It must have seemed like such a great idea. The Pharisees invite Jesus over for dinner thinking, no doubt, that they could humble him. That is surely what is meant by the words, "they were watching him." You know, knock him down a few pegs, as they say. Expose him for the fraud he most certainly must be. It would be the only way to stop those crowds from following him around -- those scruffy, dirty, filthy crowds.
What the upright religious community would learn, what the guardians of such fine things as virtue, character, and values were to learn is that you cannot humble one who chooses to humble himself.
And what a rude guest he turns out to be. Would any of us really welcome such a man -- a man who comes into the house and proceeds to lecture your other guests? There they were, putting their chairs up against the table to be sure they would be able to sit where and with whom they wished -- the people they ought to sit with and so on.
Then when Jesus is finished with the guests, he lectures his host about the guest list itself. Do not invite your friends, brothers, kinsmen, neighbors and the like. Invite those without the power and without the resources to reciprocate your hospitality in any way at all.
What kind of guest is this, anyway? You might say that dinners in most of our parishes look a lot more like dinner with the Pharisees than anything Jesus seems to have in mind. Imagine him arriving at a parish potluck supper and pulling back all the chairs that have been leaned against the tables and lecturing everyone left and right about not saving places. And then he begins telling us to run up and down the streets of the nearest city to find some poor (literally) strangers to have a feast on our tab. It's rather overwhelming. More than just a few of us would be upset if not down right mad at this behavior!
Meals with Jesus, it appears, are not going to be nice, mannerly, carefully arranged events. And he probably isn't just talking about dinner parties. Then there is the ad that runs from time to time in local newspapers. It looks like the kind of cardboard signs we see the people who beg in the streets holding in their hands. Scrawled in the typically uneven kind of hand, the ad copy on the fake cardboard sign reads something like this: "Give me some change and I will still be on the streets tomorrow. Give to one of the following charities and I might get some real help." Kind of like the old bromide, "Give someone a fish and you feed them for a day, give them a fishing pole and you feed them for life."
They both sound so good, so reasonable, so practical. The Pharisees would love this kind of thinking. Who knows, they may have invented it! The whole Pharisee "program" was something like this: "We know what it means to have the kind of virtues, character, and values God wants us to have. If everyone else would just live responsibly like us, life would be peachy. Those who don't follow our way of doing things are surely sinners and even God will reject them. You'll see at the resurrection of the just."
So it seems that our city's charities and, of course, state and federal agencies would have us believe they can spend our money more productively for the people who need it than the people themselves. Sure, there's some overhead, but by and large we have better ideas and programs than the poor do.
Contrast this attitude with the following story that appeared in a newspaper a couple of years ago about a "regular" street beggar and a woman named Eileen Friedman and her son, and we might begin to understand what Jesus is talking about.
The man in question stands at the same street intersection every day, rain or shine, with a cardboard sign in hand, asking for money. On occasion, the Friedmans have been known to give him a dollar, or even a sandwich. One rainy day Mrs. Friedman was ferrying her son from lunch at home to his music lesson and they saw that the beggar on their corner was barely able to walk. In fact, the man appeared to be staggering. The light turned green and off they went.
Later, Mrs. Friedman wrote: "Thinking out loud, I said to myself, 'he might have been drunk.' But being in the presence of the relentless honesty of youth, I had to add, 'but he looked like he was in pain.' We drove for several blocks in silence. At length my son said, 'Mom, I just don't feel right. We just ate pizza for lunch, and you let me have drum lessons, and pitching lessons, and camp, and that all costs lots of money, and he's sitting there in the rain.' I began looking for a place to U-turn. This was not the first time my children have urged me to turn around in the name of charity....At Krieger Schechter, the Jewish day school my children attend, they have learned that tzedakah (the Hebrew counterpart for 'charity,' but which literally means 'justice') is a way of life. (The Baltimore Sun: Thursday, August 17, 1998, "A road less traveled yields poignant lesson")
Discovering she only has a 20 dollar bill with her, Mrs. Friedman pulls into a fast food chain and buys a meal, and returns to the corner on Roland Avenue to deliver the lunch. "...he turned toward the car, and (for the first time, I'm ashamed to admit) I looked into his face. He wasn't as old as I had expected. Maybe not much older than I. He was also visibly upset. Amid his thanks I caught another story. '...just drove by and threw somethin' at me. What makes people be so hateful? Don't they think I got feelings too?' The light changed, and we drove on with tears in our eyes. I was humbled when I thought how close we had been to just driving home. We could debate all day whether it's appropriate, safe, or good public policy to give to individual beggars, or whether all giving should be done through institutions. But when faced with the decision of whether or not to give to an individual, the Talmud, the ancient commentary on the Hebrew bible, instructs us that...if a beggar says, 'I'm hungry, please give me some food,' we should do so with a kind word, certainly without insults. Sometimes, as this experience has us, the words of encouragement may be the most important part."
