Why do people cut, leave, or distance themselves away from the Church and from God? What is the logic behind this? Is it because they have found something more beautiful than God’s love, something more spiritual or holy? Or is it the fact that they allow the passions and sins of others within the Church to blur their view of God and His love?
Alternatively, could it simply be because the law of God distresses them, and for this reason they prefer and trust in something else?
The faith of the Christian Church is in One True and Living Trinitarian God. In the Old Testament, God said: ‘’Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one God; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might’’ (Deut 6:4-8). These words from the Law of Moses are quoted by Christ as the first and greatest commandment (Mk 12:29). They follow upon the listing of the Ten Commandments which begin, ‘’I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods besides me’’ (Deut 5:6-5).
In His parable of the royal banquet (Luke 14:16-24), Jesus Christ indicated three causes or reasons, which make human beings turn their back on the love of God: their ego/pride, worldly entanglements, and sensual pleasures.
Now we should cite, that this parable of the royal banquet, is actually speaking not about a physical banquet in our human sense, like some dinner party that we simply attend. It is a symbolism or metaphor regarding the call of salvation to all peoples, and their invitation to live in the loving eternal presence of God, (which is what the Scriptures poetically call, God’s Kingdom, and to which one enters via Christ and the Holy Spirit).
The image of a banquet is of course indicative of a celebration of life and the joy of being in the presence of the host and all the invited guests. And within Scripture from the Old Testament to the New Testament, the use, image or reality of a banquet is an affirmation of close communal relationship between all. Such examples include the elders of Israel ascending Sinai with Moses, so as to partake of a banquet meal celebration in the presence of God and affirm the Law of the Covenant. Another example is how Abraham and Sarah ministered to God by preparing a meal for God’s consumption by the Oak of Mambre; while the Mystical Supper of Christ which instituted the mystagogy (sacrament) of the Holy Eucharist is an example from the New Testament of a banquet meal to which we as faithful continue to partake of even today.
But like the three chief guests who were invited to a great evening banquet, we too form or develop our distorted excuses and reasoning as to why we cannot attend. In the case of the first guest, the lie he offered in rejecting the King’s invitation was with the excuse that he had just bought a piece of land, and that he needed to go and inspect it. Now of course, any sort of logical person would not go out and purchase any given tract of land or building without first examining it. Only a madman or a fool would be so careless with his financial affairs, nor would he be going to inspect such a proposition in the dark of night, where he could not perceive clearly any faults or issues that may exist with his potential purchase. This of course reveals the spiritual carelessness that the first guest has, who out of pride could not even offer a credible lie for his non-attendance. Without doubt this was clearly an affront to the King who had made the effort to prepare a great and festive banquet that would satisfy the hunger of this ungrateful invited guest.
Therefore, this first guest is representative of those whose soul are driven away from God because of pride. For when the ego of a person is filled with a sense of self-sufficiency, vanity and extreme “self-esteem”, it believes that it knows everything, and that it does not have the need to be taught by anyone, not even by God, who is the source of all life and creation. Pride is usually a phenomenon that occurs in people who, with the little knowledge that they have acquired, goes into an empty head and operates like wine in an empty stomach.
The second guest, like the first, offered an equally lame excuse by claiming he had just bought five yokes of oxen, and that he needed to test them. This of course ignores the fact that oxen are not put to work at night-time but are asleep. Yet, like the first guest, this guest was foolhardy enough to purchase that which he had not examined carefully. Furthermore, if this guest was foolhardy enough to purchase the yokes of oxen, did he not have an entire day to examine these oxen prior to the advent of night, when he was invited to attend a banquet? Why could he not attend to the oxen on any given day after the banquet, it is not like the oxen are going anywhere? Are material and worldly concerns that pressing, so as to prevent him from partaking in a banquet, and spending quality time in the company of the King and His invited guests?
Hence, the second guest is representative of those whose souls are attached to “worldly” and material concerns. In this instance, the soul is so deceived, possessed and sucked into worldly activities, pleasures, and temporary securities that the worship of God is considered an unnecessary and excessive activity. Consequently such characters are usually dismissive of the necessity for prayer and asceticism. Naturally the life of such people ends up becoming so extroverted, that they become detached from their inner self, and the esoteric or spiritual life disappears and eventually becomes nothing. In this category belong the people who chase for honours and high social status. They leave the Church, because supposedly according to them, with the Cross in your hands you cannot move up in life. (In any case, experience shows that this type of person ends up destroying what they have worked hard to achieve, because without a firm grounding in the inner self, the outer exterior will in time follow suit and become a detached reality also).
