Thursday, October 23, 2014

"This Fellow Welcomes Sinners and Eats with Them": Catholic Discussion of Welcome Tables and the Gospel Context

Jesus talks about tables, and he demonstrates what he means by his talk about tables by inviting public sinners, the unclean and outcast, to eat at his table, and this happens: "Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him" (Luke 15:1). This statement prefaces the chapter in Luke in which Jesus tells his followers three astonishing stories about the reign of God and its table set to welcome everyone — a story about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a prodigal father. 

The public sinners, the tax collectors and other riffraff, clearly want to hear these stories. They can't get enough of them, and so, as Luke points out when the chapter begins, they're crowding around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and the scribes, the people who matter, are, however, unhappy. They are unhappy that Jesus is drawing the riffraff to himself, when it's clearly the fine and upstanding, people like themselves, who ought to stand out in any crowd surrounding a religious teacher: as Luke tells us, they grumble and say, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."

And so the three stories that follow are a direct response to the grumbling of the people who count and their unhappiness about who Jesus is turning out to be: "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!" Two specific charges against Jesus:

1. He welcomes sinners.

2. And he eats with them.

The two charges are interconnected, since Jesus invites sinners to his own table — he welcomes them at his table. It is his table fellowship with the unclean and outcast that provokes the people who count, and which occasions the three stories of Luke 15 about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal father. The preceding chapter of Luke's gospel frames Luke 15's discussion of welcoming sinners and eating with them by previous talk about tables and the obligation to welcome riffraff at them:

When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind (Luke 14:12-13).

And when you throw a great dinner party and the invited guests (the respectable, the people who matter) do not come, "Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled" (Luke 14:23).

Tables everywhere you turn. Along with sinners, the unclean, the outcast, the people who don't count. Along with sinners sitting their big sinful selves right alongside Jesus at his table: "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!"

And so Jesus's three stories in the following chapter of Luke — a lost sheep (a story about a man), a lost coin (a story about a woman), and a prodigal father. These are stories being told to the people who count, since they're clearly the ones who don't understand what is happening with this man around whom the tax collectors and sinners are congregating. The riffraff get the point, but the pure and righteous — it evades them. They don't understand why he doesn't turn those folks away, hit them over the head with the law and prophets, turn them from his table, and publicly shame them.

As they themselves, decent religious people who matter, would most certainly do.

Jesus tells three stories bound together thematically — they're all about recovering what is lost — so that if the decent religious people who matter don't get the point as they hear one of the stories, they may perhaps divine it with the next story. Not only are the stories bound together thematically: they're also bound together by a recurrent word, the word "rejoice."

When the man who has lost a sheep finds it again, 

He lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, "Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost" (Luke 15:5-6).

When the woman who has lost a coin unearths it with her lamp and broom, 

She calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, "Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost" (Luke 15:9).

When the good son who has remained at home with his father, the decent and religious son, objects because his father has thrown a dinner party (tables again) for the no-good son who has squandered everything on whores and has rolled around in the filth of swine, the dirtiest thing possible for devout Jews, the father tells him,

But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found (Luke 15:32).

"Let us eat and celebrate;  for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!" (Luke 15:24): it's the eating and celebrating that get to the elder son. It's that fatted calf, that welcome table that stick in his craw. All for a worthless son who does not deserve such welcome, and whose attempt to confess his sins the father cuts short as he puts his arms around the lost son, welcoming him and kissing him, and then gives instructions for the feast to be prepared.

"We had to celebrate and rejoice," we had to have a party, we had to sit at table together and eat together, because the one who had been lost is now found. Rejoice. Rejoice. Rejoice. It's almost as if  everything that happens in Luke's gospel following the birth of Jesus is designed to bear out the summary of the gospel, the good news in a nutshell, provided by the angels who announce the birth of Jesus at the beginning of the gospel:

Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,] the Lord (Luke 2: 10-11).

This is, we shouldn't forget, a proclamation made quite specifically to riffraff, to shepherds living in rude makeshift structures in the fields and not to decent, god-fearing townspeople living in houses, the sort who could find no room for Mary and Joseph as they traveled to Bethlehem to be taxed.

And if we haven't gotten enough of stories about welcome tables (and their opposite) in Luke 14 and Luke 15, we can always turn the page of our gospels to the following chapter of Luke, where we'll read a story about a rich man who has a table of plenty while a poor man covered in sores, whom the rich man cannot even see, lies just outside his gate . . . .

With all the talk about tables and welcome and rejoicing in the Christian gospels — and about beggars covered in sores who end up feasting at the welcome table in heaven, while rich men who were satiated during their earthy lives lie in torment following death — you'd think that there simply could not be a discussion today about whether gay human beings with dirty hands should or should not be welcome at Catholic tables, wouldn't you? Especially if the pastors of the Catholic church want to claim that the message delivered by their church to the world is a gospel message, one rooted in living memory of Jesus . . . .

Who kept an open table, and who was known for welcoming sinners and eating with them . . . . 

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