09 February 2010
Jesus Eats With Sinners
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Matthew 9:9-13
Eating together is one of the most under-appreciated, peaceful and glorious events we could do. It is recorded that two of the things the early church devoted themselves to are fellowship (sharing of each other's lives) and the breaking of bread. And devotion to the apostle's teaching and prayer was intermingled around their tables as they ate together in each other's homes with glad and sincere hearts. Even one of the church's sacraments established by Jesus involved a meal (although it's hard to see given what the Lord's Supper has been reduced to in many congregations).
What is it about eating together that is so good? We tend to relax when we eat. Even the one who serves the meal relaxes when they have time to eat. I enjoy shared meals where most people around the table bring something to the table to share. It means the entire burden of serving the meal doesn't fall on one person. When we relax, we enjoy ourselves. When we relax, we tend to let our hair down and be more ourselves. We also tend to focus more on each other, especially when something else isn't fighting for our attention. It really does bring everyone around the table more together.
This is what is so remarkable about this meal, as evidenced by the religious leaders' reaction, recorded in this passage. But before I go toward that point, it is important to realise that even though we will read about Jesus eating a lot of meals, he doesn't convene any of them except for the last one. After all, for much of his ministry he is a traveling guest. In this case, he invites Matthew to be his disciple and Matthew is so happy about his selection, he throws a party with Jesus as the guest of honour.
Tax collectors were the despised of Israel. (They still are today. Did you know that in the US, IRS agents are authorised to carry guns?) They were seen as cheats and traitors of God's holy people. This is demonstrated by the sadly humourous phrase in the gospels, "sinners and tax collectors". Yet, Jesus seems to go right for one and declares that this tax collector is worthy to become one of this rabbi's disciples.
To see this account in isolation is strange. Jesus seems to walk right up to Matthew's workplace, tells him to follow him, and Matthew gets right up. Huh? Really? Understand these true stories have context. By this point, Jesus was gaining in fame and reputation. Also understand that in a religious culture, the young boys who were considered the best and brightest were trained by rabbis to become rabbis. Matthew was obviously not considered the best or the brightest because he is not a rabbi. Worse, he is working in what would be a polar opposite of rabbi, tax collector.
We have already seen that Jesus knew the hearts of men. Matthew knew about Jesus. He heard about his remarkable teaching and healing. He maybe even heard about how Jesus called some fishermen to be his disciples. This was not your typical rabbi. In his quieter moments, he maybe fantasied about being one of Jesus' disciples, learning from this great man. Maybe, he even prayed to his heavenly Father to be able to follow Jesus. With this frame of mind, it makes sense that when Jesus calls him, he leaves immediately to follow him.
Even better, Matthew throws a party. Who does he invite? He invites his new friends, Jesus and his new fellow disciples and his old friends. Israelites who pursued purity and God's favour had very little to do with people like Matthew. So, all Matthew has to invite are his "less-desirable" friends. And this gives us the beautiful scene of Jesus eating with the "scum" of Israel. What did Jesus have in common with these people? Humanity for one. They all had families and dreams. They all enjoyed a good banquet and maybe that was enough for a fruitful time for all.
Do you notice that the religious leaders do an awful lot of murmuring and complaining about Jesus instead of bringing their complaint to Jesus? This can be a church cancer. I call it being evilly nice.
But when Jesus hears the religious people complaining about Jesus eating with the wrong people, Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." The Hebrew word in Hosea could also be understood as "steadfast love". The religious leaders seemed to say, "Why does this rabbi eat with those people? Those aren't good people. They won't understand and will never understand how to be in God's favour. He needs to be with us. We are the ones who are truly right with God."
This is why Jesus quoting Hosea and challenging the religious leaders to understand Hosea 6:6 is so brilliantly stinging. Hosea was a prophet who was told by God to marry a prostitute. God used this dysfunctional relationship to illustrate how Israel had treated him. God tells Israel of his steadfast love toward his people despite their infidelity. He informs them that He wants Israel to truly love Him, trust Him, and stay loyal to Him instead of empty rituals that indicate empty apologies to a God they clearly do not love or respect.
The Pharisees saw themselves as the restored people of Israel. They saw themselves as purer than others and that's how they encouraged others, who still had hope, to be. They were God's watchdogs, ensuring the people stayed loyal to God. They would have surely thought that they were keeping the Hosea mandate. But Jesus informs them that they are not and he knows they are not because of the attitude they have toward 'the sinners and tax collectors'.
Don't think, however, that the tax collectors and the sinners are the good guys and the religious leaders are the bad guys. Jesus still calls the people he is eating with sick. They need help. They need a doctor. Does this mean the religious leaders aren't sick? That they don't need a doctor? Yes, they are sick as evidenced by their increased antagonism toward Jesus up until they succeed in their assassination plot.
"For I have not come to call the righteous but sinners." The key difference between the tax collectors and the religious leaders? What would happen if Jesus called the 'righteous' to be his disciples? Would they exuberantly accept Jesus' call as Matthew did? Why would they? They already have God figured out. They have their own disciples. What could they possibly learn from Jesus? But people who have been told their entire lives that they aren't good enough to be chosen by God, what is their reaction to Jesus' call? They would not only humbly and immediately accept his invitation but throw a party like Matthew did.
A reformed religious leader Paul in Ephesians:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.