As for the third guest, he was quite blunt in his response, by citing that he had just married. Now this reason offered by the third guest was a double edged excuse, because on the one hand, he shifts the responsibility of his non-attendance onto his spouse, just as Adam had done with Eve in the book of Genesis. On the other hand, the third guest ignores the fact that the King, has the power to separate him from his spouse, and that it was the laws and blessing of the King’s realm that allowed him to be married in the first place. Thus we can see an ingratitude that is a grave personal offence to the King, who has taken the time for his guests in inviting them; while this third guest has rejected this entreaty on the basis of having sex with his wife, or because his wife does not approve of his attendance. Yet we should highlight that this guest has 24 hours in the day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year for as long as he and his wife are together and living, to engage each other’s sensual desire. What is one night out of all this time be, will it compromise the stability of their relationship or their sexual desire? Or should the question be asked, does he not intend to remain faithful and permanently with his spouse, but is using her (or her using him) for temporary gratification or self-interest?
Naturally this reveals a complete lack of responsibility and steadfastness, because his focus was on gratifying the demands and whims of his spouse as well as his own. And this of course is not a sound basis for any marriage, as each will demand their own desires to be met and the need for compromise will not exist. The result will either mean that the third guest will become a slave of his wife and her whims, or she will be manipulated as an instrument to serve his selfish purposes. Of course this situation flies in the face of logic, since the third guest could easily bring his wife to the banquet, and as a couple spend quality time together with the King and his companions.
Consequently this third guest ignores this fact, and chooses to lie. And in this way, we too lie, because the third guest is symbolic of the dangers and pitfalls of the addiction to the passions, more specifically how the sensual and bodily experiences come to dominate the spirit. And in turn, this dominance through self-will and obsession with the passions subvert the spirit. To this sort of enslavement of the soul, a person becomes grievously annoyed by self-sacrifice, ascetical struggles or even philanthropy in some cases, because the body becomes the object of worship. As a result, every effort will be expended in gratifying and worshipping the bodily urges, and thus such persons are more inclined to addictions. Yet addictions are not the ultimate problem or goal of this self-destructive sensual manner of life, rather it bodily encourages the person to reject God.
As a side note, we should highlight a final point regarding the lameness of excuses that the three failed banquet guests offer. According to traditional Middle Eastern custom, as it is today, when a host endeavours to prepare for a banquet, they issue two invites to the event. The first is sent to the prospective guests, in order to elicit their response and find out whether they are able to attend. Learning from the various numbers of guests who accepted the initial invite, the host is able to coordinate and plan for how to cater to the needs and numbers of guests who will attend. The second invite, is in actual fact a reminder, as the host will either go in person or send a servant or a family member to visit the houses of the various invited guests, so as to remind them of the upcoming event and confirm all necessary details, such as the possibility of additional guests or non attendance due to emergencies. The parable implies that the invitation rejection of the three ungrateful guests, was in response to the customary second invitation after having accepted the first invite, which of course is a grave offence to any host who has already made the necessary preparations.
In any, when a person initially hears or reads this parable of the Royal Banquet, many of the excuses can seem valid, since they deal with very simple and daily circumstances that focus on a person’s survival, well-being or quality of life. However, why does the King in the parable say to his servant, ‘For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper’ (Lk 14:24)? What was their mistake? Where did they go wrong?
It seems they simply lacked clear discernment and failed to evaluate the importance of the Kings’ invitation. Without doubt, their priorities were divorced from reality as shown by their lame excuses when subjected to scrutiny. And that priority, was to consider their wants, not needs, as the first and key principle of their intent and decisions. And in that process, they were attached to earthly things, exalting themselves as the chief criterion in a web of materialism, wealth and sensualism, divorced from the reality of the world, and for that matter, the authority of the King who could have ordered them to attend and had the power to dispossess them of all that they had acquired for their own gratification. Yet, for these reasons, they did not humbly accept the invitation to the Kingdom of God and the salvation of their soul. They shut themselves out with their excuses and attachments.
Therefore in this parable, Christ teaches us that the purpose of life is to join in the sharing of bread in the Kingdom of God. To be partakers in the eternal love of God, who offers us the birthright to His Divine Life. It is a love that is extended out into the spiritual life of the Church through the Divine Liturgy (the Holy Banquet), when the Lord says: ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good’. But now the Lord says in this parable; “none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper” (Lk 14:24). These words indicate that God truly resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).
Bearing this in mind, we as Christians are therefore called to reject the supposed security of the world, of country and family, in order to accept the fullness of freedom, in God; because without God within the world, nation, community or family, there is no security or freedom whatsoever. Each one of these elements can become distorted and our relationship to them can follow as thus. But if one is to live out this ultimate freedom of renunciation and self sacrifice, one must be sensitive to the most scandalous words of Jesus Christ: ‘’If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple’’ (Lk. 14:26).
