Guess who’s coming to dinner
We all have stories from the bible that mean a lot to us personally. We have favourite stories, or we have stories that speak to us, or seem appropriate for us.
The Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan are some of my favourites. The story of Joseph from the Old Testament is another one. These are stories of grace. Of love going out to someone who didn’t particularly deserve it. A father loving an underserving son. A brother forgiving a bunch of brothers who sold him into slavery. And a Samaritan who goes out of his way to help a victim, even though the Samaritan is considered an enemy by the Jews.
Another story I like is the story of Zacchaeus. Maybe it is because he is short, and I kind of identify with being short. And it too is a story of grace. For Zacchaeus is a tax-collector. Someone who works for the oppressive Romans and gets rich by being a kind of traitor and taking more than his fair share.
And Jesus comes to Zacchaeus, a kind of enemy to his own people, someone who was probably despised by that average Jew, and Jesus says: “Guess who’s coming to dinner.”
Jesus is coming to dinner and it is very surprising that Jesus would go to the home of a traitor, and a bad man. And that is how it would have been understood.
In fact, it is hard for us to see the shock value two thousand years later.
Btu imagine Jesus today going to the home of a General in the Gestapo, or to the home of the head of Hell’s Angels, or to the home of the Grand Wizard of the KKK. Or imagine Jesus going to the home of Vladmir Putin.
And while maybe not exactly the same, you can see how most people would be shocked that he is going to the home of an oppressor, and the average person might not understand it.
This is grace. This is love for all. For while Jesus spoke out against oppression, he had this crazy ability to love all, even the oppressor.
Guess who’s coming to dinner. It’s Jesus.
Now I have taken that line from the relatively famous movie released in 1967 Guess who’s coming to dinner starring Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Sydney Poitier and Katherine’s niece Katherine Houghton.
The plot was simply this. A young white woman comes home from a Hawaiian vacation with her new fiancé, a successful doctor who is black. The parents played by Hepburn and Tracy although liberal minded are shocked.
Sydney Poitier plays the black doctor whose character is perfection itself. The character was written to have no flaws so that the only obstacle to the marriage would be race.
Keep in mind that when this film was being filmed in early 1967 that interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 States of the United States. Those laws were changed by the time of the release, but interracial couples were not widely accepted.
Guess who’s coming to dinner is supposed to shock, and point fun at racial stereotypes and it is supposed to challenge the viewers’ senses of order and status.
But in many ways that is what happened when Jesus went to dinner. He shocked people. He challenged their prejudices. He called them into question. He got them thinking about who had worth, or standing or position.
And often Jesus did this through the custom of eating.
Eating tells a lot about a person. Where you eat, what you eat, how much you eat, and with whom you eat, says something about your identity, your culture, your individuality, and your social status.
In fact, food is often a very powerful metaphor for power.
And food has a huge place in scripture and in particular in the life of Jesus. Stories about feeding multitudes, feeding the hungry, stories about clean and unclean food or utensils, stories about farming and fasting.
And there were stories about Jesus eating with others. In fact, he was actually criticized for being a glutton and a drunkard, he ate so much with others.
He was criticized for eating with the unclean…. eating with the poor and the disposed and with sinners and traitors.
And paradoxically he was known to eat at the homes of the religious and politically powerful. To eat at the homes of those who oppressed people.
And that is where we find him in our story in Luke’s gospel… at the home of a prominent Pharisee. Not just a Pharisee but a leader of the Pharisees. You couldn’t get any higher in Jewish religious and political power.
And three things happened.
First Jesus heals a person with dropsy on the Sabbath.
Then Jesus tells a parable to the guests.
And then some closing remarks to the host.
According to The New Interpreter’s Study Bible:
“In the ancient Mediterranean world, dropsy, the swelling of the body due to an excess of fluid, was used as a metaphorical label for the greedy. Persons with dropsy suffered from an insatiable thirst in spite of the fact that their bodies already retained too much fluid. The same is true of those who grab after money and prestige—just the sort of people with whom Jesus is breaking bread on this Sabbath.”
So, Jesus is eating with those who suffer from a common disease: they want too much. And he asks them is it lawful to heal this person on the Sabbath.
