Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Luke 5:29-32

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

April 22, 2018

 

          The film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released in 1967. It was Spencer Tracy’s last role. Katherine Hepburn won an Oscar for it. Sydney Poitier, on the other hand, wasn’t even nominated—I wonder why not? It’s the story of a black man and a white woman who fall in love and decide to get married. Both sets of parents strongly oppose the relation-ship (both fathers at any rate). But love is love, right? And—spoiler alert, here--love prevails in the end. But just to put this in context, in 1967 so-called “interracial marriage” was still illegal in 17 states. Who should marry whom, even who should come to dinner with whom, was a big deal in 1967. And in various ways, it still is in 2018. Guess who’s coming to dinner?

 

          Who’s at the table was certainly a big deal in Jesus’ time. Jesus had called a man named Levi—we know him as Matthew—to follow him and be one of his disciples. And this Levi was a tax collector. Now even today tax collectors don’t win many popularity contests. If you work for the IRS and someone asks what you do for a living, you probably learn to say, “Oh . . . I’m in collections,” or “I’m . . . an accountant.” You don’t say, “I’m responsible for taking a quarter of every dollar you earn and turning it over to the government to do things you don’t agree with.” No tax collector still isn’t up there with nurse or fire fighter in terms of popularity.

          But in Jesus’ day there was more to it. Tax collectors worked ultimately for the occupation Roman empire. They’d sold out to the enemy. The money they collected went to support the army that held them down. What’s more, they worked under a tax farming system. They were told how much they had to turn over to their Roman masters; anything they collected beyond that was theirs to keep. Tax collectors got rich cheating their own people. And of course Jewish tax collectors had daily interactions with Gentile Romans; therefore by Jewish law they were always ritually unclean—good Jews really weren’t supposed to be at table with them. Guess who’s coming to dinner?

          Actually, it’s even worse than that. It’s not that Jesus invited one random tax collector over to his house. It’s that Levi the tax collector, now Levi the disciple, had a banquet for all the tax collectors in town, and invited Jesus to eat with them. Also at the table, Luke says, were “sinners.” “Sinners” is a kind of technical term in the gospels. It doesn’t mean sinners in the sense of “Oh, we’re all sinners.” It means people who have been kicked out of the synagogue for notorious behavior. They may not be worse sinners than everyone else, but they’d got caught; they shocked and offended people. Guess who’s coming to dinner?

          Well, Jesus is coming to dinner. With the tax collectors and sinners. All at the same table. “I have come to call not the righteous,” he tells them, “but sinners.” That’s who’s coming to dinner.

 

          In verse 30, when the Pharisees complain about eating with tax collectors and sinners, they spoke not to Jesus directly, but to his disciples. They asked the disciples, “Why do you all eat with such people?” What this means, according to Bible commentaries, is that when Luke was writing his gospel, not just Jesus but the church—that is, Jesus’ disciples—was being criticized for its inclusive table fellowship. People were faulting the church for welcoming people who shocked them or made them uncomfortable.1 And the church defended itself by pointing to Jesus who not only welcomed all kinds of people to his table, but went himself and ate at the tables of all kinds of people.

 

          The evangelist, Tony Campolo, tells of arriving in Hawaii to preach at a conference. He went to bed but the time difference made him wake up at 3:00 am, desperately hungry. He got up and prowled the streets looking for a place to get breakfast in the middle of the night. The only place open was a grungy diner down an alley. He’s sitting at the counter about 3:30 when in walk eight or nine street-walkers, having just finished their night’s work. Tony admits he wasn’t entirely comfortable sitting with them, so he gulped his coffee to make a getaway. Right then the woman next to him announces to everyone: “You know what? Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m gonna be 39.” To which one of the other women replied nastily, “So what d’ya want from me? A party? Ya want me to bake a cake and sing happy birthday?”

          “Aw, come on,” the first woman says, “you don’t have to be so mean. I’m just saying, it’s my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. Why should I have a party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life.”

          Well, when Tony heard that, he had an idea. When the women had all left, he asked the guy at the counter, “Do they come here every night?”

          “Yeah, every night, about the same time.”

          “The one next to me, her too?”

          “Yeah, that’s Agnes. She’s come in here every night for years. Why do you want to know?”

          “Because she said tomorrow’s her birthday. What do you think? Could we could throw a little party for her here in the diner?”

          A smile came over the man’s grubby face. So they make their plans, and at 2:30 the next night Tony is back, with balloons and a sign that says, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” The cook has enough cake and coffee for an army. And somehow word had got out. The whole diner was packed with streetwalkers.

          At 3:30 the door opens and in walks Agnes. Everyone shouts, “Surprise! Happy birthday, Agnes!” She’s flabbergasted, stunned. Agnes is crying so hard she can’t blow out the candles.

