Why Does He Eat With Tax Collectors and Sinners
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Do you believe in transformation? I’m speaking of moral transformation? Have you experienced it? Have you seen it? Is it possible? Or do we believe in the maxim “once a _____ always a _____”? I want to share a story about transformation which is also a story about the patience required in committee work:
In 1408, the committee in charge of the cathedral in Florence began a long-term decorative project which would see the cathedral’s roofline decorated with statues of Biblical and mythological figures. The first two were a statue of Joshua sculpted by Donatello and one of Hercules sculpted by Donatello’s student Agostino di Duccio. In 1464, Agostino was commissioned to sculpt a statue of David, and a block of marble was extracted from the Carrara quarry in Tuscany. Agostino abandoned the project after only having roughed out the legs. In 1476 another sculptor, Antonio Rossellino, was hired to take over the project. He soon quit, citing the inferior quality of the marble. With no one to sculpt it and being too expensive to throw away, the block of marble lay outside for 25 years.
In 1501, a 26 year old artist by the name of Michelangelo was chosen and given two years to complete the work. He completed David in 1504. This is what artist/writer Giorgio Vasari described the process like this - “the bringing back to life of one who was dead.”
Do we believe in new life? Do we believe in resurrection? Do we believe in transformation? Do we believe in renewal? How do we live those beliefs? How did Jesus live them?
He made the invitation. He not only called sinners to repent/turn, he befriended them. He didn’t reduce people to labels. We might like the idea of a party. We might like the idea of an exclusive party even better. Humanity has a tendency to want to congregate with like-minded people, people who think like us, act like us, believe like us, dress like us, and talk like us. The problem today is probably not so much religious purity (because how many people care about piety or religious/ritual purity in our day) but the labels we assign based on socio-economic, ethnic, political, and behavioural factors. We might love the idea of a party but it would be unthinkable to go to a party which was full of woke liberals, or MAGA-heads, or sheep, or freedom-loving patriots, or immigrants, or Kens and Karens, or, or … those people. Whomever “those people” may be.
Jesus is walking along beside the lake, and we know what happens when Jesus walks along beside a lake (he gets to inviting).
As Jesus walks, there sits a tax collector. Now here was the thing about tax collectors in 1st century Galilee. They were despised. Someone has compared them to the local Parking Authority. I used to watch Parking Wars on A&E (I went through a phase) and people would be yelling at these parking wardens out of the windows of their cars (mind you this was Philadelphia). Imagine though traffic wardens who charged you for parking that used to be free. Traffic wardens whose work supported a regime that oppressed. Herod Antipas was the puppet king, installed by the Romans, who ruled in Galilee. Traffic wardens who charged extra so that they could skim off the top. NT Wright describes the situation like this: “We don’t know whether he’d chosen the job. Probably it was the only one he could find. We don’t know whether he approved of the Herodian family, and Antipas in particular; most ordinary Jews disliked and resented them, but they were in power, the Romans were backing them, and there wasn’t much anyone could do about it. But Levi, son of Alphaeus, had to sit there taking the anger and resentment into his own heart and soul…”
Is transformation possible? Maybe Levi was used to cleaning off graffiti that some Zealot would paint on the outside of his tax booth – Traitor! Scum! Jesus doesn’t yell or abuse or say “How could you?” Jesus issues an invitation. “Follow me.” To follow him is to know forgiveness. Forgiveness is on offer. Like that block of marble in Florence abandoned in a churchyard, Levi has been sitting at his tax booth, exposed to the elements. Forsaken. Forgotten. Jesus sees Levi not simply as a label or as a member of a despised and hopeless class, but as one who is made in the image of God and beloved by God; one to whom the invitation is always open.
“Follow me.” Come along behind me. Get behind this kingdom of God thing. The invitation to follow is an offer of forgiveness that is always extended.
And he got up and followed him. Levi was working for a man who claimed to be a king. Now he’s going to be living for a different kind of king. What’s the first thing they do?
Have a party. Have a meal together. Matthew calls his friends together and says “I want you to meet this Jesus. I want you to meet this man who treated me like a person. I want you to meet this man who extended a loving invitation when I was expecting what I get from everyone else – at worst scorn and at best indifference.”
