Why would Jesus go to eat dinner at the home of a Pharisee? We know that he didn’t think very much of the way that the Pharisees were teaching religion, and they didn’t think very much of him in return.
Nevertheless, Jesus went. To a dinner that was bound to be an uncomfortable one, because, of course, they would be watching everything he did to see what a bad person he was. He knew this, but he went anyway. And he didn’t shy away from using it as a teachable moment, to share some ideas about what he thought was important.
Now, the gospel of Luke is full of stories that are set at meals or at banquets. They’re usually uncomfortable meals for one reason or another. Sometimes, they’re meals in stories or parables that Jesus made up to make a point. Sometimes they’re real events in Jesus’ life, at least as the evangelist who is telling the story portrays them. But there is always a teachable moment, when Jesus takes the quotidian event – a group of people sitting around a table eating a meal – and turns it into something else.
And this little passage from the Gospel is no different.
Jesus knows he is walking into a tense situation. Haven’t we all gone to a dinner party at one point or another in our lives with people that we don’t care for, or who hold some power over us in our lives, or who have treated us with less than kindness? Haven’t we had that feeling in the pit of our stomach that means if it turns bad again, we’re going to have to still sit there and smile one of those artificial smiles while our stomach is churning with acid, and just survive it until we can go home and brew a cup of tea and say “why did I go to that stupid dinner?”
I don’t know if Jesus suffered any acid indigestion after one of those dinners, but I’m sure it wasn’t particularly pleasant for him.
But even as Jesus goes into the party knowing he is being watched closely, he, too, is watching closely. He decides to address a part of what he observes – how people are choosing up seats – with a little parable of instruction. Simple wisdom: if you take a favored seat and the host moves you lower down the table, you’ll be embarrassed, so save yourself the embarrassment by seating yourself in a humbler seat. Then the host might even move you up to a more favored place. At worst, you’re not embarrassed. At best, you look really modest and you get all sorts of positive attention when the host moves you up to a better spot.
Now, if you’re one of those who have been jockeying for the best seat around the Pharisee’s table that evening, this little lesson might be a bit embarrassing to you, but you can’t really say anything, because Jesus hasn’t said directly to you, “Why are you making a fool over yourself about where you sit?” And when Jesus says, “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted,” it’s just generalized enough that you might be thinking – very quietly and only to yourself – “wait a minute…did he just insult me?”
Very subtle, our Jesus.
But then he continues with another bit of teaching. This one sounds pretty strange to the Pharisees, and particularly the fellow who invited Jesus to dinner, because he was doing it as much for political jockeying as for anything else. For that matter, it sounds strange to us, because we live in a world where entertaining each other is both pleasure and a kind of social responsibility. We are invited to a friend’s for dinner, and shortly afterwards we invite them to our house to return the favor. It’s the way we live together and it is a lovely thing.
But Jesus suggests that we NOT invite our friends and neighbors, that we host a meal for those who cannot return the favor. Jesus doesn’t want us inviting folks over who we like, or because we feel obligated, or because we expect that they will feel obligated in return. He wants us to invite the very people who cannot return the favor. The crippled, the lame, the blind. The very people that the Pharisee wouldn’t invite to his home because those people were the ritually unclean. A Pharisee would never eat with someone like that, either in his own home or in the dwelling of “those people.”
There’s the challenge, then. Can we be host to people whom we wouldn’t ordinarily invite to our table? Whom will we host?
Ahhhh, host….an interesting word. It means, of course, the person who offers hospitality.
Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about hospitality:
“The word hospitality derives from the Latin hospes, which is formed from hostis, which originally meant to have power. The meaning of "host" can be literally read as "lord of strangers." hostire means equalize or compensate…
The Greek concept of sacred hospitality is illustrated in the story of Telemachus and Nestor. When Telemachus arrived to visit Nestor, Nestor was unaware that his guest was the son of his old comrade Odysseus. Nonetheless, Nestor welcomes Telemachus and his party lavishly, thus demonstrating the relationship between hostis, "stranger," and hostire, "equalize," and how the two combine in the concept of hospitality.
Later, one of Nestor's sons slept on a bed close by Telemachus to take care that he should not suffer any harm. Nestor also put a chariot and horses at Telemachus' disposal so that he could travel the land route from Pylos to Sparta rapidly, and set his son Pisistratus as the charioteer. These illustrate the two other elements of ancient Greek hospitality, protection and guidance.
Based on the story above and its current meaning, hospitality is about compensating/equalizing a stranger to the host, making him feel protected and taken care of, and at the end of his hosting, guiding him to his next destination.”
