My secret crush on Sidney Poitier began in grade school when I saw “Lilies of the Field.” A traveling handyman (Sidney Poitier) became the answer to a convent’s prayers when he built them a chapel in the desert. A hero extraordinaire!
Four years later, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” debuted. A beautiful Caucasian woman (Katharine Houghton) takes her black boyfriend (Sidney Poitier) and his parents home to meet her parents. They have fallen in love and want to get married.
For those of you who remember the 60’s, this was a controversial film. Even knowing the storyline, movie audiences gasped when Spencer Tracey opened the front door and realized his guests were black.
Typically we fill our parties and special dinners with people similar to ourselves. We celebrate with fellow graduates, entertain people who share our same hobbies, and open our doors to four year-olds when our own children are turning four.
Psychologists concur that we socialize with those people who are in some way our equals.
But what happens if we plan a special dinner, a banquet, and no one attends?
In Chapter 14 of Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells the parable of an affluent man who prepared a great banquet and invited many guests similar to himself. In today’s culture there would likely be no one from an opposing political party. No followers of Ramtha. No Jehovah Witnesses or Mormons. Everyone must speak fluent English-- no illegal aliens.
Anthropologists characterize the culture of Jesus’ day as an “honor/shame” society, where one’s quality of life was directly affected by the amount of honor or shame socially attributed to him or her. The public eye was paramount. Every interaction either furthered or diminished one’s standing in the eyes of the community.
It is likely that the list was distinguished and the guests were prosperous. The table was prepared for a feast. Everything was ready. But at the appointed time, no one came.
The host was justifiably furious.
He had been deliberately and publicly shamed. His guests treated him with inexcusable contempt and shoved him down into the margins of society.
Hearers of this parable would have waited with baited breath. Could the host ever reclaim his honor? What was the long-term damage to his reputation? Would it cost him customers for his business? His seat in the courtyard? Or his place in the synagogue?
But the master of the feast made no attempt to reverse his public shame. With counter-culture panache, he embraced it by telling his servant to gather “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.”
Still, there was more room at the table, so the servant was sent out a second time and told he must compel the down-trodden to come. Those with little or no social standing were immediately liberated from their lives on the fringes of society. They had been invited to dine with the master.
In this parable, Jesus made a staggering portrayal of God, who is shamed by the rejection of his people, and yet continues to respond with lavish grace and scandalous invitations into His presence. The owner of the house has opened wide the doors and waits to welcome his grateful new guests.
When Spencer Tracy opened the front door to Sidney Poitier and his parents, his face was filled with shock and dismay. But not the host in Jesus’ parable. His face exudes joyful welcome.
We have a heavenly Father who compels you to sit at His table. He doesn’t care what you were doing the day you received your invitation. He wants you anyway.
Because there is still room at the banquet.
n Sylvia Peterson is co-pastor for Bald Hill Community Church and an author. You can email her at email@example.com.