A SCANDALOUS DINNER
Luke 5:27 – 32, 7:36-39
Have you ever been with someone you should not be seen with in a place you should not be? I have. When I was a newly ordained minister, I was asked by an Immigration officer to accompany a young woman to a clinic for the sexually transmitted disease. She was suspected of attempting to enter Canada illegally. I was asked to be an interpreter. All the time I was in the waiting room I was praying very hard that noone I knew would come in. I admit: I was worried only about my reputation, not at all about a person who was about to be deported. She could have been an innocent victim of human traffic. I still feel ashamed that I was only concerned about me not about her.
When Jesus was seen eating dinner with tax collectors and other socially unacceptable characters, some Pharisees asked his disciples, “How come your teacher eat with such people?” It must have been terribly embarrassing to the disciples. Particularly in ancient times like the time of Jesus in the Jewish society which had a very strict code about eating. There were many rules about what to eat, how to prepare it, how to eat it, and whom to eat it with. No respectable Jew would be seen sitting at the same table eating dinner with a character like a woman of ill-repute or a tax official. Tax-collectors were seen at the time as corrupt traitors who sold their souls to a foreign occupation authority for profit. You see, at the time the tax collectors were contractors who made their living from commissions. So you understand why they were hated and shunned. What Jesus did was a scandal, eating with such people! Even today, it is assumed that you have dinner only with someone close, special, and respectable. It was much more so in ancient times when the dinner table was a very private place like a bed room. We are going to observe communion this morning. It is a commemoration of the dinner with Jesus. You must understand the communion service in that context. It is important to remember whom Jesus had dinners with. Jesus gave a clear message that no one in his world should be exclude.
Jesus is telling us that everybody is a family and a friend. Every one is invited to his table. This is quite a revolutionary idea. Many people thought he was crazy. Even today such an act is often unacceptable and easily misunderstood. It would be like eating at a Macdonald’s with a sex-trade worker. Clearly, Jesus is rebelling against the accepted social order. His idea of the universal love and inclusiveness is alien to our common sense even today. You see how an animal eats, and how it growls when anybody comes close. Food must be protected. Herd animals eat together only with the close knit group of the same species. It is natural to eat only with your family or with very close friends. Food is precious. You have to always fight for it and for the sake of your family. So most of the living creatures are very picky about their dinner companions: that’s natural.
So you can see what Jesus did was unprecedented. He declared a new order. Prophet Isaiah a long before Jesus advocated for a such world: the new world order where a lion and a lamb eat together, and a baby puts its hand into a poison snake’s den without being harmed. No one in this new world will be harmed by another. That’s Isaiah’s vision of God’s world. Jesus was acting to demonstrate it.
Not only did Jesus eat with social outcastes, he also ate with rich people and people in high places. He did not discriminate his dinner companions. Why did he do that? I believe he did that because he wanted to show the world that the human race is one, and noone should be excluded from the family of human race. When you pray, “Thy kingdom come” you are praying for such an inclusive world. He ate many dinners like that, and wanted his followers to remember such a dinner at his last supper. He ate the last supper with those who betrayed him, and abandoned him. Remember? Everybody at that table ran away when Jesus needed friends, during his trial before the high priest. Even the top cat disciple, Peter, said, “I don’t know him, I’ve never seen him,” three times. Judas was not the only double-crosser, all the rest of them ran away too. What a bunch of scums! And yet he ate the last supper with them. That is what he told us to remember and that is what we are remembering this morning. We must remember what Jesus taught us during the first communion: to be inclusive in our daily life – “Don’t exclude anybody! Everybody is my friend and a friend of yours.”
Of course, you can not be eating with your family and close friends exclusively all the time. There will be an occasion when you have to eat with someone not so intimate. You have to eat with someone you have to make a business deal, you have to eat with someone you don’t know well but whom you have to honour. You have to do this but under a set of rules. This is why humans developed customs and table manners. You can not just walk into anybody’s home for supper unannounced because you are hungry. When you think of the customs and table manners, you realize that most of them began as safety measures to avoid bad feeling, unequal share of food, even violence. You have to be nice to the guests, and share everything on the table. This is why the person who presides over the procedures of eating together, particularly the one divides the food and drink must be respected. This is why such a person is called the one who does the “honour”. It is because such a person must be respected and trusted. Jesus Christ was the first person who did the “honour” in the new world.
When I was working for an Ecumenical organization, conversation took place at a coffee break one day about Communion Service, more specifically about how different churches handled the left-over elements – bread and wine. A Roman Catholic woman said, “Of course, the priest locks it away. It’s the body of Christ. It’s sacred.” An Anglican said, “the priest drinks and eats all the left-overs at the end of the sacrament.” An United Church woman said, “I stuff my turkey.” Each church has a different custom according to a particular belief. But those are important manners with which to observe communion. Like a dinner, each family has an unique custom. We follow the custom of the communion service as an important ritual no matter how different the ways we follow it. It represents Christ’s fundamental teaching of universal love and acceptance. We are all in it together.