By Andrew McGowan
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
You can tell a lot about us from the way we eat. You are what you eat, but also whom you eat with. There are the people you know well enough that they can just drop in for dinner; there are the people you have to invite to dinner; people whom you’d invite to dessert, but not dinner, or go out to have a drink with; and so on. Our guests and hosts define us.
Jesus was attacked by some of his contemporaries for not being so discriminating about the company he kept at table. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” You probably remember some of the stories about Jesus that fit the bill — eating at the home of Zacchaeus the tax collector, and with Mary of Bethany, who behaved scandalously by washing his feet, just to mention two. Even Jesus’ brief forays into the catering business, feeding thousands miraculously in his wilderness picnic, suggest a certain inattention to the quality of the guest list.
In response to this accusation, Jesus tells three parables, of which we heard two as the gospel for today; these are not about food or meals but about sheep and coins, and the response of the one responsible for them to their loss and finding. Jesus concludes: “Just so … there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.”
There is a third parable, however, in Jesus’ response to that accusation, and that is about a lost son, what we call the parable of the Prodigal Son. We didn’t read it today because we heard it read back in Lent. That longer parable closes off this whole episode, of a young man lost and then found like the sheep and the coin, with the story of a great feast — “fatted calf” and all — thrown by the father for the son’s return. This is the great homecoming of the gospel.
Jesus says in effect that the dubious company he kept, this failure to separate himself from the disreputable at table, has something to do with God’s joy at the return of the lost. He has unlikely table companions because God has called the lost sheep, searched for the lost coin, and run to greet the lost son. It not that he doesn’t care with whom he eats — quite the contrary — he just doesn’t care what they think.
One lesson we can and must hear from this has to do with God’s example of care and concern for the lost and marginalized. The refugee, the hungry, the outcast of any sort, are not excluded from God’s banquet, but are the welcome guests. We should be certainly be willing to have others say of us that “we welcome sinners and eat with them.”
With this worthy insight, however, things often go badly wrong in the Church. Stirred to act with kindness and to seek justice, we glide past the fact that in the stories of Zacchaeus and Mary, and those others where Jesus courts controversy, he is not the gracious, inclusive host mounting an outreach program, but a needy guest. His fault is to accept hospitality more than to give it. What would that mean?
While outreach and hospitality are wonderful, it is often harder to accept the place of the guest, especially where we would be judged harshly by it. The guest is vulnerable; hosting, frankly, is a lot easier, even if it’s more work, because we keep control.
And think of what it means specifically to be the guest of the wrongdoer. “Sinners” doesn’t mean the misunderstood or oppressed, it means wrongdoers, abusers, oppressors. In our age of outrage, when public opinion scrutinizes who entertained whom with a fine-toothed comb, and those caught associating with sinners are shamed as a form of public entertainment, Jesus’ willingness to be welcomed and to accept the bread of sinners was a sign of God’s welcome to them, but it helped seal his fate in the eyes of the virtuous.
The challenge for us may be to move away from the assumption that we ourselves are fine and just have to offer our good things to others; in reality, each of us is that lost coin, lost sheep, lost younger brother of whom Jesus speaks, and on whose behalf the angels in heaven rejoice. Sri Lankan theologian D.T. Niles said that evangelism is “one beggar telling another where to find bread.”
Each of us has been, and perhaps in some respect still is, needing to find our way home to a God who will rejoice over our acknowledgment that we have been lost, more than over our many efforts to demonstrate through kindness and virtue how little we now need God and how much we have to offer others instead. Until we accept that reality of grace, our best efforts at inclusion and evangelism cannot be more than patronizing.
As we gather to celebrate the Eucharist today, we have been invited not be hosts but to be Jesus’ guests, and to accept the consequences of being seen with him. We are testimony to his lack of discrimination; it is not because of our good or admirable qualities that we have been invited and responded when others have not. It is because of the grace of God. We eat and drink together remembering this fact. Beginning with this acknowledgment means we welcome others, not as hosts but guests with them.
Jesus still invites, persistently, gently, effectively, unconditionally. Welcome home.
The Very Rev. Andrew McGowan is dean and president of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and McFaddin Professor of Anglican Studies and Pastoral Theology.