Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
I was still thinking about the conference when I boarded the plane for home. As always, I wondered who would sit next to me. It was a short flight, on a regional jet with two seats on each side of a narrow aisle. If you have an aisle seat, as I did, everyone boarding after you gets to bump you with their arms, hips, cabin baggage and whatever! It is best to stay alert until everyone is seated. So much for the “glamor” of travel!
A fellow carrying a big screen TV squeezed by and then came a young woman who looked like Miss America. But they kept going. Then I saw the young man who was to be my seat mate. Actually, I smelled him before I saw him. “Oh no!” I thought, but tried to resist the urge to judge. The flight attendant gave me a look, wondering how I was going to react. I kept the consummate poker face. He certainly was not the guy I would have chosen to sit with. But I could not help thinking that Jesus would probably have chosen someone like him.
As it turned out, despite his lack of familiarity with personal hygiene, he was a really nice fellow. He was a graduate student who worked with computers for a hotel chain. He told me he had been on vacation. Then he told me (in some detail) of the women he had met (I won’t share the details here). You should have seen the look on his face when I told him what I did for a living!
We chatted and drank a beer together on the short flight back to southern California. As we prepared to land, he told me I was the kind of person he would like to hang out with. I took that as a compliment.
A verse came to mind as I considered this encounter with a challenging though pleasant fellow human. As you may recall, Jesus’ enemies criticized him for the company he kept. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they said (Luke 15:2). I confess that I have come to rather enjoy this kind of opportunity. I think of it as a “Jesus moment.”
In Jesus’ day, the people you chose to be seen with, and especially to eat with, established a “pecking order” of righteousness. The self-righteous religious leaders would have probably classified my travel companion as a common and unclean “sinner.” But not Jesus! He sought out the people others rejected. He broke down artificial barriers that would keep him from connecting with those who by the Spirit were open to receiving from him new life.
When Jesus ate with the common, unclean and immoral, he had a way of making them sense the forgiveness and acceptance he offered them. In response, many of these “least” were motivated to receive his forgiveness by repenting and changing for the better. Remember how the despised tax collector, Zacchaeus, decided to mend his ways after Jesus had selected his home as a place to eat? (Luke 19:1-10). There were many incidents in Jesus’ life where he chose the company of social outcasts. I could picture him pointing to the seat next to my odiferous and libidinous companion and asking, “May I sit here?”
It was not that Jesus exalted immorality above morality or failure above success. He was willing to take his message of forgiveness and reconciliation to the rich and influential as well as to the poor and downtrodden. Here is another story in Luke’s gospel where Jesus accepted an invitation to a meal with one of the top religious leaders:
One time when Jesus went for a Sabbath meal with one of the top leaders of the Pharisees, all the guests had their eyes on him, watching his every move. Right before him there was a man hugely swollen in his joints. So Jesus asked the religion scholars and Pharisees present, “Is it permitted to heal on the Sabbath? Yes or no?” They were silent. So he took the man, healed him, and sent him on his way (Luke 14:1-6, The Message Bible).
The prim and proper guests were outraged, since they were not at all ready to repent and receive anything from Jesus. So Jesus could only show them the way forward by exposing their pride and hypocrisy and instructing them to try a whole different way of relating to others:
“The next time you put on a dinner” he told his host, “don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people” (vv. 12–14).
Since they wouldn’t repent and receive from Jesus now, he opens the door to them for doing so in the future.
I realize that social convention and custom have their place, but I more strongly identify with Jesus’ behavior that deemphasized the significance of social barriers when it comes to extending God’s own hospitality to others. All such distinctions, categories, evaluations and pigeonholes should be left behind when we dine with Jesus.
Surely we should keep this in mind during Holy Week when we will partake of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus welcomes his dinner companions into a new family – the household and family of God. There, as the Apostle Paul says, we enter into our new life of communion in Christ. Jesus invites us all to his table. And as we gather ’round for that meal, we are reminded of the future Messianic banquet which will host those from every land, nation and people. Then, we will celebrate the coming of his Kingdom in fullness, the first course of a banquet that never ends.
The mood of Holy Week, including our time at the Lord’s Table, is one of holiness, joy, confidence and hope as Easter approaches, when we will celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and King. Let’s enjoy it, wherever and whoever we are, being especially ready to welcome the stranger as Christ himself has welcomed us.
With love, in Christ’s service,