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Jesus with Sinners at the Table

The “dinner” scenes found in the Gospels, especially those in which Jesus eats with “sinners,” provide a warm, fascinating, and important portrait of our Lord in his earthly life and mission.


Two passages stand out perhaps more prominently. First Mark 2:13-17 = Luke 5:27-32 record for us Jesus’ calling of Levi (Matthew) the tax-collector. Now a follower of Jesus, Matthew hosts a dinner with both Jesus and “tax collectors and sinners” as his guests. In Luke 19:1-10 Jesus invites himself to the home of Zacchaeus, “the chief tax collector,” and dines with him. In both of these scenes Jesus socializes with known sinners, in both passages he is criticized for it, and in both passages he defends his actions.

Luke 7 provides the memorable scene of Jesus eating at the table of a Pharisee. While he is at the table “a woman of the city, who was a sinner” — words that almost certainly indicate that she was a known prostitute — came to Jesus, washed his feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed them with oil. Once again, Jesus is criticized for associating so with a sinner.

This kind of thing was a common enough occurrence that Jesus’ enemies could slander him for it (Luke 15:2), (mis)characterizing him as a glutton and a drunk (Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:34). In today’s lingo, they said that Jesus was a party animal. And

Luke 14:1-24 provides a further dimension to all this. Here while eating at the home of a “ruler of the Pharisees” Jesus first lectures the guests concerning their desire for the places of honor at the table. Then he lectures the host regarding his guest list, insisting that he should rather invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” — people who are unable to repay him. This, in turn, leads to his parable of the man who invited guests to a banquet only to find that those invited declined the offer, and so the servants are sent out to bring in “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” and to go out through the town and the country side to find new guests.

Matthew 22:1-14 records the familiar parable of the wedding banquet in which the King prepares a feast for his son’s wedding. Again those invited refuse, and others are brought in.

There are some related passages also. In Matthew 8:11-12, for example, Jesus states that “many from the east and west will come and recline [i.e., dine] with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom.” In Matthew 21:31-32 he says to the religious leaders, “tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the Kingdom of God before you.”

The Scandal

In several of these passages Jesus turns conventional standards on their head. He eats with known sinners, gaining the (mis)reputation of a party animal, and defends himself for it all. It’s really a fascinating portrait of our Lord, not least because it is not at all the image of Jesus that is likely to come to our mind when we think of him in the days of his earthly ministry. We just would not expect to hear that Jesus did not live up to the expected standards of propriety and holiness!

So what is the problem? What exactly was their complaint? And why was Jesus so “wrong”?

The first and most obvious problem is the company Jesus kept. He ate with “tax collectors and sinners.” Because of their “treacherous” trade in taking money from the Jews for their evil Roman over-lords, tax collectors were considered to be on the lowest rung of society. Respectable society, by definition, would never associate with such, and the tax collectors were left to find their friends among society’s rejects. Zacchaeus, in fact, was “the chief tax collector — something like the regions number one sinner. Surely Jesus could keep better company than this!

Beyond this there were the connotations of dining together. Here there are layers of implications, most notably the Jewish food laws. Israel was given very clear guidelines regarding food that was clean and unclean, and by extension these served as important identifying markers of those people who belonged to God. Almost certainly these “sinners” with whom Jesus were not the kind of people who observed these laws — they were not God’s people!

Moreover, dining was considered in that society — as still in our society somewhat — to imply and/or create a certain social bond. Dining together is a kind of intimacy. Neither they nor we tend to share our meals, especially at home, with just anyone. This is a time for family and close friends — or for friends whom we want by this gesture to become close. There is a hint of this in Psalm 41:9, where the treachery of Judas is highlighted by the fact that he was our Lord’s own table companion. All that is to say that to dine with sinners is to imply a kind of friendship and intimacy that is surely improper.

Further, meals in the Old Testament often had religious overtones — meals prescribed to be partaken in the presence of the Lord, ceremonial meals in which God’s people celebrate before him. And there are often connotations of treaty-making and such. Meals throughout the Old Testament are often to be understood in terms more significant than mere nourishment.

And so meals were not to be regarded lightly. Dining with someone has certain unavoidable social connotations.

It was in this kind of social understanding that Jesus just did not fit. He was not careful enough socially. His eating habits fell far short of expected standards. It seemed he would eat with anyone. Indeed, he seemed to enjoy it! It was at his own initiative he ate with Zacchaeus, the chief sinner of all people. And in doing so he pushed the limits of social respectability and even of what was considered to be biblical godliness. And in all this he gained a reputation. There is no other way to say it — this was just scandalous.

The Point

We are left to wonder, then, not only why Jesus would do this but why the Evangelists would want to record it all for us. Why would all three synoptics make a point to tell us of something so scandalous of Jesus? And why or how could Jesus defend such actions? Clearly, Jesus’ actions were symbolic, and clearly there is a point being made. What is it?

First, these scenes are a little picture of the big picture.

From the beginning of sin there has been hope of reconciliation with God. God promised that the seed of the woman would come to destroy the tempter. He would come from Noah’s family, through Shem, through Abraham, through Judah, through David. He would come to rule and deliver God’s people from sin. He would be a king and a priest and a prophet. He would restore us to God. The promise is unfolded and expanded and fanned into a blaze all throughout the Old Testament. “He’s coming!” is the note that marks the whole of the older revelation. “He’s coming!”

