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Jesus is Invited to Dinner...three times"

A Sermon based upon Luke 5:27-35,7:31-8:3 & 19:1-10

Brian McLaren, in his book “We Make the Road by Walking”[1], says that “most human societies are divided between the ‘elites’ and the ‘masses’. The elites are the 1% (or 3% or 5%) at the top that ‘have and hoard’ the most money, weapons, power, influence, and opportunities. They make the rules and usually rig the game to protect their interests. They forge alliances across all sectors – in government, business, religion, media… and the military. As a result, they have loyal allies across all sectors of society, and they reward those allies to keep them loyal.”

“Down at the bottom,” writes McLaren, “we find the masses – commonly called ‘the multitude’ in the Gospels. They provide cheap labor in the system run by the elites. They work with little pay, little security, little prestige, and little notice. … To the elites, the multitudes can remain surprisingly invisible and insignificant most of the time.”

“In the middle, between the [handful of] elites, and the [masses of] the multitudes, we find those loyal allies who function as ‘mediators’ between the few above them and the many below them… They live in hope that they (or their children) can climb up the pyramid, closer to the elites. But those above them (generally) don’t want too much competition from below, so they make sure the pyramid isn’t too easy to climb.”

“These dynamics were at work in Jesus’ day, and he was well aware of them. In his parables, [Jesus] constantly made heroes of people from the multitudes: day laborers, small farmers, women working in the home, slaves, and even children. He captured the dilemma of what we would call ‘middle management’ – the ‘stewards’, tax collectors, and others who extracted income from the poor and powerless below them for the sake of the rich and powerful above them. And he exposed the duplicity and greed of those at the top – especially the religious [& civic] leaders who enjoyed a cozy, lucrative alliance with the rich elites.”

“In addressing the social realities of his day, Jesus constantly turned the normal dominance pyramid on its head, confusing even his disciples.” (quote from Chapter 23, page 107)

That analysis of society from Brian McLaren’s book caused me to look a second time at the three dinner parties that Jesus attended in the Gospel of Luke (which Kathy Dempsey read for us this morning). I was looking for “elites” at the top, middle management “stewards” (like tax-collectors) and representatives of “the multitude” making up the majority of people at the bottom.

Here’s what I found: First, Jesus intentionally called tax-collectors to join his movement. Oh, yes, he first called simple fishermen -- day-laboring brothers like Simon Peter and Andrew, and the two Zebedee boys, James & John. But Luke tells us in today’s first reading:

After this, he [Jesus] went out and saw a tax-collector named Levi, sitting at the tax office. (Levi was one of those “middle manager stewards”: a tax-gatherer either for Rome, or for King Herod, or for the Temple, sitting in his toll booth).

And he said to him: “Follow me.” And he [Levi] left everything, and rose and followed him. (That’s something!)

According to the Life Application Bible[2], “Levi left a lucrative, though probably dishonest, tax-collecting business to follow Jesus. You see, Jews who were appointed by Rome to collect taxes from citizen/subjects (as well as from merchants passing through the town) were expected to take a commission for themselves on the taxes they collected. Most of them “over-charged” and kept the profits. (!) Tax-collectors were thus hated by the Jews, both because of their reputation for cheating and for their support of the Roman Empire.”

When Jesus called Levi to join his movement, he jumped at the chance… but I’m not sure it helped Jesus’ reputation! Tax collectors were avoided, if possible, and (not unlike Internal Revenue Service agents of today) generally shunned.

Merchants didn’t like how the tariffs, taxes, and fees imposed by the government added to their cost of doing business. You know, governments used to love to impose “tariffs” on imported items, because they got to collect for themselves the 10% or 25% extra charge on every item… while the person buying that item had to face the fact that it would cost all that much more out of their pocket. (!) Imposing “duties” and “tariffs” are always “bad news” for customers, for consumers, for the economy of the masses – the multitudes. But it isn’t called “a tax”, so the elite/governors, get away with it. Tax-collectors like Levi were hated because of collecting tariffs.

Jewish nationalists (called “Zealots”) resented paying taxes & tribute to the Roman Empire, which occupied their land militarily and politically. And the enormous expense of King Herod’s brand-new Temple in Jerusalem saddled the people with additional assessments. It was hard enough to eke out a living in the harsh Middle East of Jesus’ day… taxes made things worse! Common people were going bankrupt.