The Greeks were not alone in this approach to hospitality, of course. In the Middle East, it has always been a cultural norm – a necessity in a place where water and food are in very short supply – to provide hospitality to the stranger who comes to your door. Thus, it forms the core of so many stories in the Old Testament, from Abraham at the oaks of Mamre to Lot and the three strangers he protects from the hostile crowd, to Elijah being fed by the poor widow who had almost nothing in her food stores.
So Jesus tells this parable, he is not introducing an entirely alien concept of what hospitality means – this is a core value to the people of Israel.
Why does he tell the story, then?
I suspect it has much to do with his mission, to rebuild the relationship between God and God’s people. As the people have forgotten what it really means to live as God would have them live – as they have become so wrapped up in following the laws that they have forgotten the relationship – they have forgotten their desert nomad roots. They have forgotten the true nature of hospitality, as they have forgotten the true nature of loving God. Jesus is reminding them of what it is truly all about.
In a way, Jesus is taking back their understanding of what a host is to the way it was originally meant to be.
He explains what a host is – someone who welcomes the stranger, offering food and drink without expecting anything in return.
How interesting, then, that we use that same word “host” to denote the bread that is served at the communion table, the body of Christ which is served to us as the members of the Body of Christ! The two forms of the word “host” are related, of course, but in this form, it comes from the Latin hostia, meaning “sacrificial victim.” And we know that Jesus was the sacrificial victim, offering himself to redeem us. But he also is the ultimate host – in the sense of hospitality - at the meal which we are about to celebrate. He has followed that Greek concept I mentioned earlier, equalizing himself and all of us, all of us who are strangers, to provide sustenance, protection and guidance. He is both the one who invites us to the meal and the one who is the feast.
In our own lives, we have had moments where we have had the experience of this kind of hospitality.
When I was very small, perhaps four years old, my parents and I went to one of those intimidating dinners like Jesus going to eat with a Pharisee. It was at the home of my father’s aunt and uncle. Great-Uncle Joe and Great-Aunt Anna. They were elderly, very proper, and they had an apartment full of breakable objects. They had never had any children, so they didn’t have a clue about child-proofing the apartment. Everywhere you looked was something that was incredibly interesting to a curious and clumsy four year old, something that was a cause of incredible stress to my poor mother. And Great-Aunt Anna was a stickler for proper table manners…another cause of stress to my mother. Although she trained me well, I WAS only four. One never knew when I would behave perfectly, or whether I’d suddenly turn into a clumsy and boorish little monkey.
Well, we came to the beautifully set dinner table, and Great-Aunt Anna’s maid, Ethel – yes, of course she had a maid - brought out the first course. Grapefruit halves. A lovely small Limoges plate with a half a grapefruit on it, with a sterling silver spoon set alongside it. Now I looked at it and smiled. I knew what grapefruit was. We had it at our house regularly. So I picked up my spoon and began to dig in. But wait! No! My mother had always segmented the grapefruit so I could easily take out a segment at a time. This grapefruit had not been segmented. My mother, sitting to my left, sensed me stiffen up. But not wanting to seem like she was commenting on the preparation of the grapefruit, she simply worked on her own half. I was as stubborn as the grapefruit, and dug in with my little spoon again and again, getting a bit of the pulp onto the spoon, but nothing like the whole segment I was used to. And cradled in the half-circle of the fruit was a whole lot of delicious grapefruit juice. I was hungry – meals at their house always started much later than at our house – and I wanted that grapefruit juice. So I dealt with it in my own inimitable four year old way. I picked up the grapefruit half, lifted it over my head, and squeezed the juice into my mouth. My mother’s deep quick intake of breath told me I had done something wrong, but the table was silent. Stunned by my faux pas. This was certainly not what Emily Post suggested for the eating of grapefruit. I looked up. They were all looking at me. I knew I was in trouble.
And then, Great Uncle Joe, who had a voice like a Victorian Shakespearean actor, suddenly leaned back and laughed. A loud guffaw. “That’s the way to do it, Mibi!” And Great-Aunt Anna tittered, and my mother looked down at her plate, breathing a silent prayer of thanksgiving, and my father took anther sip of his Scotch. And I knew somehow, that I had been given a reprieve. That they were willing to be hospitable, to accept me in all my strange four-year-old simplicity. They were willing to be my hosts in the way that Jesus suggested that we be hosts. And in that moment I was fed not only grapefruit, but love.
Because that’s what true hospitality is. Jesus teaches us that unless we are willing to love the people we host enough to put ourselves completely at their service, unless we are willing to provide sustenance however they need it, without an expectation of a return, simply because we are meant to love them, we aren’t doing what Jesus did for us.
Jesus was and is the ultimate host, in every sense of the word. We will be reminded of that in a few minutes when we continue with the Liturgy of the Table. His act of love is what saves us. Our act of love might, in a much smaller way, save another stranger down the road. May the bread – the host – that we consume in this holy meal give us the courage to do that.