They don’t know what to say. Presumably the man with dropsy or edema is a friend and they would want him healed, but they supposedly don’t want to break the law.
And then Jesus shows them how much they really value their friend when he picks two creatures whom in Jesus’ day would have had lesser value, an ox and a child and tells them guest that they would have rescued these if they had fallen in a well.
And Jesus heals the man and sends him away. He sends him away because presumably he is healed not only of his edema, but of his greed, his grasping, his unquenchable thirst for power.
But the others are not, so Jesus tells them a parable. If Jesus hadn’t called it a parable, we wouldn’t have thought it a parable, just a lesson. But the fact that is a parable suggests deeper levels than the surface.
On the surface it is about status and power and where you sit.
I remember my own wedding and discussions, loosely called discussions, because as I recall I don’t remember having much say. But about who was going to sit where at our wedding, and it was a big deal to my then future mother-in-law, about the seating and who sat closest to the bride and groom, and who was not to sit next to someone because my dad and mother were divorced and that had to be carefully navigated, as to where they were to sit.
I am sure Jesus would have something to say about status.
And his parable was basically about not seeking status, not climbing the next rung in the ladder, about being content to be you, and in God’s eyes that’s all the status you need.
I read this week in one of the commentaries about this passage of scripture where a real-life John 14 situation happened twenty years ago, to Dan, the biblical commentator.
He was in Oxford, and attended the Evensong service most evenings. The first evening he was there, he wanted to sit up front close to the liturgists and the musicians, but little did he know that he was sitting in a reserved pew for distinguished professors and important guests.
A stern usher in a black suit had to come and tell him to move because those were “places of honour” for important people. Even though there were no important people there, and a mostly empty sanctuary except for a few tourists.
I don’t know if you’ve even been put down a peg or two. I have. I expect some of you know the feeling.
And then Jesus addresses the host and makes a social commentary.
He suggests to the host that instead of inviting his friends and family, that he invite the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.
That is kind of a theme in Luke’s gospel. They are the ones excluded by the rich. They are the ones that so called good Jews think are cursed by God.
They are the powerless, the disenfranchised and considered sinners and worthless.
And while Jesus is saying to the host to think seriously about who he values, and to include those whom society thinks has no value…
It is also a social commentary on the structure of society that is designed to keep the rich, rich, and the poor and disenfranchised, poor and disenfranchised.
So, let’s get into our soul work for this week.
Let us start with healing. What part of your soul needs to healed from grasping, or having, or owning, or taking, or wanting, or not being content?
I would say it is hard in or materialistic culture not to have some part of the soul that needs healing from greed, power, accumulation and having.
We could move on to status in our soul.
Who has status in your soul? Who do you look up to and why? Who do you emulate and why? Who would you like to be like, and why?
And in that looking, you will probably find there are those high on your status list, because of love, and kindness and understanding, or because they are a safe place, or because they are selfless.
But you might find yourself emulating, or wanting to be like someone because they are good-looking, rich, famous, talented… and you might want to rethink that a bit in terms of worth and value.
So, who doesn’t have worth and value, in your soul and that can be telling to examine, those you don’t want to invite to your table, those with whom you don’t feel safe, those you don’t like, those you hate.
In a kind of guess who’s coming to dinner scenario, whom do you not want your child to bring home as a partner or potential spouse.
Can you examine your prejudices and who they are against…people of colour, aboriginals, people of a non-Christian faith, or no faith… people on welfare, people with no fixed income or no fixed address…??
Fat people, trans, gays, lesbians, cross-dressers…?
I was watching tennis a while back and realized that when it came to women’s tennis, except that I want the Canadians to win, it was amazing how often I wanted the prettier of the ladies to win. It wasn’t a conscious thing, but it became conscious.
There are statistics from Psychology today that people often vote for the most physically attractive political candidate. It is kind of a natural human bias.
Who don’t you want coming for dinner?
And in our soul work you could ask about your own sense of worth. Are you comfortable with who you are, and if not, why not?
Do you think you have status, and why?
Do you need attention, fame, money, achievement or what to feel like you have worth?
