Stanley Kramer’s 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was significant in several ways. It took home two Academy Awards: Best Picture, and the second of four Best Actress awards for Katharine Hepburn (and her first in 34 years, despite numerous nominations for classics like The Philadelphia Story and The African Queen). It was the ninth and final screen pairing of Hepburn with the love of her life, Spencer Tracy, who was critically ill throughout the film’s production. Tracy died shortly after he finished filming his scenes, leaving Hepburn to grieve.
And it was the third in a string of box-office hits that year (after To Sir, with Love and In the Heat of the Night) for the young Sidney Poitier, who just a few years earlier had been the first black actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor (for Lilies of the Field).
But the film was most notable for giving a positive spin on the theme of interracial marriage, at a time when such marriages were still illegal in many states in the U.S. Ideas were beginning to change, but slowly.
They’re still changing, of course. If we’re honest about it, many of us still do a mental double-take when we see two people who are of visibly different races and suddenly realize, “Oh, wait — she’s married to him.”
But it’s not lost on me that ten years after Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner took home the Oscar, my college sweetheart and I, born of very different cultures on opposite sides of the globe, tied the knot without raising too many eyebrows.
I mention this because I don’t want us to miss the significance of what otherwise might seem like a small detail in the story of Peter and Cornelius. In previous posts, we’ve watched God engineer a meeting between them, sending an angel to Cornelius and a vision to Peter. The angel instructed the centurion Cornelius to send men to fetch Peter, while Peter’s vision simultaneously instructed him to not label profane or impure what God had made clean.
Neither man knew quite yet what to make of any of this. Peter was still sitting on the roof of Simon the Tanner’s house, pondering the meaning of the vision as Cornelius’ men arrived below. Simon’s house was sizable, so Peter didn’t notice the men’s approach; the Spirit had to tell him to go down to meet them.
So Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?” They answered, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” So Peter invited them in and gave them lodging. (Acts 10:21-23, NRSV)
By the time Cornelius’ men had come, it was too late to make the return journey to Caesarea. So Peter did the only decent thing, congruent with the well-known hospitality of the early church: he invited the men to stay for dinner and spend the night. (One assumes he had Simon’s tacit approval, though Simon could hardly have refused if Peter had asked him outright.)
Lest we forget, however, this means that Peter was inviting Gentiles to dine with him. This was perhaps less of an issue than, say, Peter going to have dinner at a Gentile’s house, where someone might try to serve him bacon-wrapped pork chops. But it was not a small thing for Peter, or as we shall see, for the Jewish converts who were the earliest followers of Jesus.
Jesus had repeatedly been in trouble with the Pharisees for having dinner with people the Pharisees considered outcasts and sinners. Peter, too, having been given a vision that he was only just beginning to understand, was already crossing ethnic boundaries and breaking down barriers himself. But I like to think that Jesus’ own practice of hospitality had already taken up residence in some remote part of his brain, helping to shape his response to the delegation of Gentiles that had come to retrieve him.
One can only imagine the conversation between Peter and Simon. “Um, Simon? Guess who’s coming to dinner?”
Someone sent by God.
Even if they don’t look like it.