“And as he sat (literally reclined and when you’re reclining at dinner in those days, that is a festive dinner – like getting a Toblerone or Lindt at the end of your Swiss Chalet) at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples – for there were many who followed him.” In Jesus’ culture, there was no greater way to solidify a relationship than to share a meal together. It’s been the same in many cultures throughout history and is the same in many cultures today. Would God help us recapture something of the significance of sharing meals together and how they solidify relationships.
So far so good, but the conflict that arises here comes about because of the people with whom Jesus is sharing this meal. “When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” The NEB translates this “bad characters” and “bad company.” Another translation is “outcasts.” “Friends in low places” if you like. Associating with outcasts was not done by religious people. How could he?
Jesus is doing more than preaching repentance to sinners – to people who are in need of him - he is befriending them. This is the new situation that Jesus brings about. The good news is love. Someone has described the new thing that Jesus is bringing about here like this – “The love of Jesus for all kinds of sinners (outcasts), his initiative in seeking them, his giving them… acceptance, his desire to have close fellowship with them was a new and revolutionary element in religion and morals.” Living in a right relationship with God (which will effect all our relationships) does not require us to make ourselves right with God or achieve some level of rightness before we come to him. Self-righteousness will be the very thing that keeps us from accepting Jesus’ invitation to follow. The only thing that is required of us is a recognition of our need for him. So we pray “Lord I need You” and “Lord help me.”
“When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” We like to put labels on people in order to determine who are the outcasts and who are the incasts. Who are the people that we can safely ignore? Who are the respectable people that are deserving of our attention? Perhaps we consider ourselves “the respectable ones.” How much human need does the label of “respectability” mask?
Now we’re in the realm of need which brings us into the realm of Jesus – literally the realm, the kingdom of God, which is like a king who threw a wedding banquet for his son and said to his servants “Go the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.” Even “those people” – whoever they may be. Our need for Jesus is all we need. This is what time it is. It’s kingdom time and the doctor is in, and the doctor will see you now. Jesus answers a question about eating with an answer about healing. We remember Jesus answering a request for healing with forgiveness. It’s kingdom time and the doctor is in and the doctor is making new. The doctor is making whole. The doctor is bringing new life. There is little point in a doctor only keeping company with those who are healthy (preventative medicine aside). “I have come not to call the righteous,” says Jesus and this cannot have been without irony because who among any of us is righteous in and of ourselves?
Who among any of us is righteous in and of ourselves? And so let us pray “Lord help me to know my need for you. Make me well. Make me whole. Make me new.” We acknowledge our need for God in a very practical/tangible way when we come to His table. We say “Come to this table not because you are strong, but because you are weak.” As we come to the table today, let us come in our weaknesses. Truly. It can be a difficult thing for us to do. We can be proud. We’re more easily seen through than we know. Think of job interviews where we’ve been told “Turn your weaknesses into strengths. Michael Scott had this exchange when interviewing David Wallace for a job at Dunder-Mifflin’s head office in New York City – “Why don’t I tell you what my greatest weaknesses are? I work too hard. I care too much and sometimes I can be too invested in my job.” DW – “Okay, and your strengths? MS – “Well my weaknesses are actually my strengths.” DW – “Okay. Yes. Very good.” Michael did not get the job. Let us come to the table acknowledging where we need the doctor in our lives. To eat at the table with Jesus is to be made whole. This story is not simply about having a fun party (though there is joy at the kingdom party). It’s also about Jesus issuing an invitation to turn, to trust, to be forgiven and to be made whole, to be transformed.
This leads us to what this story means to us about the tables that we eat at, the people who we invite, and the invitations that we accept. I’m talking about actually eating now. Eating is the great equalizer. It expresses a human commonality. It’s something we all have to do. Consider the question “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Consider the call on our lives collectively to be Christ’s body, to do Christ’s work in the world. How are Jesus’ actions here reflected in our own lives? Someone has put the question like this - “What witness do meals in our churches and homes bear to Jesus’ teaching in word and deed about calling ‘outcasts” to himself through table fellowship?” I leave that question before us all. We’ve practiced table fellowship here for many years on a Saturday night? We had a taste of it at a hamburger cook-out at Yorkminster Park Baptist in April. How can we resume that practice? How can we make it more “let’s eat together” and less “let me serve you.” Or maybe “Let’s serve each other” would be best. Let’s continue to ask the questions and look to answers from the doctor, our Great Physician whose invitation to the table we accept today.