The Mercy Table

“Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ But those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’”

We have had the same dining room table for 45 years.

This maple wood table given to us by friends in Oregon is not distinctive in any way and wouldn’t command much of a price at an auction—its’ one claim to fame is the way it has weathered daily use and abuse.

Our family and friends have gathered around this table in six residences—when we have moved, the table has moved with us.

Oh, if this table could talk!

What a trove of family lore it could disclose—it could speak of all our family’s ups and downs, our pleasures and growing pains, from one decade to another—this table could furnish a detailed chronicle of the food and friends, the festivity and companionship, that have nurtured us—it could give an account of all the kidding, horse play, and small talk that are the warp and woof of family life.

This table has witnessed frolicsome laughter and outbursts of anger, strained silences and windy gab-fests, accusations and apologies, tears and comforting reassurances, fallings out and reconciliations—every conceivable mood and topic from the ridiculous to the sublime have surfaced here—oh, all the life that has been lived around this one table!

In A. R. Gurney’s play “The Dining Room,” all of the eighteen scenes take place in the same dining room over a span of 50 years.

We watch as members of successive generations sit down at this table and act out new versions of those age-old family tensions between affection and resentment, loyalty and competitiveness, cohesiveness and alienation.

In this play we see family members squabble, make up, commiserate, break into song, grieve and laugh together—we see them feud, fuss, forgive, and carry on.

Things happen at this table.

This family’s table manners and table talk become an x-ray of its character, its strengths and fault lines.

Of course, in this day and age the dining room table has tended to be used more as a convenient shelf for laundry, bills, junk mail, and homework than as a setting for meals.

And so we have become accustomed to gather for meals around other tables in restaurants, backyards, and elsewhere—but there’s no doubt that the table in one form or another will continue to be the center-piece of our communal existence—for nothing invites companionship more than sitting around a table with shared food and drink.

If we were staging a dramatization of Luke’s gospel, one of the main props would have to be a table—Luke has compiled 10 separate accounts of Jesus sharing meals with his companions.

It’s been said that in this gospel Jesus is either about to eat, is eating, or has just finished eating.

Much has been written about Jesus’ table fellowship and about how his choice of companions to sit at table with him speaks volumes about the kind of kingdom he’s proclaiming.

In today’s reading, what leaps out at us is Jesus’ shocking inclusion of a prostitute in his inner circle—Jesus doesn’t just tolerate her—he showers her with praise, a reaction which, down through the ages, has launched an avalanche of commentary.

What undoubtedly would have been most shocking to those who first heard this story is the detailed description of Jesus applauding this woman for washing and kissing his feet and anointing his feet with oil—for Jesus to not only allow this unclean woman to initiate physical contact with him but to acclaim her for this intimate contact would have been for the Pharisee horrifying and unthinkable.

But what has received much less attention, and what I want to focus on, is the way this story begins with Jesus accepting an invitation from Simon the Pharisee to dine at his house.

A couple of questions immediately arise—

First, why would Simon, a Pharisee and staunch defender of the purity code, invite a known renegade and critic of that code like Jesus into the private precincts of his home for dinner and include Jesus’ followers in the invitation?

Surely Jesus’ notoriety would have preceded him.

So there must have been something so captivating about this itinerant preacher that it overrode Simon’s misgivings about associating with someone who was not ritually observant.

And why would Jesus have accepted the invitation knowing that he would undoubtedly become embroiled in an evening of conflict and controversy?

That this dinner party ever got off the ground is something of a marvel.

But maybe Jesus suspected that this get-together could have some interesting and redemptive repercussions.

Well, how should we characterize Simon?

We Christians have been conditioned to assume that a Pharisee like Simon was a hypocrite who spoke with forked tongue, who said one thing and did another, whose conduct contradicted his moral pronouncements, who was smugly self-righteous.

But, as the theologian Paul Tillich warned us in a great sermon on this passage, this would be a gross misreading of the Pharisaic tradition.

Tillich suggests we should view Simon as a truly virtuous, genuinely moral individual.

In other words, we should regard Simon as a pillar of society, someone who is conscientious, responsible, enterprising, a reliable supporter of worthy causes.

This would mean seeing Simon not as a villain but as a sincerely pious, patriotic, productive citizen committed to upholding the ancient faith, tradition, and values of his people.

And so we have these two dining companions, Simon and a prostitute, who could not be more incompatible and at odds with each other—a man of moral stature, righteousness, and virtue and a disgraced woman tarnished by scandal and shame.

They are separated by a seemingly unbridgeable chasm.

It seems to me that in this story Jesus inaugurates a table of unprecedented Divine mercy that is wide enough to encompass both a prostitute and a Pharisee named Simon—the only thing that could possibly close the gap between them is the power and force of Divine mercy.

Of course, Jesus shows sudden and dramatic mercy to the woman by blessing and forgiving her—

But Jesus also shows conspicuous mercy to Simon by first agreeing to dine with him and then urgently entreating him to discover his own need for forgiveness that he might love more.

And we might imagine that Jesus, by sitting at table with both of them, is challenging each to be merciful to the other.

Simon needs to forgive the woman for being promiscuous and dishonoring their sacred tradition—and she needs to forgive Simon for being virtuous and morally superior—because, in truth, there are few things more disheartening and demoralizing than to be humiliated by superior virtue.

And perhaps we can also imagine that Jesus’ table of mercy might permit Simon and the woman to gradually overcome their estrangement, discover their common humanity, and begin to appreciate the gifts each can offer the other.

Simon is much in need of learning from this woman humility, loving-kindness, and gratitude—and she could definitely benefit from absorbing some of Simon’s sense of responsibility, commitment, practical wisdom and know-how.

“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea…..”

The Divine mercy hovers in the air—the Divine mercy is above and beneath us, behind us and in front of us, beyond us and in us—the Divine mercy tirelessly summons and beckons us to be merciful to others and ourselves.

There are many differences among us that can strain the bonds of good will and tolerance to the breaking point—we can be easily annoyed and antagonized by others’ opinions, quirks, and mannerisms.

But this is the table of Divine Mercy.

When we come to this table, we are reminded that our capacity to love and affirm one another arises not out of our own meager, insufficient supply of charity and kindness but out of the super-abundant Divine mercy that encompasses us all, that transcends and surmounts all our differences, and that permits us to appreciate the gifts each of us has to offer.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
Pentecost 4
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio


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