“The Master’s Hospitality”: Jesus and Dialogue

by Very Rev. Dr. John A. Jillions

Jesus teaches in the Temple
Image: iStock.com/sedmak

Come, O faithful, let us enjoy the Master’s hospitality:
the banquet of immortality.
In the upper chamber with uplifted minds,
Let us receive the exalted words of the Word, whom we magnify.
(Holy Thursday, Canon Ode 9)

In January 2022, I was invited to give the annual Father Georges Florovsky Lecture for the Orthodox Theological Society in America and one of the issues I addressed was the disturbing trend among some Orthodox to reject dialogue with their fellow Orthodox Christians on controversial topics.

Especially now, with the violence in Ukraine largely pitting Orthodox Christians against each other, one would have thought that this was precisely the moment to value conversation. Indeed, Vladimir Putin’s armed forces are devastating Ukraine with barbaric ferocity, and millions of Ukrainians have fled their homes as refugees. And yet, negotiators from Russia and Ukraine are still talking. If enemy governments can negotiate, can we who share the same Eucharist refuse dialogue with one another, even on the most sensitive topics?

Rod Dreher of The American Conservative is the most prominent champion against dialogue. “I only engage people who come to me in good faith and are willing to listen. I don’t waste my time with those who don’t. It’s not worth it. I’m not interested. I don’t grant legitimacy to those who are just trolling me or trying to own conservatives.” In the lecture I drew attention to Dreher’s views on dialogue, and a couple weeks later he responded with a blistering critique in The American Conservative. “If you listen to Father Jillions’s speech, you’ll see that it’s a classic example of progressive obfuscation—the kind of thing that well-meaning priests and laity who have never dealt directly with it can easily fall for.”

Dreher and company claim the theological high ground, believing that their refusal to dialogue is a principled stance supported by Holy Tradition. But even a brief survey of the gospels gives a very different picture of where Jesus stands in relation to dialogue with those who might disagree, be suspicious, openly hostile or even have hidden agendas against him. Take for example the Gospel of Luke.

  1. At age 12 Jesus is already found in the temple listening, asking questions, and giving answers (Lk 2:41-52)
  2. He dialogues with the devil, standing his ground in the face of provocative, seductive, and hostile questions and answers (Lk 4:1-13).
  3. He dialogues with Pharisees and teachers who object to his saying “your sins are forgiven you” (Lk 5:17-26). Jesus is not at all naïve about the intentions of his interlocutors.  Indeed, he’s the one who takes the initiative to open the dialogue when “he perceived their questions.”
  4. When the Pharisees murmur against his disciples that he eats with “tax collectors and sinners,” Jesus doesn’t avoid the controversy but brings it out into the open to address directly and publicly (Lk 5:27-39).
  5. When the Pharisees question the plucking of grain on the sabbath Jesus again addresses their question head on, even though at this stage he knows they are deliberately trying to trap him in his words and actions (Lk 6:1-11).
  6. When Jesus is rebuffed in his attempt to engage Samaritans (i.e., start a dialogue), his disciples want to “rain fire upon them.” But Jesus sternly rebukes them as being demonically influenced: “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of” (Lk 9:51-56).
  7. When a lawyer starts a dialogue with Jesus in bad faith, in order “to test him,” Jesus doesn’t walk away from the lawyer, but engages and even seems to win him over in the end (Lk 10:25-37).
  8. When some question Jesus’ casting out of demons as itself demonic, he—instead of avoiding their unspoken objections—brings their concerns into the open and talks about them (Lk 11:14-26).
  9. Invited to dinner Jesus isn’t afraid of opening a sharply critical conversation with his host and the other guests—Pharisees, scribes, lawyers. But they, instead of taking this as an opening for dialogue, look deliberately for more opportunities to trap him in his conversation (Lk 11:37-54). Jesus, in contrast, as a follow up to this encounter reinforces with his disciples the need for openness, fearlessness, and trust in the Spirit of God. They must be ready for opposition and confrontation, but also ready to make peace with their accusers (Lk 12:1-54; see also 21:10-19, where opposition is an opportunity to bear testimony).
  10. Jesus knows the Pharisees “were watching him” but he goes to dinner with them anyway, engages them critically in conversation, and persists in resisting their demand that he stop consorting, speaking, and eating with sinners (in other words, that he should stop dialoguing with them), Lk 14:1-24.
  11. Jesus teaches openly in the Temple and is always ready for questions and dialogue (Lk 19:47, cf. 21:37-38), even though he knows that the “scribes and principal men” are seeking to destroy him. However, speaking “openly” should not be confused with speaking “plainly.” Even his disciples were often uncertain about the meaning of his metaphors, parables, and antinomies (see Lk 8:9-10, Jn 18:19-24, 16:25-33). He didn’t avoid dialogue, but he was also careful, because “he perceived their craftiness” (Lk 20:23) and sought to avoid premature “cancelling” as the religious leaders tried to catch him by what he said (Lk 20: 1-8, 19-47).
  12. Once the religious leaders saw that they could not trap him, “they no longer dared to ask him any questions” (Lk 20:40). They abandoned all pretense of dialogue and plotted to stop him violently. Jesus’ persistent openness and his willingness to have dialogue is in stark contrast with the Sanhedrin’s secret plotting and the deal they make with Judas (Lk 22:1-6).
  13. After he is arrested, the Sanhedrin demands to know, “If you are the Christ.” Jesus admits that dialogue seems pointless: “If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I ask you, you will not answer.” He still answers, knowing his words will be twisted and used against him (Lk 22:66-23:25).
  14. After his resurrection he gives two disciples a model of dialogue as he walks, converses, critiques, and opens the scriptures together with them on the road to Emmaus, culminating in their recognizing him “in the breaking of the bread” (Lk 24:13-35).

In every one of these episodes, Jesus is the minority figure who has no institutional power behind him, either civil or religious. He is under constant suspicion and threat, and repeatedly misunderstood. Yet as the least powerful, he is still engaged in dialogue and is the one who speaks most openly, boldly, freely, and fearlessly.

In the Orthodox Church we need much more space for the free, respectful, and vigorous exchange of ideas, especially on the subjects that most divide and trouble us. Jesus consistently pushed the disciples to think beyond the conventional boundaries of “neighbor.” Going further, he insisted that his disciples love their enemies. St. Sophrony Sakharov (1896-1993) labeled this as the central teaching of Jesus in the New Testament and understood “enemies” to be those who are different and present a challenge to our way of thinking.

But we are not enemies, even when our ways of thinking challenge each other. We are fellow Orthodox who share the one cup of communion and “enjoy the Master’s hospitality.” If at the Last Supper Jesus can include Judas and the squabbling apostles at his table, should we not be able to do the same?


Fr. John A Jillions is the former chancellor of the Orthodox Church in America and the founding principal of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, England. He holds a doctorate in New Testament and is the author of Divine Guidance: Lessons for Today from the World of Early Christianity (OUP, 2020).

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.