Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

You may recognize the title above as alluding to the 1967 movie with Spenser Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, and Sidney Poitier, in which a daughter stretches social acceptability at the time by bringing home her black fiancé to meet her parents. The experience is awkward for mom and pop, because their theoretical racial tolerance is put to the test by a live challenge. A new guest for dinner brings with him or her the potential for the hosts finding out things they would just as soon ignore.

In his book The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey observes that when Jesus was invited to a meal, He often defied “all rules of social propriety” (p. 150). Even at the ones where he didn’t either offend His host or associate with questionable people, He caused a stir. At the marriage feast in Cana, he astounded the master of the meal with the wine He made out of water. The first time He visited Mary and Martha for a meal, He had to set Martha straight about putting meal preparation ahead of listening to Jesus. After His resurrection, Jesus joined two disciples on the road home from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Concealing His identity, He remonstrated with them that they should not be puzzled either by their Master’s death or by eye witness reports that He had subsequently been seen alive. They invited Him home for dinner, and they must have felt rather silly when He opened their eyes “in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:30-31, 35) to know who He was.

In two instances Jesus went home with disreputable people and their companions (Matthew and Zacchaeus, both despised as tax-collectors), and was roundly criticized for the company He was keeping. The Master put down those observing Matthew’s feast with the observation that if one wishes to be a spiritual minister, one goes where the need is greatest, to “those who are sick” (Luke 5:31). And of the “sinner” Zacchaeus, He says that sharing a celebratory meal together is quite appropriate when salvation comes to the house of a repentant “son of Abraham,” for “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9-10).

But Jesus’ most scathing and confrontive remarks occurred when He was invited home by prominent Pharisees. These hosts and their guests were called out for their elitist self-righteousness in showing contempt for those Jesus saw as the primary targets for His compassion and ministry. Such challenges were often followed by parables that underlined His lessons to His fellow-diners. When He was the guest of a ruler of the Pharisees (who invited Jesus in order to catch Him in word or deed), He obliged them by openly healing a man on the Sabbath (Luke 14:1-6). Then followed three parables, the object of which was to show that God’s social order and evaluation of people is quite contrary to the way humans exalt themselves at the expense of others.

On another occasion, he was at table as a guest of a Pharisee named Simon, and during the meal a woman of ill repute came in and washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair, a kind of public intimacy that was regarded as scandalous, causing His Pharisee host to say to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39). Knowing Simon’s thoughts, Jesus poses a question to him under the guise of wanting to know his opinion about a hypothetical situation; but the Master uses it to make an incisive point: that one’s ability and motivation to love God are measured by the person’s acknowledgment of his deep need and by the corresponding realization of God’s generosity in meeting that need. Moreover, Jesus points out that Simon has failed in hospitality by not providing for Jesus’ feet to be washed, in contrast to this poor woman who resorted to tears and hair as instruments for washing Jesus’ feet, and then added the tribute of applying ointment to His feet afterward. Thus are the tables turned on the censoriousness of Simon and his fellows.

The most poignant occasion where Jesus challenged those He was eating with was just before His death, in Bethany. During the meal, a woman (John’s account says it was Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus) comes in with a vial of precious and expensive ointment which she applies to both His head and His feet (to conflate the accounts: John 12:1-7; Mark 14:1-9). The critics are quick to say that this was an extravagant gift that more appropriately could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus sees the woman’s act quite differently, and actually prophesies that because she has anointed His body beforehand for burial, “what she has done will be told in memory of her” John 14:9).

Sometimes people fantasize having a meal with Jesus, perhaps not anticipating that it might not be an entirely comfortable experience. When Jesus ate His last meal with His disciples, He gave them a disturbing lesson in humility by washing their feet, and He told them some other things that they didn’t understand at the time. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we are challenged to recognize His presence in the wine and the bread, as if He were there in the flesh; and if we fail to do so, it will be to the peril of our spiritual and physical health. In the book of Revelation Jesus says, “Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me’ (Rev. 3:20). This invitation comes at the end of Jesus’ plea to the church at Laodicea to realize that they are morally destitute and blind and need to receive healing from the Lord, to accept His discipline. So when He comes in and eats with them, their communing together will be both humbling and gratifying. If we presume to ask Jesus to dinner, just remember that inviting Him to our house doesn’t mean we know exactly what we will experience when He arrives. It’s worth the risk, though.

Eight Meals Jesus was invited to:

• Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11) • First meal with Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) • At the house of Matthew (Luke 5:27-32) • At the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50) • At the house of another Pharisee (Luke 14:1-24) • At the house of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-9) • Later meal with Mary and Martha in Bethany (John 12:1-7; see also Mark 14:1-9, Matt. 26:6-13) • On Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)

Image: By Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen (circa 1504–1559) - Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain,

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)