The next week Mrs. Friedman and her son drove back toward the intersection with lunch in hand and asked the man on the corner how he was feeling. As the man explained to them, he had been to the emergency room for the pain he had been suffering. Mrs. Friedman noticed something for the first time. Scribbled at the bottom of his cardboard sign were the words, "Thank you, Mike."
"Now I knew his name. 'Mike, we won't be coming this way for a few weeks. Take care of yourself.' Mike wished my son a good time at camp, and then the light changed. We'd like to think that the hot food and the kind words we gave Mike had a value beyond the dollars and the time it cost to give them, but we do know that what we learned from the encounter with Mike had a far greater value. Thank you, Mike."
"For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted," says Jesus.
"I was humbled," writes Mrs. Friedman, "when I thought how close we had been to just driving home."
"Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares," it says in the Letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews
Jesus understands tzedakah. He understands it so well that whatever he does, wherever he is, is saturated with tzedakah, that rare character trait, virtue, and value that somehow combines the totality of charity and justice -- what Jesus on other occasions calls shalom or peace.
It is interesting to speculate about whether that Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner ever left his comfortable home in his comfortable neighborhood with all his comfortable fellow religionists to follow Jesus around for a day or two. It is also interesting to speculate about whether or not that Pharisee was ever able to see how Jesus approached broken people -- not from a superior position of knowing and telling them what would be best for them, but rather from a humbler position, a lower position, even from his own fatigue.
Did that Pharisee possibly see Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well? The Samaritans were a despised people-a people rejected by others. The woman at the well was despised even by her own rejected people because she had lived with five men. She is, perhaps, the poorest, most broken woman in the Gospels. And Jesus exposes his own need to her. He asks her for a drink. He lets her know that as broken as she is, she can do something for him. She gives him a drink. He gives her "value."
Did the Pharisee see this encounter? Did he ever see how much more at home Jesus seemed to be with the leper, the poor, the weak, children, the blind, the lame, the sinner, the prostitute, the tax collector, than he was with the rich, the wise, and the Pharisees?
Two cardboard signs in the newspaper -- one from above, one from below. Mike wishes Mrs. Friedman's son a happy time at camp. Mike gives them his blessing with his thanks. He, too, understands tzedakah. They leave Mike's street corner thanking him!
What Jesus is talking about is relationships, not programs. Personal encounters with the poor, not public policy debates. Looking into one another's eyes, not turning away. Knowing each other's name, not making proscriptions about what is best for nameless, faceless fellow human beings. Respect, not pity or scorn. Tzedakah -- not just charity.
It is a paradox, really, that Jesus brings to the dinner table. The people with whom Jesus identifies himself are those society judges to be misfits. But Jesus says he is the person who is poor. He is that person who is hungry. He is that broken woman who has lived with five men. "Whosoever welcomes one of these little ones in my name, welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me."
Wouldn't it be simply fantastic if it turned out to be true? Wouldn't it be absolutely extraordinary if well all discovered that? Wouldn't the face of the world be changed? If we could just become friends with the people Jesus befriended, wouldn't we be blessed?
We would not longer have to compete in going up the ladder to meet God and to be honored for our knowledge of the Bible or the Prayer Book or the traditions of the church. Or if we did want such knowledge, it would be because we believe our knowledge of the Bible and the Prayer Book and traditions of our church, our theology, even our knowledge of Jesus are important only so long as they are used to serve and honor and respect the poor. So we might put ourselves in a position to receive his blessing through them.
So that we might join with Mrs. Friedman and her son in saying, "Thank you, Mike." AMEN