This ‘hatred’ refers to detachment in order to stand back and observe the greater scheme of things, it is in other terms, a rupture from mere human ‘mortal nature’, from creation, from attachment to the exterior or the material world. It is therefore a breach from mere mortal human nature, for the sake of a personal relationship with the immortal God. This personal relationship with God allows the chance for the transformation of human nature, into a divine-human nature, which is immortal. Mere human nature keeps us on a creaturely level, in relationships rooted in ‘urges’, ‘needs’ and ‘the basics for survival’. And as we know, relationships that are purely based on urges, survival instincts, needs and self-interests, never deepen, progress or remain and stand the test of time. In effect, it is the transforming relationship with the Immortal Creator, detached from initial distractions or perceived “loyalties”, that provide the context and foundation for all our relationships and helps secure them on firm ground. A means, if you will, to assess and correct ourselves according to, so that we can break free and transcend our finite limitations, to manifest and imitate with God’s grace, the mystery of the Transfiguration.
In this way a Christian can exchange their mortal existence, by not relying on a mortal created nature, but by relying on an actual unlimited relationship with the immortal existence. This ‘hatred’ for urges and needs, purifies us of the passions and frees the personal relationship, and transforms it into an experience of sublime love, of eternal life.
For this reason, the purpose of a long or short life is the same: it is the chance of learning, living in and becoming love. If the purpose of life is the chance of learning, living and becoming love, surely the joy of life is the experience of it. According to the Christian faith “the greatest virtue is love” (1 Cor 13:13). And it is not without coincidence, that St Paul makes this point, because in the same epistle to the Corinthians, he identifies that this journey of transformation, from being in the image of God, towards attaching oneself to God and by His grace becoming in His likeness, involves faith, hope, love and wisdom. The process first begins with faith, and as we cultivate this aspect, we are brought to live in hope, which then inspires love within us and become love to all things and peoples, which will in time bring us to the wisdom of God.
But it is love which is the last but crucial step towards wisdom, because love is the “fulfilling of the law of God” (Rom. 13:10). For God Himself, is Love, “and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:7-19). In these inspired words of the beloved Apostle John, one sees that humanity’s communion with God, its entire experience of spiritual life, is expressed in love, in learning about God.
Humanity’s love has its origin in God. God’s love always comes first because it is the foundation and context of all things. God’s love is shown in the creation and salvation of the world through Christ and in the Holy Spirit. All things were made by, in and for Jesus Christ, the New Adam, the Word of God, and “the Son of His love” (Col 1:13-17; Jn1:1-3; Heb 1:2). When the world became sinful and dead, by trying to be a god on its own: “God so loved the world that He sent His only-begotten Son…not to condemn the world, but to save the world” (Jn 3:16, 12:47).
We love, because God loved us first: “But when the goodness and love of God our Saviour appeared, He saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and the renewal in the Holy Spirit which He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour so that we might be made righteous by His grace and become heirs of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7). God’s love for us is in His allowing us to have the opportunity to share and partake in His eternal life, in His Godhead, by His grace; or in other words, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Thus it is the teaching of the Church that the “acquisition of the Holy Spirit” in “seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matt 6:33) is the sole purpose and content of humanity’s spiritual life.
God’s love is His gift of eternal life in Christ and the Holy Spirit, which is the Kingdom of God. Jesus has brought the Kingdom of God to the world through the Spirit in the Church; and the Holy Spirit abides in the faithful bringing to them the presence and power of God the Father, through His Son Jesus Christ. Thus God who is Love enters into union with humanity through the Son of His love by the Holy Spirit of love. To live in this divine love is the spiritual life, the life of the Church, which is His Body.
Therefore we see that, the spiritual life of the Church is life – already now – in the Kingdom of God, in the joy and experience of divine love. Since, to live now in the Kingdom of God is to live in freedom from sin and death, in the gracious life of Christ and His Body, the Church. It is for this and this alone, that humanity has been created by God: “Walk by the spirit and do not gratify the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh..” (Gal 5:16-21). In other words, “to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8), and do not walk alone, “for this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thess 4:3).
A person who does not have the courage to humbly face reality and these dangers of estrangement from God, fails to love and to experience love in all its fullness. The most perfect work of love and the fulfillment of its activity, is to allow, through a reciprocal attribution, the individual characteristics of those who are bound together by it, so that humanity is made godlike and God appears as human as the Incarnation revealed. Therefore both the incarnation of God and the deification of humanity are fruits of a co-activity, a synergy of God and humankind.
As St Symeon the New Theologian said, just “as iron is united with light becomes light not by nature, but by union with fire and participation, so what is being deified becomes god not by nature, but by participation”.
St Maximus the Confessor said: “God who is beyond fullness did not bring creatures into being out of any need of His, but that He might enjoy their proportionate participation in Him and that He might delight in His works seeing them delighted and ever insatiably satisfied with the one who is inexhaustible’’.
Dedicated to St Andrew’s Orthodox Press and its tireless and multi-talented chief, Dimitri Kepreotes.