We all know (deep down) that we shouldn’t blame the IRS agent for the high rate of taxes Americans pay -- federal programs, income taxes, Social Security FICA payroll taxes, not to mention sales taxes, local business & property taxes, county assessments, millage, state mandates, and all the rest of the fees & fines that burden our financial lives -- because the tax collector doesn’t make the rules. Politicians do that! So, take it up with your Township or County Supervisor, or the state bureaucrats in Lansing, or that giant sucking sound coming from Washington, DC, saddling our economy with 17 trillion dollars in “debt”… and a budget deficit this year of nearly $1 trillion more!

Forgive me for sounding a bit cynical and political, but we just came through the annual “State of the Union” address this week -- with an hour-and-a-half of standing ovations -- but not a word was said about any of this tariff/taxation or debt stuff!

Granted, the Internal Revenue Service may have unfair advantage in its legal and police powers -- confiscatory policies and little-known clauses in the tax-code that can trip up even the best-intentioned tax-payer -- but that doesn’t make the IRS employee a “collaborator.” It’s their job. (Right, Dennis?)

Jesus probably raised some eyebrows when he extended an invitation to that “government-employee” tax-enforcer – Levi, also called Matthew in Greek -- to join him as a disciple. And it looks like Levi was proud as punch to follow Jesus! He not only left his job, but he called all his friends together so they could meet Jesus, too!

Luke tells us that Levi held a reception for his fellow tax-collectors (and other so-called “sinners”) so that they could meet Jesus at his house. Levi, who may have left behind a material fortune believes he is now on the road to gain a spiritual fortune. He was proud to be publicly associated with Jesus!

Luke writes: “Levi made him a great feast in his house. And there was a large company of tax-collectors and others sitting at table with them.” Well, here is the first of three dinner parties Jesus attended. Let’s see what happens at this one…

“The Pharisees and their scribes murmured against [Jesus’] disciples, saying: “Why do you eat and drink with tax-collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick [do]. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

The scribes and Pharisees were the “respectable” folks. They made themselves appear good by doing good deeds in public and pointing out the sins of others. The word “Pharisee” derives from the Hebrew verb “upharsin” (to divide or separate). Pharisees were compulsive “dividers” – kosher from unkosher, clean from unclean, purity codes, Sabbath laws, saints from sinners, Jews from Gentiles, men from women, us from them.

Jesus chose to spend time with people who were not like the Pharisees and their scribes; who were not like the teachers of the Law and their faithful base, the religious “in-crowd”. Jesus invited people who were on the “do not call” list -- the B-list -- the left-outs and left-overs; the ones hated in public but envied in private! Jesus made “them” like one of “us”! (!) Sharing a meal with tax-collectors and sinners -- in their own house, at the same table -- was just not done among respectable religious leaders!

It may not have been good for Jesus’ public reputation among the religious crowd of Bible Scribes & Social Dividers to be seen eating and drinking with “middle-management” (steward-class) government bureaucrats and “collaborators” like Levi and his tax-collecting colleagues … but it probably did them a world of good! (Ought we not do the same in our day?)

The invitation and extravagant welcome that Jesus extended to Levi -- and Jesus’ public inclusion of a publicly despised class of people – put a “mark” on Jesus by the pious and the proud self-righteous judges around him… by the haters and the “dividers” in his day.

And (frankly) such is to be expected in our day, too, as we (as followers of Jesus Christ) intentionally reach out to embrace the unwelcome ones, the unaccepted ones -- the disrespected and disregarded and disparaged ones in today’s highly polarized and politicized society.

To be seen as publicly open and affirming of people that our society insists upon calling “sinners” (of one stripe or another) is still toxic to much of American Christianity. But it is perfectly in keeping with Jesus… if this first dinner party means anything. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance”: to changed lives, new potential, a radical inclusion.

Levi had been a collection agent for his King, for Herod’s Temple, and for the Roman Empire. But then along came Jesus with a vision of a new kind of kingdom: God’s Realm, in which grace and generosity, not legal demands & possessiveness, were to be the norms. Where all would dine together in a great banquet of heaven on earth. Where people were no longer seen as debtors over against their landlords; no longer either a slave or a free person; no longer a Roman subject or Jewish citizen; above all, no longer considered either righteous or sinner! No… in the Kingdom of God (according to Jesus), these categories were immaterial.

Jesus had not come to call the righteous to repentance; I mean, they were already “in” with God (right?) He had come to seek and to save those who were “lost”…

… those who had been discarded & disrespected -- those who believed that they were unworthy, illegal, unlawful, somehow off-kilter -- sensing themselves to be “sinners” in the eyes of the public; not good enough for God to accept them, to want them, to love them. (!) They had heard it often enough… from the Pharisees & their scribes and the Teachers of the Law.

