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Luke #18 Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?

Reading: Luke 5:27-32

Introduction: Many of you may remember a movie from the 60's that shares the same title as the sermon this morning. The movie starred Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn as parents of a daughter who was bringing her new fiancé home for dinner to meet Mom and Dad. The problem confronted by the movie is that of race and inter-racial marriage. The Caucasian daughter was bringing home a black fiancé played by Sidney Poitier. The movie portrays the family struggle and the social struggle to cope with, to have fellowship with such a relationship. I say fellowship because that really was and is the issue, in the movie and in our story from Luke's gospel today. Fellowship--sharing in common, being a group with, partners together. What are the boundaries of fellowship that cannot be crossed? And perhaps more importantly, what must take place before fellowship can occur?

It's tax season in our country, and this story is about tax collectors--not tax preparers for all of you accountants out there--and we need to know something about tax collection in the first century since the whole tax structure was radically different from our own. As people within the Roman Empire, the people of Palestine would have been subjected to all sorts of poll taxes, road construction taxes, merchandise taxes, property taxes, but no central government agency, no government paid employees, no annual collections system such as we now have. Then, government authorities simply decided that so much money needed to be collected. They in turn appointed chief tax collectors in various districts to collect the taxes. At that point tax collection turned into something like a loan shark operation today. The chief collectors would hire tax farmers--publicans as they were otherwise known, who went from house to house and not only collected what was required by the government but whatever excess they thought they could get. There were no controls on how much one had to pay--that was at the discretion of the tax farmers and the chief tax collectors. Needless to say, tax collectors had the reputation then that a collections man for a loan shark has today. It was assumed that such people were dishonest--they ripped off other people to make money for themselves. Tax collectors necessarily were involved with the Gentiles, which also made them ceremonially unclean and therefore cut off from the synagogue and Jewish religious life.

The other vital understanding for our story today is the function of eating together in the first century. To eat with a particular group was to identify yourself as a member of that group. Meal settings, as we will see throughout Luke and Acts were the signs of fellowship, affirmations of one's identity, the means by which social interaction took place and social standing in a community was determined. You were whom you ate with in the first century. Think about that--not "You are what you eat," but "You are whom you eat with." Thus, in the flow of Luke's story telling, this is the third episode in a row in which Jesus has been involved with characters outside the boundaries of social and religious acceptability. Last week we saw him forgive the sins and restore to health the outcast paralytic. Before that, he touched and then healed the outcast leper. And this chapter began with the call of Simon, one who described himself as a sinner unworthy of the presence of Jesus. That term sinner is important in today's story because it clearly represents not just a condition before God, but a class of people in society--those whose behavior has cut them off from the religious community; they have been cut off from the synagogue because they are prostitutes or such profligates that they are Jew in name only, not by religious practice. The latter was probably Simon's condition--he was a salty sailor who wasn't much on religion and church going.

Luke tells us that after the scene in which Jesus healed the paralytic and the people saw strange, remarkable paradoxes, Jesus saw a tax collector sitting at the tax office. With the same word of authority that could rebuke demons and fevers and call fishermen to leave everything and follow him, Jesus says to the tax collector, "Follow me." This man named Levi "leaves everything" and follows him. We don't know if there was a prior knowledge of Jesus on Levi's part nor is it helpful to speculate or psychologize about the event. We can surmise two things from what follows, however. First, being a tax collector had made Levi a wealthy man, capable of hosting a "great banquet" in his house. Second, the social group he identifies with consists of those who share his outcast standing. While Luke first identifies tax collectors and others, those watching these proceedings, the Pharisees and their scribes, will identify the others as sinners.

Remember, you are whom you eat with. The immediate problem is which identity will mark this group when it comes together. Will others see a large host of disciples or will they see tax collectors and sinners, with Jesus and his disciples among them? Since the feast is at the tax collector’s house and the tax collectors and sinners compose the majority of the guests, the natural conclusion is that Jesus and his disciples have sunk to their level.

So the Pharisees and their scribes murmur against the disciples of Jesus: “Why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners”--You are who you eat with! But it is Jesus who responds: “Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” What must not be missed here is the relationship of the calling and acceptance of people with repentance. The Pharisees and their scribes wanted people to repent too. But from their perspective repentance must precede any kind of acceptance. First let the sinner repent, and go through all of the cleansing and purification rites--prove he or she is a new person--then we'll talk about acceptance. The catch-22 of that, of course, was denial of access to any of the purification rites by exclusion from temple and synagogue. People had to prove themselves worthy before they could have access--a practical impossibility.

Jesus, on the other hand, presumes that acceptance precedes repentance. Jesus understands that sinners and tax collectors are like lepers and paralytics. He touched the leper first; he forgave the paralytic first. Here he calls Levi first. He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners because the sick have need of a physician. Sinners can repent only when they are treated as people again. Jesus produced the great catch of fish before Simon identified himself as a sinner. The calling of Jesus to become a fisher of men had power precisely because Jesus has already demonstrated his concern for the fisherman with no fish, and Simon was confronted with his own nature in the presence of Messiah. The curious thing about this story is who the truly righteous ones are when all is said and done. Who responds to Jesus and who does not?

My question this morning is, with whom do we identify in the story? Do we identify with Jesus, the one whose acceptance and compassion for people leads him to table fellowship with them and draws them to confession and repentance and discipleship as it did Simon the sinner and Levi the tax collector? Do we identify with the disciples, so influenced by Jesus that they could sit at table with those they previously would not have associated with? Do we see ourselves as the tax collectors and sinners, the sick in need of a physician, the outcasts and misfits of society who don't stand a chance but for the gracious calling and acceptance of a savior? Or are we most like the Pharisees and scribes--already quite certain of our own righteousness, sitting back waiting for the sinners to fix their lives first and then we'll talk about acceptance, and then only with great trepidation and mistrust? Would we first label those who do seek to be Jesus as sinners and tax collectors themselves because they associate with such people? Are there people we refuse to get too close to because we might be contaminated by them--granted, bad company corrupts good morals? Note that neither Jesus nor his disciples goes in alone here. But the point again is, as disciples of Jesus, are we still calling sinners to repentance, or watching and waiting for them to get straightened out first?

I have to confess that for much of my life I have been most like the Pharisees and the scribes. Anxious to assign guilt and blame and shame to others, aloof and non-accepting of those not already in my group. My perspective changed only when I recognized that in all my self-righteousness, I was most like the tax collectors and sinners in this story; alienated from God, desperately in need of a savior who would love me enough to accept me and shed his grace on me and empower me for repentance. Isn't that truth for the disciples in the first century? Those who came to the meal as disciples had first been confronted with their own need for a savior. That's what the fishing story was all about. Before we can be disciples; before we can be Jesus; before we can be identified with "those" kinds of people whoever they are--whatever their skin color, what ever their cultural, political, religious background--before we can call others to Jesus, we must understand our own need to be loved and accepted and forgiven. That acceptance is the power of repentance and calling in our lives and in the lives of other people.

Who is coming to dinner? Who we eat with today still is in some measure a statement about who we are, isn't it? Will it be Jesus at your table, or the Pharisees? Will you offer acceptance and the power of repentance to people or will you pass judgment?

Read Luke 5:27-32.

Jesus still calls sinners to repentance this morning as together we stand and sing.

Delivered at Brentwood Hills, February 27, 1994 a.m.

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