lose their mistaken ideas. For no one can believe that he is, or can accomplish for himself alone, all that offers itself to him in the full united power and kindly contact of a spiritual community. That a man should think he is able to do himself as much good as the voice of one other man can do, is natural enough in these days; but how great would be the vanity that should feel able to dispense with the Communion of Saints!
And now, would that it were not necessary to mention another hindrance! And yet I am constrained, and cannot but do so! The great difference in the ideas of Christians, when they come to express the great gospel call more minutely, one laying down its essential conditions in this way, another in that; -- ah! this interferes only too effectually with the agreement and harmony of mind in our assemblies. You invite one or another, and he says, I do not hear there that which alone I count to be true Christianity; there the mystery of faith is not spoken of so as to edify me; there the words that most help me to communion with the Saviour are wanting; there certain expressions are used that disturb me in my devotion; the whole effect produced has a suspicion of scepticism, says one; it savours of superstition, says another. It is this unhappy narrowness that makes such divisions among us, and deprives us of so many spiritual blessings. And how are we to meet this difficulty? How weighty a question! This at least is certain, that if our invitation bears traces of this party spirit, it will have very little influence. Even natural things hold up an example to us here. The same forces in the soil produce a thousand different plants; but look at the proudest ornament of the garden, and the meanest flower of the field; the bee plunges humming into the one and into the other, gathering the same precious honey from all. Oh! that we showed ourselves as such bees, knowing how to draw honey from everything that contains any of the true spiritual sustenance! If we show in this way that we are bound by no such narrow views, but are able to draw strength for the spiritual life wherever only Christ is preached, in whatever manner; then in our invitations to our brethren we shall more and more get the better of this miserable party spirit.
Let us, then, not be weary of inviting others in every way to the Lord's great spiritual feast; for we are sent forth to do this. Our Saviour, though He devoted His whole public life to this mission, had but little outward and visible result to rejoice in; but He had in His heart the certainty that He was doing His Father's work, and was able to say when He left this world that He had finished that work. And therefore, in the midst of all the opposition that He met with from men, He held fast the same courage, the same serenity of spirit, the same unquenchable love to those whom He was to invite. And this is the pattern which we must follow. Then will our message be blessed at least in secret, even if we see but little outward result. The present is a time, specially favourable for this work -- a time in which each of us cannot but hear a voice, which says that any night his soul may be required of him. How clearly at such a time does the difference show itself between those who, because they have as yet given no heed to the divine invitation, have fled from the sound of that alarming voice into the tumult of life, so that it dies in effective on their ear, instead of drawing them away from the emptiness of earth to higher things; and those who hear that voice with tranquil hearts, because they have obeyed the call of the Lord and already, through faith, have won their way to eternal life, and conquered death. We have a fine example of how to invite under such circum stances in Ephesians v.16, 19, 20. The apostle is telling the Christians how to suit their conduct to the evil days in which they were living; and what does He say to them? He bids them give thanks, and amidst the trouble of those evil days to sing and make melody in their hearts to the Lord.
Oh, friends, if our brethren see that we are able to do this in the present, and every evil day, that will be to them the most powerful invitation. If they see in us, in all circumstances, the same calmness and assurance, they cannot doubt that it is God's power that works in us, a power to which all have only to yield themselves, in order to enter the blessed kingdom of God; and thus will the number be ever increasing of those who join us in praising Him who has brought us from death to life. Amen.