If you will allow me to repeat myself: I think the point Jesus was making is that if the Pharisees were truly righteous, then they were already “in” with God! They would know that God loved them and that God was with them. Jesus had not come for them … sure as they were of themselves… and of what God expected of them. If they are OK with God, then they’re OK! (OK?)

If, however, a person was being called a “sinner” or was being publicly shunned, it was likely that their sense of God’s nearness and affection was undercut. (!) Jesus came to seek and to save that which was lost -- to publicly include among God’s people those who were being rejected by the dominant society.

The tax collectors at that table, and their fellow citizens -- who were labeled “sinners” by the proud law-spouting religious authorities -- had found in Jesus one who was not cowed by the Pharisees’ righteousness… nor beaten down in his personal sense of self-esteem.

By dining with tax-collectors, Jesus challenged the assumption that good, healthy, “holy” folk should only care about their own kind -- and let the “sinners” stew in their own juice. They’ve made their bed; let ’em lie in it. They’re law-breakers, outcasts, sinners! Such ones should not be welcome in fellowship with the righteous! The Pharisees ask Jesus’ disciples why he did so.

Jesus faced his critics with calmness and with clarity. He accepted the Pharisees’ challenge in their own terms, granting them the status of being “righteous” (even going so far as to call them “healthy,” whole, “well”). If you are well, he says, then what I’ve come to do will have no relevance to you, any more than a healthy person would have any use for a physician. Go on about your business, my friend, knowing that you are perfectly fine! Keep up the good work. (!) It’s no skin off your nose. If you’re well, then be happy. Be blessed, you who are righteous. You don’t need a doctor, if there’s nothing to fix up.

But… if you have broken parts, or lost & lonely moments, periods of alienation or depression; if your spirit is stuck and unable to move, or if evil thoughts and destructive deeds are part of your daily experience… I’m here for you, like a doctor, to let you know the Good News that God knows you, and loves you, and is with you for your healing. “Follow me, my friend.”

All that was in just the first of these three dinner parties. Obviously, I cannot take the time to go into any detail on the other two dinners, if we want to get out of here by eleven! So let me just highlight a couple of observations…

In the second reading, Jesus was aware that people were saying that he was “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34) That’s an “ad hominum” attack -- the personal disparagement -- that we saw coming from the dinner at Levi’s house. We see it when a person can’t argue the merits of a case, they start calling people names!

If I were Jesus, I would not have accepted the invitation to have dinner in the Pharisee’s house – dinner party number two. Why spend time with a dis-respecter, a divider, an enforcer of a Status Quo which puts so many people at a disadvantage?

But Jesus is much more gracious than I; more forgiving. He is as quick to reach out to a Pharisee’s invitation as to Levi.

Brian McLaren writes: “Jesus saw value in those [people] considered by everyone to be notorious and sinful. Once, for example, Jesus and his companions were invited to a formal banquet. (Luke 7:36-50)

“Imagine their shock when a woman known to be a prostitute snuck into the gathering… uninvited. (!) Imagine their disgust when she came and honored Jesus by washing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. (!) When the host indulged in predictably judgmental thinking about both the woman and Jesus, Jesus turned the tables and held her up as an example for all the banquet to follow [in the future].[1]

McLaren points out that the Pharisees were “a religious reform movement in Jesus’ day. They were pious, fastidious, and religiously knowledgeable. Today some might call them “hyper-orthodox” or “fundamentalist.” But back then, most would have considered them pure and faithful people, the moral backbone of society. [Gatekeepers of heaven… Bible believers]

“When Jesus once claimed that his followers needed a moral rightness that surpassed that of the Pharisees, they must have been unsettled. How could anyone possibly be more upright than they? [Jesus] further troubled them by his refusal to follow their practice of monitoring every action of every person [and dividing it into categories… such] as “clean” or unclean, “biblical” or unbiblical, “legal” or illegal. To make matters worse, he not only associated with “unclean” people – he seemed to enjoy their company!” (unquote)

That second dinner party ended with Jesus saying to the woman: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” And immediately Luke tells us there were women disciples who followed Jesus: “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out; Joanna, the wife of Chuza (Herod’s steward), and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.” (Luke 8:2-3) We hear often of “the twelve” who were with Jesus (12 guys); but here are three named women, and many others unnamed, whose personal resources provided the means so that Jesus could continue!

