Jesus got himself in trouble for a lot of things. Claiming to be God was probably the biggest. The religious leaders of his day thought that was the most blasphemous thing they had ever heard, for a man whose birthplace and family they knew to say things like "Before Abraham was, I am." Jesus also gave offense by breaking official religious laws, like the one we heard about last week, when he healed a woman on the Sabbath day. We can see why those things upset people, but for us it takes a little more imagination to grasp why one other thing Jesus did was so offensive. This is clearly something that created a huge stir, and that the Gospel writers felt they needed to record many stories about to document that yes, Jesus actually did do this and he had a good reason for it.
That other offensive thing that got Jesus in so much trouble was, in the words of the Bible, eating with tax collectors and sinners -- violating the society's customs about meals. The fancy name for it is "table fellowship," and the Gospels make clear over and over again that Jesus broke all the rules of table fellowship in order to help people experience what the Kingdom is like. Table fellowship basically means: who eats with whom? Who has supper at one table together? This question was immensely important in Jesus' day, and he used it to make immensely important points.
So let's look at this meal story we have today. Jesus has been invited over by a key Pharisee, and Luke gives a sense of the atmosphere by noting that everyone was “watching him closely.” Where our reading begins, Jesus is saying that instead of grabbing places of honor, guests at meals ought to take the least desirable seats, and then maybe the host will move them up. That’s simply a paraphrase of the 2 verses from the Old Testament book of Proverbs that we just heard (world's shortest lectionary reading!), so maybe the Pharisees breathe a little easier and think at least tonight perhaps Jesus is going to be non-controversial and just quote the Bible.
But then Jesus takes a turn, and to them it’s a shocker. He addresses the host and criticizes his guest list. Instead of these people, he says, you should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. Now we might take that merely as a sweet little recommendation to be more charitable, but it actually goes way further. Here's why. At that time, all decent, moral people followed two guidelines when they put together a guest list. The first is reciprocity; the score should be kept even. You should invite people who can reciprocate and invite you back, to keep the hospitality accounts 50/50, with everyone on the same playing field. Second, you should invite only people who maintain the same religious purity standards as you do. There were deeply held moral values behind these principles.
Everyone at that table would have understood that religion was about setting apart what was holy and clean, honoring it, readying yourself to be in its presence, and keeping it distinct from what was unholy and unclean. They had learned from the Old Testament that spiritual uncleanness was contagious, and that any sincerely moral person would therefore avoid it. People admired that; it was something to be proud of. A lot of people counted as unclean and unholy under this system, and thus had to be skirted by anyone who was trying to live their faith. The people Jesus says to invite -- the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind -- were all on the unholy list. So were shepherds, tax collectors, lots of women, all mixed-race people, and of course all non-Jews. Each of us here would be unclean in more than one way.
According to those religious rules, the Pharisee's guest list, I am willing to guess, was above reproach. Everyone there was clean, I will wager; no one was being put in the position of associating with anyone who might compromise their moral commitments. They were all honoring the distinctiveness of what was holy. And with this, God was, everyone would have said, very pleased. But Jesus doesn't see it that way. Jesus says something that for them goes against all decency: you might paraphrase it more or less this way. He says, "the next time you have a dinner party, why don't you invite only guests who would prove to your entire circle of associates that you are a louse? Why don't you destroy your credibility as a person of faith? Why don't you contaminate your home and endanger your children by welcoming a contagious evil to your table? That's what the God I have come to tell you about would really like you to do."
So of course the host is going to respond by thinking: A God who wants me to morally contaminate myself? I want nothing to do with that kind of God! – So does this make it easier to understand why one of the most common denunciations of Jesus was, "He eats... EATS!... with tax collectors and sinners!" That proves he’s no good! How could a person who treated table fellowship so cavalierly come off as anything but what they crucified Jesus for being: a lawbreaker, a blasphemer?
"When you give a banquet," said Jesus, "invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,” groups who are not spiritually kosher and will never be able to pay you back, "and you will be blessed." By criticizing that Pharisee's guest list, just as by so many other things he does and says, Jesus is proposing we try a way of experiencing connection to God that is based not on us and our efforts to be clean, but on Jesus and his holiness.
He starts it out in the Gospels by suggesting inviting everyone to supper no matter who they are. Now ultimately, after his resurrection, Jesus working through his Church will go even further than these stories about ordinary meals suggest, and create an even more intimate possibility: He will create a way for anyone to be united to him based not on us and our efforts to be good, but on himself. He will go so far as to invite us to come inside the life he shares with his Father. He will make not just a chance to be together and enjoy each other’s company available to absolutely everybody, but immersion into the very life of God available to absolutely everybody.
Jesus gives us that gift in the Sacrament of Baptism, but astonishingly, he doesn’t stop there. He knows that even after Baptism we will still struggle with mistakes and a sense of shame, so he also creates through his Church a chance to renew and deepen the life of Baptism in a very different kind of table fellowship, again one based only on being in him, only on the love and life he has given us, and available over and over whenever we need it. He does that week by week in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. Those two sacraments, inextricably linked as the beginning and the continuation of spiritual life in Christ, are an incredible gift.
But for that gift to seem attractive, we pretty much have to go through the same kind of shock and rethinking process that the people came to Jesus before his death and resurrection, before he instituted these sacraments, did. We pretty much have to accept that everything people normally assume about how religion works is wrong. In order to receive what Jesus offers, you don’t have to make yourself holy first. You don't have to set yourself apart or clean yourself up. He’ll do that for you. If you are Baptized, he did it for you already in Baptism, but if you never really personally received his cleansing mercy, if you never let his complete acceptance break your heart with joy, you can still receive it now. Ask him.
It’s just such good news! God isn’t looking for your self-improvement efforts, he’s looking for you. Every single so-called outcast – the tax collectors, the poor, the narcissists, the liars, the apathetic, the condescending, the addicted, you and me, anyone – ANYONE -- can be brought into Christ and then eat and drink more and more of the life they’ve received from him at every Mass.
Even before these sacraments existed, even when it was just a matter of getting to spend time at a supper with a wonderful rabbi, when they heard just the mere beginning of this kind of news, can you imagine the thrill that ran through the hearts of the countless people who counted as unholy under the Law, who were not welcome on religion's terms? For all their lives, God and religion had been the thing that told them they were disgusting and unclean. Maybe it was like that for some of you. But then Jesus showed up proclaiming: religion is wrong about that. I am the way. Your uncleanness isn't what's catching, God's love is. Your unholiness isn't contagious, my holiness is.
And he proclaims that to us. Same deal. Come to me as you are, he says. Let me make you new as you’re baptized into my life, and then come let me feed you over and over with that same life. Let me wash you, then eat of my bread, drink of my wine, and I will make you whole. I will turn you into the beloved of God. These promises are for you. The font of Baptism is still open to anyone who will repent and believe the good news. The Table of the Eucharist is still here to nourish the life we receive at the Font and bind us together forever. Jesus is still the way, and God’s love is still catching. It’s for anybody. It’s for everybody. It’s for you. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.