Detachment in the Image of God


Sermon preached by Dn. James Wilcox on Sunday, December 17, 2023

Colossians 3:14-11; Luke 14:16-24

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus stands among the Pharisees and tells the story of a man who throws a great banquet and has invited many people to join Him. But when the time came to gather and celebrate, those invited were too preoccupied with certain matters in their lives to attend. So the host turned to his servant, instead, and asked him to bring in the poor, the disabled, and the blind. “‘Go out to the highways and hedges,” He tells them, “and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet. For many are called, but few are chosen.’"

Now I can think of two ways to interpret this passage. The first is to see those originally invited as symbolic representations of the Pharisees. The nation of Israel, after all, was long-awaiting their promised Messiah, and with the advent of Jesus 2,000 years ago, He stood ready to receive His people. But Israel’s leaders rejected Him. As a result of this, outsiders were invited in off the streets. These represent all of those foreign to the Jewish faith who have now been welcomed in. St Symeon the New Theologian writes of this very passage stating that, “God called the Jews first of all, and they were not persuaded to part from their ways. Lastly, he calls all the nations through His Son and, persuaded, they run and flee to him.” (Alexander Golitzen, trans., St Symeon the New Theologian, On the Mysical Life:The Ethical Discourses, Vol. 1: The Church and the Last Things . (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 113.)

The second way to interpret this passage involves a deeper spiritual examination, at the allegorical level. Viewed in this manner, the text shows us certain persons too preoccupied with their own personal affairs, and are therefore unable to recognize the true gift of God in their midst! One person purchased property and was compelled to go back and examine it. Another purchased five yoke of oxen and needed to go back and ensure they were fit enough for his use. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these personal dealings of course. But I am reminded of a phrase given in one of David Fincher’s early films, by one of his most deeply-flawed characters. Sitting across from the protagonist of the film, the character look at him plainly and states: “The things you own end up owning you.” This resonates, of course, because it’s not far from the words of Jesus, himself. “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” Christ tells the rich fool in Luke 12. “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:21). Likewise, with respect to today’s Gospel story, each of the people who are unable to attend the banquet at the last minute, are too preoccupied with certain earthly treasures. They no longer have time for what is most important.

This is not unlike the Gospel story the Orthodox Church uses at 3 of our Marian feasts in honor of the Theotokos. Here, the story of Mary and Martha is told and the two women are contrasted. Martha was too busy serving to recognize the importance of Jesus Christ in her midst. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with working to provide hospitality for your guests. But as the text reveals, her sister Mary sat at the foot of Jesus beholding Him in genuine contemplation. She chose “the good portion,” the story tells us. To miss the presence of Jesus right in our very midst because we are preoccupied with something “other,” like the men in today’s Gospel passage, is to miss a potential opening of the heart.

Michel Evdokimov once wrote that

“… any activity can be transformed into prayer [but] what contrasts Martha to Mary is the closing or opening of the heart. When Jesus addresses himself to Martha with tenderness … he wants to pull her out of the kitchen where she locks herself in, [and] free her from the domestic mission she imposes on herself as if to find in it the meaning of her life.” (Michel Evdokimov, To Open One’s Heart: A Spiritual Path. (Yonkers, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004), 10.)

Likewise, each of the invitees in today’s parable was “locked in” or attached to some other “thing,” and in such manner that the gift of God — the good portion — was missed. And so… here is the message we are left with: When Christ stands before us at the end of all things, whatever we have loved a little too much, whatever we have depended on a bit too stridently, whatever we have hoped will define us more definitively… all these will need to be set apart from us and cleansed, that we may be made God’s own more completely. None of those things define who we truly are as human beings in the image of God. And for this reason we must learn to detach ourselves from such predilections in this life. Evdokimov again, writes: “Under the guidance of the Master at opening the heart, every disciple should work on himself, to become of aware of the state of openness or closure of this heart.” In this way we learn to slowly discover the genuine nature of who we truly are. This is a journey. It is a journey of learning to rest only in God and nothing else. It is here that we enter into true stillness and the merciful divinity of silence. “…there is one God,” writes Ignatius of Antioch. “…one God who made Himself manifest through Jesus Christ his Son, who is His Word coming forth from silence.”