Dinner with Jesus

A sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, June 12, 2016

You know, few things are more enjoyable than a good dinner party. The anticipation of carefully prepared food; interesting company; fascinating conversation; convivial and comfortable surroundings; that nice little gurgle that the beverages makes as they transfer from the bottle to the glass.

On the other hand, a bad dinner party – and we’ve all been to them – is a fate worse than death. The host who has forgotten they invited you; having to be complimentary about food that tastes like old socks, getting to the table and finding that there are more guests than there are place-settings, or those grim occasions where the entrée is served about 4 hours after you arrive and you’ve gone from being hungry to not hungry to the odd realization that your stomach has gone AWOL.

Yes, I’ve had my own fair share of culinary disasters. When I was first ordained, and not the gourmet chef that you see before you now, I recall cooking a huge lasagna and then upending the entire dish onto the dining room rug in front of my expectant guests.

It’s for all these reasons that I enjoy watching programs on TV like (as we call it in Britain) ‘Come Dine With Me’ and which I believe is called ‘Dinner Takes All’ here in the US, (it’s on the TLC channel in case you were wondering), in which four or five amateur chefs take it in turns to host a dinner party in their own homes, with the TV cameras as flies on the wall recording not only the public action but the snide comments of the other contestants as they criticize their host’s cooking, hospitality and décor.

If ‘Dinner Takes All’ had existed in first century Palestine I would be fascinated to know what it might have made of the dinner party that we’ve just heard about in today’s gospel reading. Let’s take a look at the guests: the host is a Pharisee called Simon. Now, we can speculate a little about the circumstances of his throwing a dinner party. Simon the Pharisee respected Jesus enough to call him ‘Rabbi’, and it could well be that Jesus had been preaching in the synagogue. It would have been traditional for the local congregation’s leaders to invite their visiting preacher to a meal afterwards and so Simon may well have been hosting a post-preaching dinner.

A dinner party from the time of Jesus

A dinner party from the time of Jesus

What do we make of Simon? Well, as I say, he called Jesus ‘Rabbi’ and he half-thought that Jesus might be a prophet. Anyhow, he found Jesus interesting enough to invite him to dinner. But the story tells us that he was formal, and stuffy and somewhat cold as a host. There are none of the little welcoming gestures that a good host would make to put their guests at ease and make them feel special and welcome. No footbath, no kiss, no perfume. All of these things would have been gestures of welcome at a dinner party of the time. It would be like us turning up to a dinner party and our host not making any physical contact, not taking our coats, not offering us a drink, but expecting lively conversation from the get-go. It is as if Simon regards Jesus as an exhibit, rather than a true guest,

So they take their places, reclining on low couches to eat, facing each other, their feet facing away from them, into the room.

We don’t know if there were any other guests invited. Let’s suppose there were: I find it hard to think of a Mediterranean or middle-Eastern dinner party that doesn’t involve more than two people. Indeed, it was not uncommon for the doors of the house to be left open so that people could wander in off the streets: beggars looking for food, synagogue-groupies looking for some intellectual entertainment. Simon the Pharisee would therefore have expected some uninvited guests but we can safely assume that he wasn’t in the habit of inviting local prostitutes to dine with his visiting preacher. We know what happens in the story: the woman comes into the room, tearful, pours perfumed oil onto Jesus’ feet from her alabaster jar, and wipes them with her hair. Now, we may have heard this story so many times that we’re a bit blasé about it, but it is easy to see how Simon would have been somewhat mortified at this turn of events. The fact that she is known to be a woman of the streets puts her beyond the boundaries of so-called respectable society, and Jesus would only have had to look at the horror etched on his host’s face to know what he made of it. If it was an episode of ‘Dinner Takes All’, it would pretty much be the most embarrassing social faux-pas possible.

Now, I would counsel against us seeing this episode wholly through 21st century eyes. Whilst the whole alabaster jar and ointment thing might, to us, seem the most shocking aspect of the story, the fact of the matter is that the washing of feet, kissing and anointing with perfumed oil counted as normal social interaction at a social occasion such as a dinner party at that time. What is most shocking to Simon the Pharisee is that she was a known prostitute and she was touching his guest (whom he called ‘Rabbi’ and whom he half-thought might be a prophet) in what he considered to be an inappropriate manner.

Simon, as I mentioned earlier, was kind of checking out Jesus, seeing if he really might be a prophet. As this embarrassing episode takes place, he mutters to himself in what we might imagine to be a stage-whisper, ‘"If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner."

In his book, ‘The Shadow of the Galilean’, the German theologian Gerd Theissen tells the story of Jesus ministry from the point of view of a fictitious narrator – telling the story, if you will, through the eyes of the many people that Jesus came into contact with, but that don’t make it into the pages of the Gospels. At one point in his book, Theissen has two Pharisees discussing Jesus:

“He thinks too little of the consequences. He doesn’t see that any breach of the Sabbath regulations could in due course lead to our living like Gentiles. And this thoughtlessness is a regular feature of his. He goes around in dubious company; with drunkards, prostitutes, cheats. That’s not forbidden. We have respect for anyone who brings a sinner back on the right way. We know that God’s mercy is extended to those who fail. We rejoice over the conversion of those who are wicked. But he eats with them without making sure that they have turned from their previous way of life. He makes no demands on them. He hopes that they will come to repent of their own accord! I call that carelessness.”

Simon is not a bad man. He might not win ‘Dinner Takes All’, but he is not a bad man. He is anxious to do the right thing and be right. He wants to be respectable, and pure and known for his goodness. And the trouble is that his goodness gets in the way. He assumes that his apparently virtuous life puts deep blue water between him and this sinful woman, not seeing that they are in fact deeply connected, because they are both sinful and in need of healing and forgiveness. She recognizes that she is sinful and that Jesus has forgiven her, and in her joy she is extravagant in her thanks, and her joy. Simon could be, too, but instead he is prim, proper and offended. Rather than seeing the woman as a beloved child of God, all he sees in her is a threat to his goodness and he offers her no welcome.

There are many people in the world today who are like that woman. And, sadly, there are many churches that are like Simon. How we as a church react to them is a litmus test of our faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus. Do we react like Simon, or like Jesus?

May our prayer be that our churches are ones where we are not afraid to welcome in Jesus name, and to be extravagant in our thanks to God for the grace he has lavished on us.

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