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?” (Mark 2.16)
One of my favorite things about Jesus is He eats with anyone. We see Him at fancy banquets thrown by Pharisees, at impromptu lunches with tax collectors and other disreputable sorts, on hillsides, sharing whatever the disciples can scrounge up with thousands at a time, and around borrowed tables with only His followers (whose manners aren't the best). In Jesus’s day—much like ours—whom you eat with says a great deal about your social values and position. Indeed, breaking bread is one of the most reliable indicators of what you believe and whom you love. So it’s no surprise that the gospels are filled with dinner scenes. The writers keep driving home the point that Jesus doesn’t care whom He eats with—or, better put, Jesus cares so deeply about everyone that He’s unashamed to be seen sharing a meal with anyone.
In today’s passage, He’s just met and called Levi (a.k.a. Matthew), a tax collector and hence a Roman sympathizer and hence someone despised by ordinary Jews. Levi invites Jesus and the disciples to dinner at his place and, of course, Jesus accepts. It’s a friendly affair—relaxed, informal, and unrushed. The original Greek portrays Jesus reclining at the table, suggesting He’s completely at ease in Levi’s company. When the Pharisees’ elitist class—the scribes—catches sight of this, they find a way to query Jesus’s disciples. “What’s up with this?” they ask. “Why does He eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus overhears and answers before the disciples get a chance to explain. (Odds are that they’ll blow it, as they probably haven’t given it much thought.) “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners,” Jesus replies. (Mark 2.17)
It’s a crafty answer, since how it sounds and what Jesus actually says are two different things. It sounds like Jesus is telling them He dines with sinners because they’re “sick” and He’s trying to help them. In a way, it sounds like Jesus is telling the elitists to mind their own business and let Him do what He needs to do. And that’s part of it. But there’s more. Jesus is also telling the Pharisees that they too need a physician—that their disdain for those outside their circle is a sickness. More than a sickness; it’s a sin, and Jesus has come to call them to repentance with the same candor and passion that brings Him to Levi’s table. The irony is lost on them.
Free to Join the Party
In the gospels—and, thereafter, in the rite of the Lord’s Supper—the table is the great equalizing site. It is where Jesus feels most at home and, in being welcomed, He invites any and everyone to dine with Him. There are no seats for elitists, since joining Christ at table requires us to relinquish our sense of superiority and entitlement. You can assume you’re better, richer, holier, and more worthy than the rest. But the instant you sit down, you surrender those fallacies and confess you’re the same as anyone else. Misconceptions about your merits are dispelled. Your self-inflated sickness is cured. You’re free to join the party, to eat until you’re filled, and to know the sweet pleasure of communing with Christ.
Elitists delude themselves into believing they’re insiders. Yet, based on everything the gospels tell us about them, they’re really on the outside, looking in. Their obsession with class and status confuses them. They can’t figure out what’s happening. While they’re all worked up about what that is, the feast goes on. All they have to do is join Jesus and the disciples at Levi’s table. But that’s beneath them—or so they think—and, as a result, Jesus’s subtle rebuke flies right over their heads. Christ’s invitation stands to this day. Come to the table. There are plenty of seats. There’s always enough for everyone.
Elitists may think they’re insiders. Yet the gospels reveal they’re really on the outside, looking in.