In the Jewish culture of Jesus’ time and place, this fraternizing with tax collectors was not the behavior of “a nice guy.” It was a startling, attention-getting activity. For in first-century Palestine, tax collectors were considered by their fellow Jews to be collaborators with the hated Romans; they were, after all, collecting taxes for their oppressors. What’s more, they were suspected of skimming off more than their share, as their “commission.” They didn’t have many non-tax-collector friends. And those other folks, the so-called sinners, were people whose way of life kept them from keeping all 613 laws of the Torah; shepherds, for example, whose sheep sometimes ate other people’s property. So tax collectors and sinners were unclean people, or, to use a later Jewish term, un-kosher. Eat with folks like these, and you rendered yourself unclean, unfit for sharing in the temple worship.
Another thing to keep in mind is this: in that Middle Eastern culture, eating with others was considered a very intimate human act. Sharing a meal could be a way of sealing a contract. It created and affirmed a close human bond.
So for Jesus to eat with tax collectors and sinners was egregious behavior, probably more startling to his contemporaries than his healing miracles. And the Gospels suggest that this was something he did regularly. He “ate around.”
His eating with tax collectors and sinners was really one of his prophetic symbolic actions. Like his choosing a donkey to ride into Jerusalem, or cursing that fig tree, or not doing extra fasting, or choosing exactly 12 core disciples, his unusual table fellowship was an action that was intended to support his message about the dawning of the Kingdom of God. It probably had something to do with the vision of Isaiah 25, which images the end-time reign of God as a great feast.
Notice that Luke’s version of this episode makes clear that Jesus is not simply being generously inclusive; as he says, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Enjoying Jesus’ hospitality is supposed to create the occasion for a change of heart.
I can’t read this episode without recalling that Jesus’ last act of table fellowship is the Last Supper, and that our Christian Eucharistic celebrations are re-enactments of that supper. There, at least weekly, we enjoy inclusion in Jesus’ hospitality, not just to make us feel happy at being included but to be invited to a further conversion of heart.
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