With whom did Jesus eat? That’s one of the questions we’re exploring in this sermon series. We started with Abraham and Sarah, who welcomed God to their table by showing hospitality to three strangers. Strangers are one thing, but what about sinners? What are the rules and regulations? By the second century, it’s clear that only the baptized could come to the Table. Later on, Alexander Campbell had to get a token from church elders before he could take communion. Apparently he passed their test, because he got the token, but then he decided not to use it. Like his father, he realized that having too many rules kept people from experiencing Christ’s Table. It seems that the rules were designed to make sure that only the righteous could gather with Jesus at the Table, but is this what Jesus had in mind when he commissioned the disciples to break bread in remembrance of him?
The Gospels are filled with stories about Jesus’ dining habits. It’s clear that he gained a rather unsavory reputation as a glutton and a wine-bibber! (Matt. 11:19). He got this reputation because he had a habit of dining with the wrong kind of people, and because apparently he didn’t keep the fasts.
In Matthew 9, Jesus ran into Matthew, the tax-collector, as he was sitting in his tax-collection booth. Jesus invited Matthew to leave his job and follow him. Matthew not only closed his booth, he invited Jesus over for dinner so Jesus could meet his friends. That decision didn’t sit well with the local religious leaders, who questioned his decision to eat with “tax collectors and sinners.”
Jesus always seemed to have an answer for his critics. Usually, he drew his answers from Scripture. In this case he turned to Hosea 6, where God declares: “I want mercy and not sacrifice.” Jesus used that text against his critics, telling them that he was supposed to minister to sinners and not the righteous. Instead of being the chaplain for the pious, he was a physician to those who needed to be embraced by God’s healing presence. So my question for us is this: Who are these sinners? Would you number yourself among the sinners or the righteous? When I ask that question of myself, it’s easy to point to my lifelong presence in the church. I’ve given my money, my time, my talents. Isn’t that enough? I know how the prophet Micah answered that question (Micah 6:1-8). But, what would Jesus say to me?
Jesus endured a lot of criticism under the principle that “birds of a feather, flock together.” If Jesus hung out with sinners and tax collectors, then he must have been a sinner. Saints simply don’t have anything to do with sinners, or do they? Now, Jesus doesn’t seem too concerned about his reputation, so he reached out to the ones polite society called sinners and invited them to be his disciples.
This call to discipleship is important, because Jesus didn’t just dine with sinners, he transformed them. Matthew became one of the Twelve, despite the fact that as a tax collector, his neighbors considered him to be a collaborator with the Empire. That meant he was persona non grata! In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus eats with another tax collector. His name was Zacchaeus, and while Zacchaeus didn’t join Jesus’ traveling band of disciples, his life was changed because of Jesus’ practice of Table Fellowship (Luke 19:1-10).
Who, then, are these sinners whom Jesus always seems to be eating with? If we’re going to answer that question, we will need to get the right definition. We tend to equate sin with doing the wrong thing, but in this context we would be better served if we used the term “unclean.” If we use that term, then we get a better sense of why Jesus was criticized. You see, to be unclean was a bit like having chicken pox. It’s contagious.
In order to get a sense of what it means to be “unclean,” I turned to Christian psychologist Richard Beck, who wrote a powerful book titled Unclean. Since I have the book on Kindle, I looked up Matthew 9. I found a treasure trove of passages in that book dealing with our text. Richard points out that the conflict pits Jesus against the protectors of holiness or purity. The debate here focuses on who is included and who is excluded. That is, who gets on the invitation list, and who gets left off.
Richard suggests that when Jesus quotes Hosea about sacrifice, what he means is the “purity impulse” that often marks religious and even social life. When we seek purity, we have to admit the “clean” and expel the “unclean.” Otherwise what is pure will be contaminated. It’s like someone spitting on your salad! You’re going to throw it out!
On the other hand, when we think of mercy, we’re talking about crossing “the purity boundaries.” Richard writes that “Mercy blurs the distinction, bringing clean and unclean into contact” (Unclean, kindle loc. 92). That’s important, because holiness codes were designed to be a form of quarantine. They’re designed to keep out the unclean so that the clean won’t be contaminated. But, when Jesus ate dinner with Matthew and his friends, he broke the quarantine wall so that what was once unclean was now clean.
To give a more modern example, think of Jim Crow and the laws of segregation. Sometimes these laws were very explicit, and at other times more subtle. So once there were drinking fountains for white people and fountains for nonwhite people. The reason why they had two sets of fountains was that white people feared being contaminated if they drank from the same fountain as nonwhite people. They didn’t want to be unclean. In the north, deed restrictions kept different ethnic communities apart, so that the two wouldn’t mix. When the restrictions were declared illegal, white flight followed. In many ways these distinctions remain ingrained in our psyche. Even today, many people aren’t comfortable with blurred distinctions, like mixed-race marriages. We still build walls that separate us from “the other.” That’s where Jesus comes in. He had a habit of breaking down the walls that formed these quarantine zones that separate clean and unclean.
Why is it that we fear contamination? According to Richard Beck we seem to have a built-in contamination sensitivity. It’s called “disgust.” Beck even suggests that “disgust is the pre-requisite for love.” That’s because “for someone to move ‘inside’ there must be a pre-existing condition of having been ‘outside,’ being exterior and other. In short, disgust establishes boundaries of contact. Love enters as a secondary mechanism when the boundaries are transgressed or dismantled” [Unclean, p. 86, Kindle loc. 1636]. In this case, Jesus is the love that transgresses boundaries, and in doing this Jesus brings healing and empowerment to the people who have been excluded.
When the Pharisees watched Jesus go to dinner with Matthew and his friends, they were disgusted. It was as if he spit on them, when he crossed holiness boundaries that brought order to society. That simply wasn’t acceptable. Ironically, over time, even though Jesus practiced an open table, the church set up its own boundaries around the Table. We created rules about who could come to the Table, forgetting that it’s the encounter with Jesus at the Table that transforms lives.
Sara Miles has written a powerful book about her own conversion that took her from being an atheist to a follower of Jesus. This conversion happened when she responded to an invitation to come to the Table for communion at St. Gregory of Nyssa Church. She recounts how the presider at the table invited everyone to come. When she went forward, she found that “someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying ‘the body of Christ,’ and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying ‘the blood of Christ,’ and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me. [Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (p. 58). Kindle Edition]. Yes, and Jesus happened to Matthew as well.
According to Jesus, God desires mercy not sacrifice. God wants to transgress boundaries, not just for the sake of transgression, but because Jesus wants to change lives. Remember Jesus came to call sinners not the righteous. When we look at Jesus’ companions, few of them were of impeccable reputation. The few that might have had an impeccable reputation, a person like Nicodemus, came to Jesus in the night so that he wouldn’t be seen. After all, since Jesus had a reputation of hanging out with sinners, Nicodemus couldn’t risk being tagged as a friend of Jesus. Despite his stealth, Jesus invited him to experience healing by being “born again” (John 3). That’s what happens to us, when we come to the Table as sinners needing healing.
Note: This is the second in the series "Eating with Jesus" - part of our emphasis on the Open Table and Mission (supported by a Vital Worship Grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship).
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
January 22, 2017