Coming Home –  Jesus’ Meals as Images of Home (Week 3)

Preacher: The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, Precentor

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

Jesus loved sinners. Jesus loves sinners. A few verses before our first reading tonight from the 7th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as saying, “the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Luke 7:34)

Jesus seems to greatly enjoy the company of these tax collectors and sinners and this was best expressed in his eating meals with them. Luke’s Gospel contains numerous accounts of Jesus feeding and being fed, of Jesus hosting and being invited to meals, with the attendant disapproving comment we have come to expect from the religious leaders watching from nearby.

In this, the third sermon in our series exploring Jesus as the one sent by God to bring us home, we will explore the idea of Jesus’ meals as images of home, images of God’s embrace. In recent weeks, we have seen Jesus as one infused by the spirit, one who is utterly at home in God. We saw his mother Mary, overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, welcoming his son sent by God to turn the ways of the world upside down. Mary’s song, the Magnificat, leaves us in no doubt that God’s embrace is wide and reverses the values of our world. God, among other things, will fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty. (Luke 1:52-4)

And before we get all sentimental about this, it is worth our imagining for a moment the sort of people with whom Jesus spent his time, the sort of people in whose company he, in fact, delighted. The word for sin, in Greek, hamartia literally means missing the mark. In the Jewish culture, sinners were those who did not follow the Jewish law, the Torah. They were outsiders. One writer[1] said that sin is the failure to let God be God. Tax collectors were greatly disliked. Often greedy and dishonest, they collected indirect taxes such as those placed on the transportation of goods. And Jewish wisdom held that friendship should only be encouraged with those of the same kind. One wisdom writing states “Be on your guard and take care never to accompany men of violence. Every living thing loves its own kind, every

like [themselves] …Is a wolf ever allied with a lamb? So it is with the sinner and the just.” (Sirach 13-17) The just simply did not eat with sinners in Jewish culture.

Imagine Jesus sitting down to a meal with a politician you utterly distrust, with someone who has committed a violent crime, with a businessman whose ethics you seriously doubt. Jesus is not tolerating the strange company he keeps; he is positively revelling in it. Only when we can imagine ourselves being shocked by the meals in which he seems to delight can the power of these stories affect us, move us, convert us. Who would we least like to spend an evening with? That’s the company Jesus keeps. And worse than that. That’s the company Jesus treasures. It’s not that he approves of sin, far from it. But he will not allow a person being repugnant to society for whatever reason to stop him embracing them.

And on occasion they respond with embrace.

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner. (Luke 7:36-39)

Jesus knew. And he tells a parable that affirms that the woman, who has, embarrassingly, really, lavished such a display of affection for Jesus, is a sinner. But the parable makes the point that this woman, who knows she is welcome in Jesus’ presence, has much for which to be grateful. Jesus is almost ferocious is his comparison of the woman’s hospitality to him with Simon the Pharisee’s lack of hospitality. She bathed Jesus’ feet, kissed them and anointed them with oil. Simon offered no such welcome. Great love is expressed by those who are forgiven much. “Your sins are forgiven.” Jesus says to the woman. As if she doesn’t know. “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” (Luke 7:48, 50) Those gathered at the table with Jesus can only wonder who it is that can forgive sins in this way. Who’s the sinner now? Who is the one failing to allow God to be God?

Meals have special significance in Jewish culture. One scholar put it this way:

“In the east, even today, to invite a person to a meal was an honor. It was an offer of peace, truth, brotherhood, and forgiveness. In short, sharing a table meant sharing life. In Judaism in particular, table fellowship means fellowship before God. … [Jesus meals] are an expression of the mission and message of Jesus … anticipatory celebrations of the feast at the end time. …The inclusion of sinners in the company of salvation, achieved in table fellowship, is the most meaningful expression of the message of the redeeming love of God.”[2]

Sharing a table means sharing life.

In some of Luke’s stories Jesus invites himself to a meal.

[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycomore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ (Luke 19: 1-7)

Zacchaeus is excluded in two ways. He is too short to see Jesus above the crowd and he is yet another of the hated tax collectors. Not unlike the woman who pours expensive ointment on Jesus’ feet, not unlike the woman with the haemorrhage we saw last week who pushed through the crowd to touch Jesus’ garment, Zacchaeus goes to extravagant lengths to reach to Jesus. Jesus affirms the faith of both these women and he is affirming of Zacchaeus as well. He invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home. Jesus says that he “must” stay at Zacchaeus’ home, an indication that this is God’s desire, God’s purpose. Zacchaeus hurries down and is happy to welcome Jesus. The crowd grumble.

Zacchaeus immediately announces his intention of changing his ways– he will give back half his possessions to the poor and if he has defrauded anyone of anything he will restore four times. Two weeks ago we saw Jesus open his ministry in his home town, at the synagogue in Nazareth, on the Sabbath day with a quotation from the prophet Isaiah. “Today,” he said, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Jesus responds to Zacchaeus with words reminiscent of this great “today” spoken in Nazareth, “Today salvation has come to this house” he says. (Luke 19:9) Salvation for Luke is shown here in Jesus seeking out an excluded and sinful man, a man who in Jesus’ presence finds there the strength to repent of his sin. In this story we see that as Zacchaeus welcomes Jesus into his home, he finds himself welcomed into the home of God.

As in the story of the meal at Simon the Pharisee’s house, we find ourselves wondering who the sinner is now. Who knows themselves at home in Jesus’ presence now as he enjoys a meal under Zacchaeus’ hospitality? The resentful and grumbling crowd seem to be the ones who are far from home.

Sharing a table means sharing life.

And we have seen that, in the Gospel according to Saint Luke, Jesus shares his table with many who society would shun, many of whom we might think God would disapprove. God welcomes those we struggle to welcome; God, in fact, delights in their company. There is another thing, another side to this strange welcoming way of God that we might ponder. And that is that God welcomes and delights the part of us with which we struggle. Hidden in us, well hidden in us, usually, is something we have done wrong, or a way of being of which we are ashamed, perhaps it is pride or greed or resentment. Hidden in us is some aspect of us that we assume God would reject, we assume God would not want to share a table with, if you like. But these stories from the Gospel according to Saint Luke give us a hint of a, perhaps shocking, truth. These stories might lead us to wonder if it is, in fact, precisely those parts of us of which we are most ashamed that God longs to embrace, it is those ways of being that we wish we didn’t have that God longs to gather home, it is the very part of us that we would most wish to hide to which God says, “I must stay at your house today.”

[1] Gerard Hughes in God of Surprises

[2] Joachim Jeremias quoted in Eating Your way Through Luke’s Gospel by Robert J. Karris pp32-3.