The accusation was meant to condemn, and from that condemnation would hopefully emerge widespread rejection. ‘He eats with sinners’, was attempting to establish the familiar ground of ‘us and them’.
What was so shocking was that one who called himself Son of God, Holy, and Righteous, was willing, in fact making a habit of being in the company of them, those from the rough and despised part of society.
That battleground was historical and I can read the scriptures in that same historical way. But I can see the same patterns re-attempting to strangle the strength of our gospel even today?
When I was in prison, I came to realise that the appeal of Jesus was universal. Many of my fellow prisoners understood the reality and hope in that simple accusation, ‘He eats with sinners’. It spoke to a hope that somewhere in all their confusion and mess Jesus was for them, he was accessible.
In their understanding, Jesus was definitely confronting, but his humility was as attractive as ice cream on a hot day. In fact, Jesus Christ’s humility was beautifully prohesied, not as ice-cream, but as being so gentle he would not bruise a reed, and as we read the gospel account we see the fulfillment of that.
This humility is what we as team aspire to. It is one of our core values and leads us on many occasions to pull up a chair at a table and eat with sinners. But if humility and witness could be established just by eating together then I’d just be asking for second breakfasts.
The story from which we read of this accusation against Jesus is recorded in three of the four gospels and references both tax-collectors and sinners. Matthew, Mark, and Luke knew the importance of the telling of this accusation, its importance for what it revealed then, and perhaps also for what it reveals about our religious systems now.
I believe the accusation was more aimed at Christ’s posture and purpose than the actual sharing of a meal together. To eat a meal with someone down-trodden, someone in a lesser position, is often seen to be good - a good deed. However, the accusation was meant to redefine what was becoming attractive, even perhaps what could have become a new normal.
We are now in the time of Lent, where we are encouraged to forgo something for the purpose of a greater focus on Jesus Christ and his ultimate sacrifice. As you fast can I also plant the idea of taking up a sacrifice of mercy.
Will you throw open your table, fire up the BBQ, break out the wine, and invite sinners into your presence? There is no greater time to introduce Christ to a world that is becoming fascinated by the idea of ‘us and them’.
Jesus is attractive to sinners when we, as hosts of the gospel, make ourselves accessible in our common settings.
And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, 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, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matthew 9:10-14