The Rev. Canon Mary Sulerud
In a bid to achieve a robust theological and spiritual understanding of today’s readings from the Letter to the Hebrews and the Gospel according to Luke I persuaded my husband to go with me to the movies to see one of this summer’s hits, a film by the name of Dinner for Schmucks. For those of you who have yet to be entertained by this movie, the plot involves a contest in which office executives compete with one another to see who can bring the strangest, oddest, and otherwise most bizarre guest to dinner with the boss. The prize is a trophy for the biggest idiot and a promotion for the winning executive. Paul Rudd, who plays one of these executives, brings along a character played by Steve Carell who is so broken by and starved for human relationships that he creates tableaux of ideal family scenes with dressed up dead mice.
This movie premise in some ways made me wonder what it must have been like to invite Jesus to dinner in any of the gospels, but most certainly in this one in which dinners with Jesus are such a big feature in his teaching, preaching, and healing. Like the idiots in the movie Dinner for Schmucks, Jesus does just about everything wrong according to the social and religious conventions of his day and by and large at most dinners in the Gospel according to Luke. Jesus mostly eats in the company of the unclean and religiously out of favor, tax collectors, sinners, the possessed, the sick and diseased, ordinary folks who may never have seen Jerusalem, let alone the inside of the temple at Jerusalem. Most of these folks are precisely the people who could benefit most from God’s mercy as invoked by their faith and yet rarely sense that they are on the receiving end of such grace. (This is a point made repeatedly in this gospel.) Even Jesus’ own companions, many of whom are men with day jobs as laborers and women functioning outside the norms of their culture, are religiously and socially suspect. To add to all of this Jesus himself seems to delight in, well, being odd and out of step with both his culture and his religious heritage. In fact it really is a wonder that a Pharisee, who is among those who are striving to create a more authentic, faithful, and strenuous practice of Judaism, would invite Jesus to dinner at all. Maybe the thought of a not-too-pious but observant Jewish teacher showing up for dinner was just too intriguing to pass up. (Obviously the prevailing conservative Judeans of the day, the Sadducees, routinely take a pass on this option.) Today’s gospel opens with Jesus being invited and showing up for dinner.
Sadly we don’t hear the overture to this morning’s reading in which the first thing Jesus does is heal someone right there at the dinner party on a Sabbath. It seems vaguely harmless to us but imagine, as writer Robert Capon invites us to do, your already controversial dinner guest at Friday dinner reaching over during the cocktail hour and overtly healing a person who is chronically ill and doing it on the one day when in your understanding of God’s commandment to rest, you aren’t supposed to do anything but attend to the most primal functions of being human such as eating, using the privy, sleeping, and praying. It is both impolite, after all we like to confine that activity to hospitals, doctors’ offices, and occasionally the church, and from the perspective of the devout, it is also religiously wrong. We enter the scene this morning after this event with Jesus observing the scramble for the best seats at the dinner table.
In an environment that is already a bit tense and edgy, Jesus comments on this self seeking behavior in the guests. Not content with making nice and offering a few talking points, Jesus goes on to tell an insulting parable and then says to the host, you know what will really make you and God happy is if the next time you have one of these little Sabbath get-togethers invite folks who can’t possibly repay you and who may look and act even worse than I do. I am so sorry we don’t get to hear the rest of this chapter and the next parable that Jesus tells, because Jesus is just getting warmed up with the story telling at this dinner party.
Let’s pause and note that there is more at stake here than a lesson in personal and religious good manners, or an invitation to practice our most pious skill set wringing our hands and carrying on about our unworthiness so that God will give us a better seat. This parable is in part a call to be humble, which is in part an invitation to be content with who you are and where you are in God’s economy because you know and accept that you are a beloved child of God. More often this behavior of Jesus at dinner and the stories he tells cuts us to the quick about who we are and how we live as God’s own people. Jesus in this gospel frequently holds up a mirror to us and our propensity to moralize, rather than engage in genuine acts of justice and reconciliation. Almost the only way we seem to be able to cope with these stories and the Jesus who tells them is to turn them into “the bitter pill of moral effort” in the words of writer Robert Capon. Yet to reduce this gospel to a lesson for our moral edification robs it and us of the mischievous and reconciling spirit in which the parables are told and the generously hospitable presence of Jesus in our lives. In this gospel Jesus uses dinner time to show us how God is reordering the world according to God’s purpose. To understand God’s reconciling work we have to spend some uncomfortable time at dinner with Jesus.
This dinner then is a moment to see that the first thing God does for all of us in reconciling the world that is so esteemed and loved is to free us from the rat race for recognition and esteem. We don’t have to show up for dinner, especially this communion meal, competing for God’s attention, love, and favor even when it makes for a movie that is full of wicked, wise, and heart-breaking fun. In Jesus’ observations and the stories he tells a very realistic teacher is at work encouraging us to be a more hospitable community to strangers all the while knowing just how hard it is to live with one another even when we get on well and resemble each other in all sorts of ways that seem to matter so much economically, politically, socially, and theologically. The importance of participating in Christian community is emphasized throughout all of the gospels and epistles, but especially at this dinner table with an important twist that we very rarely want to grasp. Being together in the name of Christ and as part of God’s plan to reconcile the world to God is “salvation by association.” However it is association not with the like-minded, and those of our same social class and ethos. It is association in this gospel with the poor, the blind, the oppressed and the lame. Our hearts are only faithful to God and our faith fruitful when we open ourselves generously to the needs of others and welcome them into our midst, no matter how challenging that may be. The real test of the church, as most young adults will tell us when we listen, is not whom we baptize and how good they become, but whom we will eat with no matter what. After all, even Jesus made room at his final meal and welcomed those who would betray him.
Dinner with a Pharisee puts before us two questions that always seem to be the drivers when you eat with Jesus. “In what ways do we prefer our own hospitality, even in religious dress to that of Jesus? In what ways are we attempting to be more pious than Jesus?” After all “modesty can be exaggerated, humility can become a new form of pride,” and we can make objects and projects of the poor, the oppressed, and those in need faster than Jane Austin’s Emma. As soon as we start putting our stamp all over the meal in the name of God and clutching at even last place because we think it’s good for us, we have closed ourselves to the opportunities that God has put before us. This communion, like all of life in God is the great party, the great dinner given for all of us, idiots and schmucks, poor and rich, great and small. God is content to let it just happen for the sheer joy of it. God is profoundly disinterested in keeping score and would like us to enjoy being together in any place at any time so that we can allow God to do what we cannot do for ourselves: be raised up to new possibilities, new life in the world according to God’s loving purpose. It is a revolutionary gospel that invites us to move to the back of the line and invite a schmuck for dinner while we are at it because there is more grace for us in that moment than we can ask for or imagine. God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus would like us to feast on a meal far richer and more satisfying than the fast food and cheap grace of our own moral striving. Dinner doesn’t get better than that. Amen.