          Finally, Tony stands on a chair and says, “What do you say we pray together?” And there they are in that greasy spoon, half the prostitutes in Honolulu, at 3:30 am, listening as Rev. Tony Campolo prays for Agnes, her health, her safety, her family, her soul.

          Afterwards the diner guy comes over to Tony, with a trace of hostility, and says, “Hey, you never told me you was a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?”

          On the spur of the moment, Tony replied, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”

          Diner guy ponders a moment and says, “No way. There ain’t no church like that. If there was, even I would join it.”2 With Jesus as our leader, guess who’s coming to dinner?

          Peter Storey, who was a Methodist bishop in South Africa during the struggle against apartheid, wrote a little book on the seven last words of Christ. When it comes to the story about Jesus hanging on the cross next to two criminals, Peter Storey writes, “Because he died as he lived, Jesus did not die . . . alone. His life had always been one of solidarity . . . with the least and lowest. . . We should not be surprised, then, that on the day of his dying, Jesus was once more in the company of those whom society had cast out. . . Some tell us,” Storey writes, “that following Jesus is a simple matter of inviting him into our hearts. But when we do that, Jesus always asks, ‘May I bring my friends?’ And when we look at them, we see that they are not the kind of company we try to keep. The friends of Jesus are the outcasts, the marginalized, the poor, the homeless, the neglected—the lepers of life. We hesitate and ask, ‘Jesus, must we really have them too?” Jesus replies, “Love me, love my friends.”3

          Guess who’s coming to dinner?

 

          When I was pastor at another church, I got to know a neighborhood teenager named Pat. Pat was rough guy—he said rude things to girls, he tried to bully other boys out of their money, he sold drugs on the side. He was also a natural-born leader. All the little boys followed him around like a mother duck. I figured if I could get him to use those leadership qualities for good instead of bad, we’d really have something. He came to our after-school basketball program, so every afternoon I invited him to church. And I invited him to church. For months I invited Pat to church. And then one day, out of the blue, he showed up. It was Communion Sunday, and he came right up front to receive the bread and the cup. Everybody saw him.

          After church two moms of teenage sons cornered me in the lobby. I figured they were going to chew me out for letting someone like Pat in the church. “Do you know who that guy is?” Ruth asked me.” “Yes,” I said, “that’s Pat. I know him.”

          “Do you know he’s tried to hurt both of our sons?” Mary asked.

          “No,” I said, “but I’m not surprised.” And I waited for them to tell me to kick him out, to tell him he’s not allowed in church. Ruth picked it up again. “We think it’s very important for him to be here in church,” she said. No one needs church more than Pat,” she said, “and we just wanted to make sure he’s welcome here.”

          “If you say so,” I said.

          “No, we don’t say so,” Mary added. “Jesus says so.” Guess who came to dinner?

 

          You know, here’s the thing: in the end, the only ones who will not be at Jesus’ table are the ones who refuse to come. Everyone’s welcome; but some of us don’t like the company. Do you remember the story of the Prodigal Son? When the son who’d wasted his inheritance on women and wine came home, the father threw a party and killed the fatted calf. Everyone was welcome at that party. The older brother—the good son, the honorable son . . . the resentful son—he too was welcome at that table. The only question was—would he come? The only question is--will we come?

 

          So far, more or less, we’ve looked at this Bible story from the perspective of the Pharisees, as respectable folks who are sometimes surprised by who’s coming to dinner at Jesus’ table. And usually that is my perspective on this story. After all, I clean up pretty nice, I pay my taxes, I try not to make a scene, I’m a preacher, for heaven’s sake. Frankly, I am welcome at most tables. But once in a while, I’m not. Or I get to feeling like I’m not. A few times, I’ve been rejected from people’s fellowship because of stands I’ve taken, because people disagree with me. “Don’t come to my table with those ideas,” they say, in effect. And sometimes, when I’m weary and discouraged, when I’ve let people down or not lived up to my own standards, I get to thinking they’re right. Maybe there’s not a place for me at the table, or maybe there shouldn’t be. And that’s when Jesus pulls out a chair and tells me to sit down. And when I object, when I say, “Oh Jesus, there are people who don’t want me at this table,” Jesus says, “Well, they’re just going to have to deal with it. Because this is my table, and you’re staying put.” And whom am I go argue with Jesus?

 

          So guess who’s coming to dinner? Levi the tax collector. A table full of sinners. A criminal on the cross. Jesus Christ. Agnes from Hawaii and Pat the bully. Oh, and there’s me. And then there’s you, should you decide to come.

         

 

1 Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 78. See also Ronald P. Byars, The Sacraments in Biblical Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 262.

2 See among other places, http://www.swapmeetdave.com/Bible/Agnes.htm. Accessed 4/12/18.

3 Peter Storey, Listening at Golgotha (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2004), 28-30.

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