Translation Canon Tony Dickinson
What a delicious meal the three synoptic Gospels report. Gathered there we find many of the groups who intersect with one another all the way through the Gospels. Around Jesus, obviously, there are his disciples; and then a lot of tax-collectors, friends of Matthew, since he was himself a tax-collector. They are always regarded as loathsome people. First of all because they collaborated with the occupying Roman power. They were quislings. And then because they kept for themselves part of the taxes they collected, as remuneration for their work. But these were the people who fixed the total. And everyone else obviously thought that it was always too much.
Next at this meal we have some sinners. They hadn’t sinned more than the others, but they weren’t Jewish, or they were on the edge of Jewishness, not particularly devout and not following well, or indeed at all, the Jewish Law. The action takes place in Galilee, and in this region there were not only Jews but also many pagans, from further afield. And everyone who was not Jewish, or not sufficiently Jewish in their observance of the Law, was a sinner, to be lumped together with the tax collectors.
And then the inevitable Pharisees, who harassed Jesus all the way through the Gospels and who themselves observed the law and reproached Jesus for eating with sinners at the house of a tax collector. They therefore were not invited to the meal – God forbid! – but were simply watching all these guests from afar.
As for these collective meals, people never knew for certain who was going to come. The doors were open, and anyone who wanted came. This explains why many invited themselves, and here we even have strangers, sinners, attracted by Jesus’ reputation.
Just as today meals, small or great, were the moment for sharing among friends. Sharing bread, but also words, friendships, solidarities, mutual support. It is sharing that creates community. A gathering that prefigures in a way the kingdom of God, which is often depicted as a great banquet. As Luke says: « Blessed is the one who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God. » Good reason, said the Pharisees, for not eating with sinners who certainly won’t be invited into the Kingdom, these strangers who come from no one knows where and who above all don’t live in the way our fathers taught us. What are they coming to do here? Who has invited them? Solidarity among ourselves, of course. But you have to know where to stop.
Jesus turns these arguments completely upside down and replies to the Pharisees: « It isn’t the healthy who are in need of doctors, but sick people. » The most important thing in these meals is to welcome the others, too, the people who aren’t well integrated into Jewishness, the sinners, and those unbearable people, the tax-collectors. You don’t need looking after. But those who come from elsewhere, who don’t necessarily believe what you believe, those people who are stigmatised, ill, vulnerable because they do not easily fit into this traditional Jewishness, they are the ones who need to be welcomed, to be allowed into the community. And Jesus sums up: « I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners. »
The apostle Paul explains well that faith makes one righteous. The evangelist does not contradict this. He simply writes that Jesus is not interested in the righteous but in all those who come from elsewhere, from another culture and who are therefore sinners and who want to be integrated into polite society.
Dear friends, we who think with Paul that, since we have faith, we are righteous, or since we have a little faith, we are a little righteous, let us realise that Jesus is not interested in us, but in all the others, the people who are sick, sinners, in the sense that they are not like us.
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