Jesus Ate with Sinners

A photographer, who is a Christian, reached out for help. “I have several gay friends, and they keep telling me, ‘When I get engaged/married, I’m definitely having you shoot the photos.’ While I’m honored by their compliments and love them dearly, I’m conflicted about whether or not I can, as a Christian, participate in their weddings as the photographer.” When her friends ask her to shoot their wedding, what should she do?

What did it mean for Jesus to eat with sinners?
A Christian college student at a state university wants to join a fraternity, but they have a reputation as a party house. He thinks he can be a witness for Christ in the house, but there is a lot of drinking and drug-use that goes on there. When they ask him to join the house, what should he do?

These are complicated questions that require serious reflection. One of the most common responses I’ve seen to these types of questions goes like this: “Jesus ate with sinners, so you should [shoot the wedding/join the frat/go to the party].” But is it really as simple as that? What, after all, did it mean for Jesus to eat with sinners? And why was it such a big deal?

The Biblical Texts

The Gospels record two separate instances where Jesus ate with sinners. The first is the calling of Levi/Matthew, found in Mark 2:13-17 and Matthew 9:9-13. The second is the story of Zaccheus (the wee little man!) in Luke 19:1-10. Jesus also had a long conversation, in which he presumably had a drink of water but ate no food, with a Samaritan woman in John 4:1-42.

Jesus was also twice accused of being a “friend of sinners” and eating with them in Luke 15:1-7 and Matthew 11:19. The final relevant passage is Luke 7:36-50, where Jesus ate at a Pharisee’s house and was anointed by a sinful woman.

What can we learn from these texts? First of all, in the three dinner scenes (Matthew, Zaccheus, and Simon the Pharisee), Jesus was the guest of honor. The respective hosts had invited him to their home to eat, where they would have (should have, in the case of Simon) shown him hospitality, which was a very big deal in 1st century Palestine. As the guest of honor, Jesus may have eaten with sinners in their homes, but he did so on his terms. In other words, the hosts were not just throwing any old party; they were throwing a Jesus-party. 

When Jesus ate with sinners, the sinners repented and became his disciples.

Second, when Jesus ate with sinners, the sinners repented and became his disciples. Matthew became one of the 12, Zaccheus made restitution to everyone he cheated, and the Samaritan woman evangelized her whole town. (There is no indication that Simon the Pharisee became a disciple.) For Jesus, table fellowship was a kingdom action with a missional intention – repentance that led to salvation.

Third, Jesus never called any of these people “sinners.” In fact, the only people Jesus ever called sinners were the people to whom Judas handed him over – the chief priests and religious leaders who turned him over to be crucified! (Matthew 26:45, Mark 14:41)

Who is a Sinner?

One of the most important questions we can ask at this point is, “What did the term ‘sinner’ mean?” When the Pharisees called someone a “sinner,” what did they have in mind? Because the Pharisees were primarily concerned with the purity and faithfulness of Israel, a sinner would have been anyone who flaunted Torah. “Sinner” would have been synonymous with “impure” or “unclean.” Anyone who did not strictly adhere to the Law of Moses would have been a sinner. More importantly, anyone who fellowshipped with a sinner would have become guilty, or unclean, by association. At the table, their impurity would have extended to you. Out of faithfulness to God and an obsessive drive for purity, a Pharisee would have never eaten with a sinner.

The only people Jesus ever called “sinner” were the chief priests and religious leaders who had him killed.

Jesus, on the other hand, did not fear that he would become impure or guilty by association with sinners. While he never said that “sinners” weren’t sinners, he also never reinforced the Pharisaical name-calling and us-versus-them mentality. For Jesus, it was never us-versus-them; it was always me-for-you. While Jesus maintained the lines of moral behavior (and, in fact, drew them even tighter than anyone else), he obliterated the lines of the kingdom drawn by the Pharisees. Through his table fellowship, Jesus demonstrated that the kingdom belonged to the repentant, not to the pure. The people getting in were the ones who were supposed to be left out, and the ones being left out were those who thought they had secured their place in God’s kingdom. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

Jesus didn’t fear becoming impure because he knew that no one could make him impure, unclean, or guilty. He was the living, breathing, walking temple of God on earth. He was God-incarnate, and as Paul would later say, all the fullness of the deity lived within him. No sinner, Pharisee, or Gentile could change that.

What Does this Mean for Us?

The first lesson we can glean from this is that, when “eating with sinners,” we must do so on Jesus’s terms. Jesus set the agenda with Levi, Zaccheus, and the woman at the well. He initiated the action, pursuing an encounter that led from brokenness to repentance to discipleship. Jesus wasn’t carried along by the personality or opinions of others. He did not engage in the celebration of sin, but pursued those who had been broken by it, relating to them in safe environments with grace and compassion.

We should follow Jesus so closely as he redraws the lines of the kingdom that the self-righteous think that we are redrawing the lines of morality.

The second lesson is that we have to change our mentality from us-versus-them to me-for-you. We have to become incarnational. Stop worrying about your purity! You’re already a temple of God through faith in Jesus Christ. No “sinner” or Pharisee or outsider can change that. Our calling is not to form a clean community of pure people, but to fill the cross-shaped hole in the world. We must lay down our lives for the “sinners” and the Pharisees in this place.

The third lesson is that Pharisees should think that we are engaging in and approving of sinful behavior, but sinners should know that we are graciously and compassionately inviting them into God’s kingdom through repentance. We should follow Jesus so closely as he redraws the lines of the kingdom that the self-righteous think that we are redrawing the lines of morality. Jesus’s table fellowship with sinners looked suspicious from the outside, but those who were there knew that kingdom activity was going on. Those intent on purity and cleanness, who live with an us-versus-them mentality, should think that we are drunkards and gluttons! But the broken sinners should know that we are people of grace and compassion.

So, then, what should the photographer and the college student do?

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