While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the “sinners” and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and “sinners’?” On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mark 2.15-17.
One of the difficulties we have when we come to the Bible and try to feel the full impact of the text is the sheer distance that lies between us and the narrative, not just in terms of time but in terms of culture and manners and customs. To the twenty-first century Western mind, what Jesus was doing in today’s passage was hardly sufficient to warrant a raised eyebrow let alone the hostile interrogation of his followers by the religios authorities; but that is because we do not understand the significance of table fellowship in the society to which Jesus belonged.
It is usually said that, here, the issue that was of such concern to the teachers of the law was one of defilement. The people with whom Jesus was eating were “unclean” because their occupations or life-styles had placed them outside of the religious laws that governed ritual purity, and they thus “contaminated” the food on their table and the very vessels it was served in. By sharing their food and eating and drinking from their dishes and cups, Jesus (it is said) inevitably became unclean too.
Now although that is true, there is more to it than that. Always, at table, a meal began with the eating of bread over which the host or a special guest had spoken a blessing and which he had then broken and passed around. There is an example of this when, in the village of Emmaus, Jesus, after his resurrection, stayed for supper with Cleopas and his friend — “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them” (Luke 24.30). And that sharing of the blessed bread was of great significance. Joiachim Jeremias, the great theologian and expert on the Judaism of Jesus’ day says that it was nothing less than “an offer of peace, trust, brotherhood and forgiveness”. In short, he says, “sharing a table meant sharing life” Theology, p 118). And to my mind, that is what was so outraging the religious authorities. Jesus’ self-defilement was a secondary matter; it was his open, peace-giving, forgiving welcome into fellowship with himself of the very folk that the Pharisees had shut out of fellowship with themselves that was giving them such offence.
Which leads me to think of the great table-fellowship meal that Jesus hosted just before going to the cross — the meal we call the Last Supper and the one we perpetuate in the Eucharist. Here, in the bread and wine, was and still is the highest, deepest, widest “offer of peace, trust, brotherhood and forgiveness” ever given in the history of the world. And, seeing it in that light, I wonder what Jesus would make of our ecclesiastical “rules” about who is permitted to come to the table and who is not. Is not the so-called “blessing” we offer to those who are not baptised and confirmed (in the Church of England) an actual rejection of those people from the table fellowship of Jesus. And if I go along with that, whose side does that put me on in today’s text?
The Iona invitation surely gets it right …
This is the table, not of the Church, but of the Lord.
It is to be made ready for those who love him and who want to love him more.
So, come, you who have much faith and you who have little,
you who have been here often and you who have not been for a long time,
you who have tried to follow and you who have failed.
Come, not because it is I who invite you: it is our Lord.
It is his will that those who want him should meet him here.