When we turn to the Gospels the note is quite different. Now it is “He’s here!” And in the arrival of Jesus God comes good on his long promise. And the point of it all is that he has come as savior. “He shall save his people from their sins.” “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord.” “Now my eyes have seen your salvation!” History has reached its high point in the incarnation of Jesus. This is how Paul summarizes the event: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners!” That is to say, the incarnation has sin as its occasion and redemption as its goal. Jesus has come to rescue sinners.

And these scenes of Jesus eating at the table with sinners are but little pictures of this big picture. This is how Jesus characterizes it all himself. In his parable of the banquet with the surprising guest list, it is certain that we are to understand “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” in metaphorical terms. Jesus is speaking of helpless, lost sinners brought to the table of grace. In Luke 19:10, after being criticized for eating with Zaccheaus Jesus says, “Now salvation is come to this house! For the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost.” Similarly, the criticism of Jesus in Luke 15:2 — “This man receives sinners and eats with them! — provides the whole setup for that three-fold parable that climaxes in the scene of the father throwing a banquet for his rebel son who has repented. And Jesus stresses the point — this is what it is like in heaven when a sinner repents!

And perhaps most graphic of all, in Mark 2:15f = Luke 5:31f, when Jesus is criticized for eating with Levi and other tax collectors and sinners, his whole defense is to say that he has come for just such people. “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. Those who are well do not need a doctor. These people are indeed sick with sin. And now the doctor is in!”

And all this fits very well into the larger famous Lukan theme of Jesus’ compassion for and mission to society’s rejects and outcasts.

If we think in terms of the big picture, indeed, we will not ask why Jesus would eat with sinners. We will ask “Why would Jesus not eat with sinners?” This is the whole reason for his coming, to bring sinners to the table of grace in fellowship with God. Jesus is not ashamed of this. He wants us to see this. This is just the kind of people he has come to save! Of course he eats with sinners!

Moreover, Jesus is not somehow dirtied or contaminated by this contact with sinners. It may be that one rotten apple spoils the whole bunch, but that’s just not how it works in this case. For example, when that woman with the issue of blood reached to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment, outcast and ceremonially unclean as she was, it was not Jesus who contracted defilement. Rather, the woman received healing grace. The “contamination” ran the other direction. So also when Jesus clutched the man with leprosy, that ceremonial uncleanness did not pass to Jesus. Rather, the man himself was made clean. So also here, in his association with Levi and Zacchaeus and other sinners our Lord is not dirtied by it. He has come to save and restore just such people.

This is a remarkable thing. But it is simply the story of the gospel. It is the story of the Bible. And it is our own story also, is it not? It seems to me that it ought to strike us each time we take of the Lord’s table — “What an unlikely thing it is that I should be here dining with this King!”

Second, these scenes are a little picture of a yet bigger picture. That is, they are an anticipation and foretaste of a banquet yet to come.

The Old Testament prophets often portray the coming kingdom in terms of a banquet, feasting, and an abundance of food. And often this banquet is said to be spread not for Israel only but for the nations. Most importantly here, perhaps, is Isaiah 25:6-7.

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.  And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations.

Perhaps more memorable is Isaiah 55:1-2.

 Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.

And we find this also in the New Testament — in Revelation 19, for example, where we read of the great marriage supper of the Lamb at the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. The great hope of the ages is that our Lord will return for us, and when he does, all the redeemed of all the ages from all points on the compass will dine in joyous festivity in his presence. Whoever you are, whatever your background, wherever you have been, and yes, whatever you have done — you may in Jesus dine at the table of grace, with all its lavish provisions. Click To Tweet

So also in these dinner scenes recorded in the Gospels. In Luke 14:15 a guest at the meal says, “Blessed is he who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God!” This, in turn, prompts Jesus to speak his parable of the startling guest list. “Bring in “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” the host commands. “Go out into the lanes of the town and then into the highways outside of town (those who have no previous acquaintance with the King) — compel them to come in!” So also, Jesus says, “Many will come from the east and the west and recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into outer darkness.” “Tax collectors and sinners will enter before you!”

That is to say, not only are these scenes symbolic of the kingdom, but it is a surprising concept of the kingdom at that! In the end, in that great day of rejoicing in the presence of Christ, the guest list might now be what you have thought! It is not for those who think they deserve to be there. All gathered there will be lost, helpless, rebel sinners — rescued by the blood of Christ and brought in through of the offer of his grace, confessing their ill-desert and the all-sufficiency of Christ.

These scenes, then, tell us that in Jesus this eschatological feast is anticipated and in fact already begun. These small settings are a picture of a larger reality. In Jesus, the joys of God’s salvation may be had freely. Whoever you are, whatever your background, wherever you have been, and yes, whatever  you have done — you may in Jesus dine at the table of grace, with all its lavish provisions. And in the end, it will be a surprising gathering of people who sit to eat with Christ in the kingdom.

Our Lord’s social standards did not measure up to the norm. But in that criticism — “This man receives sinners and eats with them! — they proclaimed our only hope.

Fred G. Zaspel

Fred G. Zaspel (PhD, Free University of Amsterdam) is one of the pastors at Reformed Baptist Church in Franconia, PA. He is also the executive editor of Books At a Glance and Adjunct Professor of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books including The Theology of B. B. Warfield and Warfield on the Christian Life.

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