Can you recognize your gifts and talents? Can you use them to do good, without necessarily getting money or attention?
What does it mean to be a child of God to you and is that enough?
What makes you feel good inside when you do something?
Do you think you are good enough for dinner with Jesus? Let me tell you that Jesus has an open invitation.
You know what makes one feel good? Jesus suggests that when you reach out to the powerless and the disenfranchised, when you do things without expectation of reward or return, paradoxically there is a reward. Self-worth, feeling good, being fulfilled, happiness…
…finding your best self, your true self…
Our Old Testament Lesson today is not a food metaphor it is a water metaphor.
It is the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah railing against the people of Israel, for forsaking their God, for going a different way. So, when we humans start seeking our own power, our own control, our own stuff, our own ascension, our own wealth, the prophet talks about it in terms of idolatry.
Idolatry is when we elevate to our higher power, to religious or faith status, things that are not of God.
And in our today’s lesson, things like power control, wealth and status come to mind.
And here is the metaphor. The metaphor is that of a cistern.
In the middle east big cisterns became very important as a way of preserving water in countries where water didn’t just come out of tap. Homes didn’t have running water in Jesus’ day, at least not for ordinary people.
People would use wells; and towns and villages were often built where there was water or a well.
But since the Middle East often had a rainy season, big holes in the ground were dug to catch rainwater. They usually had narrow openings but were deep, to keep the water fresher longer. Often, they would be lined with lime that sort of reacted with the water to form a sealant to keep the cistern from leaking.
Jeremiah suggests those who turn away from God and away from God’s way of love, mercy and justice are like those who build their own cisterns, but the cisterns are cracked and leaking.
It makes me want to ask myself: “What am I leaking?”
Am I leaking grace and running out of grace?
Am I leaking patience and running out of patience?
Am I leaking mercy and running out of mercy?
Am I leaking self-worth and forgetting I am a child of God?
Am I leaking God and forgetting to seek the presence of God.
Am I leaking unselfishness and not willing to take up a cross?
Am I leaking generosity and find myself unable or unwilling to share and give?
Am I leaking justice and apathetic about changing the world.
Or conversely, am I sitting at God’s table with my cup running over with grace?
Here is a wonderful story of food and grace and status, a retelling of a parable of Jesus, found in the Boston Globe newspaper some thirty years ago, about some unusual people being invited to a wedding banquet.
Accompanied by her fiancé, a woman went to the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston and ordered the meal. The two of them poured over the menu, made selections of china and silver, and pointed to pictures of the flower arrangements they liked. They both had expensive tastes, and the bill came to $26,000. After leaving a check for half that amount as down payment, the couple went home to flip through books of wedding announcements.
The day the announcements were supposed to hit the mailbox, the groom got cold feet. "I'm just not sure," he said. "It's a big commitment. Let's think about this a little longer." When his angry fiancé returned to the Hyatt to cancel the banquet, the manager could not have been more understanding. "The same thing happened to me, honey," she said and told the story of her own broken engagement.
But about the refund, she had bad news. "The contract is binding. You have two options: to forfeit the down payment or go ahead with the banquet. I'm sorry. Really, I am."
It seemed crazy but the more the jilted bride thought about it, the more she liked the idea of going ahead with the party--not a wedding banquet, but a big blowout. 10 years before this same woman had sojourned for a little while in a homeless shelter. She had got back on her feet, found a good job and set aside some money Now she had the wild notion of using her savings to treat the down and outs of Boston to a night on the town.
And so it was that in June of 1990 the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston hosted a party such as it had never seen before. The hostess changed the menu to boneless chicken--"in honor of the groom," she said--and sent invitations to rescue missions and homeless shelters. That warm summer night, people who were used to rummaging through dumpsters dined instead on chicken cordon bleu. Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served appetizers. Bag ladies, vagrants, and drug addicts took one night off from the hard life on the sidewalks outside and instead ate chocolate wedding cake and danced to big band melodies late into the night. This jilted bride spent $26,000 to feed and entertain people who could not pay her back.
What a wonderful story of the humble being exalted and given status. Guess who’s coming to dinner. The poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.