Connect: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
“When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’” (Luke 19:5, NRSV)
In the 1967 film starring Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy, and Katharine Hepburn, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was a groundbreaking portrayal of the clash between one’s perceived values and one’s actual values. The upper-class, liberal-leaning Matt and Christina Drayford (Tracy and Hepburn) are confronted with the challenges of their ideas of racial equality when their 23-year old daughter, Joanna (Katharine Houghton and niece of Hepburn), brings her new fiancé home for dinner. John Prentice (Poitier) is a 35-year-old physician and medical professor who is black. The movie masterfully captures the nuanced difficulty of living into one’s values and the complexity of inherited societal norms. In 2017, the Library of Congress selected the film to be preserved in the National Film Registry for being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.
The story of Jesus’ dinner with Zacchaeus has always reminded me of this movie. It was shocking to the Jews that Jesus would even consider breaking bread with Zacchaeus because he was a tax collector. Zacchaeus was an everyday reminder of the Roman occupation under which the Jews were so sorely oppressed. Not only did Zacchaeus help provide the resources to Rome that funded the occupation, but he used his position to extort even more money from the Jews to pad his own pockets. Any respectful and loyal Jew would have nothing to do with a man like Zacchaeus.
Jesus didn’t see the labels or stereotypes associated with Zacchaeus. Jesus saw a man, created in the image of God, in need of a friend. So, Jesus chose to invite himself to dinner at Zacchaeus’ house in spite of the appearances and the consequences. As a result, Jesus helped Zacchaeus see how his behavior had been harmful and destructive to others, resulting in Zacchaeus’ repentance and announcement to make restitution for his wrongs. We can only hope that Zacchaeus followed through on his commitment.
We are all mixed bags of emotions and contradictions. None of us is perfect. We have our values to which we aspire to be true; however, sometimes knowingly, but more likely unknowingly, we fail to live consistently into those values. It’s not that our values are weak—it’s that living into our values is hard and requires us to live with such intention that life’s distractions undermine our resolve. When we discover a lack of integrity in our values, the most straightforward response is an apology and a reset. We admit our error and commit to doing better next time—just like Zacchaeus.
Jesus invites us to dine with him, not because we are worthy, but because we are worthy of experiencing the salvation that only he can bring.