The Pharisees didn’t know what to do with a man like this. So they kept throwing questions at him, hoping to trap him in some mis-statement -- a “gotcha” moment. They never did!

Which brings us to the third dinner party, which highlights all these troubles – the invitation to stay at Little Zach’s house!

Zacchaeus was the “chief” tax-collector in the Jericho district… and he was rich! If Levi was a middle-manager “steward-class” tax-gatherer, Zaccheus would have been his District Supervisor. He is rich! Zaccheus is one of the “elite”-class, entrusted by King Herod and by Rome to get the money! Zaccheus would have been something like a Wall Street hedge fund manager (or predatory banker) at home among today’s multi-millionaires. Starting rich -- inherited wealth, perhaps -- together with shrewd investments, and with an “insider’s” knowledge of politics and economics, Little Zach has made it!

But for all that wealth and power, this chief tax-collector -- this One-per-center -- was disrespected by the people. (By the 99%-ers! Do you wonder why?) The “multitude” crowded Zacchaeus out, blocked his way, when he wanted to see Jesus.

But Zacchaeus figured out a way to see Jesus, by running ahead of the crowd and climbing up into a sycamore tree. Not the kind of behavior we expect from a leading citizen of wealth!

Jesus sees the little man up in the tree as he passed by. I’ll bet a lot of others in the crowd saw him, too, and shook their heads. (!) But Jesus calls the man by name, and tells him to “make haste” and “come down” – because “I must stay at your house today.” I guess Jesus invited himself to this third dinner party. And we are told that Zacchaeus “received him joyfully!”

This story (near the end of Jesus’ life) echoes that of the other tax-collector (Levi) at the start of Jesus’ ministry. A quick response: a joyful, festive dinner along with overnight-lodging.

But all the crowd murmurs, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner!” Apparently, the multitude (like the Pharisees earlier) still have not learned to be gracious, joyful, affirming, and open to the revolutionary inclusion Jesus offers. They resent Jesus because he welcomes wealthy Zacchaeus.

This member of the elite -- the ruling class -- has been marginalized, scape-goated, and shunned by the people. (!) All those negative things I said earlier about how people looked at tax-gatherers (when speaking about Levi) is made worse by Zacchaeus, who has grown wealthy & powerful... even though he was just a little runt of a man, who people hoped would fail!

You know, there is a lot of that kind of envy, & resentment, and cynical wishing for failure of certain wealthy politicians, celebrities, and corporate executives going on nowadays. It’s got to stop, if we want to succeed as a society, as an economy, as a nation. But people keep stoking the fires of class-division.

Zacchaeus’s dinner party ended with these memorable words from the wealthy host, “Behold, Lord: the half of my goods I give to the poor!” Did you hear that when Kathy read it? Half of his assets; not just a tithe (10%) which means keeping 90% for himself! He gives away half of what he owns to the poor!... the multitude at the bottom of the social ladder.

And not only that, Zacchaeus says: “If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it… fourfold!” Not only does he make things right, he charges himself a stiff fine and gives it to the person who has made the complaint against him. That’s more than justice; it is reconciliation, it is redemption! In fact, Jesus says it is a picture of “salvation”! “Today, salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:9-10)

Yes, as McLaren says: “There are always multitudes at the bottom being marginalized, scape-goated… ignored, and forgotten by “elites” at the top. And there are always those in the middle, torn between the two.” I suspect that’s where many of us find ourselves. Trying to hold down a job (or two to make ends meet) or to live within the means of our retirement income. Paying taxes as required; even when we disagree with much of how it is spent. We’re not among the power-brokers, the elite; nor among the masses who experience poverty and oppression.

We must stand with the multitudes, yes – the weak & vulnerable, the disparaged and disrespected, the social outcast – even if doing so means being criticized, marginalized, and misunderstood right along with them. That’s what Jesus did. But he also ate with Pharisees and elites like Zacchaeus. So, to be alive in the adventure of Jesus means to stand with each of them as children of God, worthy & wholly redeemable, as they show their need for reconciliation & inclusion, whoever they are.

[1] Ibid, page 108

[1] McLaren, Brian D., “We Make the Road by Walking”, New York: Jericho Books, Hachette Book Group, 2014

[2] Published by World Bible Publishers, Inc., Iowa Falls, Iowa; distributed by Tyndale House, Wheaton, Illinois; 1988, notes on page 1756 & page 1621.

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