As I consider Jesus' words and message in Luke 14: 7-14, I often think of the iconic film "Guess Who is Coming to Dinner?" When I was in high school, my friends and I went through a phase of renting and watching old movies on Friday nights. As a result, I became quite taken with actors such as Jimmy Stewart, Doris Day, Spencer Tracy, and Katherine Hepburn. Therefore, it would make sense that eventually I would rent a movie with both Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in it, and it would become one of my favorite movies.
If you have not seen it, or you do not really remember the story line, allow me to fill in some of the important details. The film is about Joanna (played by Katharine Houghton), the daughter of a well-to-do white family, who is coming home to announce her engagement to John (played by Sidney Poitier). Joanna's parents (played by Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn) do not know the man their daughter has fallen in love with and intends to marry is black. Just as John's parents who were flying in to meet his new love and her parents, do not know Joanna is white. The film was a bold statement as it presented a positive representation of a subject that many found (and still do) difficult to discuss. It was especially bold considering it was made in 1967 and up until June 12, 1967, seventeen states still declared interracial marriages illegal.
The film depicts a difficult subject matter being addressed around a dinner table, because who is at the table says much about who is in and who is out. As you read the Gospel of Luke, you will notice that much of Jesus' ministry of breaking down cultural, social, economical, political, and religious taboos is done around a table. In the ancient world, everything from what some ate, where they sat, and whom they invited to dinner spoke volumes about the social and economic status of those dining together as well as the political and religious landscape of the day.
It was at a table that Jesus seems to always address two central questions - What does it mean to follow me? and What does the kingdom of God look like? Throughout the Gospel of Luke, it is clear Jesus' message is that the kingdom of God has an economy very different than the economy of the world. As a result, for those who follow Jesus, everything we do, where we place ourselves in social settings, and who we invite into our homes and lives will look very different.
In Luke 14:8-10 Jesus addresses the guests at the banquet by telling them a parable, which invites them to consider that even how they choose their seats is an opportunity to show humility and servanthood. Then Jesus addresses the host of the banquet directly. I find his words to the host compelling and challenging as he says,
"When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. (Luke 14:12-14)."
Jesus discounts the societal status quo of "VIP seats," "keeping up with the Joneses", "rubbing noses with high society" and "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine." This is not the economy of the kingdom of God. Instead, Jesus proclaims the special seats are reserved for those in the greatest need and those who cannot do anything to improve your reputation, status, or bank account.
At God's banqueting table, all are welcome, especially those who have been disregarded, dismissed, disrespected and discarded. Jesus' message and mandate to his followers is clear; we are to make sure those who do not have a voice or do not have power are seen, heard, taken care of and believed.
Yet, we are at a moment in the history of our country in which Christians do not want to talk about what this message might mean if we were to take it seriously right here and right now in our country. We are struggling to enter into difficult conversations without getting angry, and without maintaining our political affiliations and beliefs over our faith.
In recent weeks, I have heard congregations complain their pastors are getting too "political." I have also heard pastors complain that the members of their church are getting upset at Gospel-based, Christ-centered sermons, liturgies, or prayers. This concerns me greatly, because if we cannot talk openly, honestly and with civility with one another in our churches, where can we do it?
The truth is these are difficult times, and we need to be having difficult conversations even about the things we have deemed as "taboo" subjects. Yet, I pray these conversations will not only be rooted in deep respect and grace for one another, but also in returning to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Christ of the Gospel has much to say to us about many things we are encountering in our world at this moment.
The Christ of the Gospel has a message for us that is compelling, challenging and critical for us to hear and live out. In your churches, I invite you to consider sitting down for meals together. Invite the presence of Christ to the table with you and risk being in Spirit-led table conversations with each other.
Blessing, Rev. Shana Johnson