There are few things that I appreciate more in life than enjoying a meal with good friends and family. As an intentional way of sharing our lives with one another, it is unparalleled. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a high pressure situation. In fact it can be quite a casual act (unless you happen to being to a Michelin Starred restaurant!). We invite whom we like and spend the time in whatever way we want to.
This wasn’t the case in 1st Century Palestine during Jesus’ lifetime. In that culture sharing a meal with someone had significance that it is difficult for us to imagine today. It was not a casual act. Rules surrounding meals were deeply embedded in the religious purity system that dominated society at that time.
These rules governed not only what might be eaten and how it was to be prepared, but also with whom one might eat. Refusing to share a meal was a form of social ostracism. Pharisees (and others) would not eat with someone who was seen as religiously impure.
In Matthew chapter 9 we read the story of how Jesus called the disciple of the same name, and then was invited to his house for dinner. Now Matthew, as a tax collector, would have been a social pariah. He worked for the hated Roman occupiers, and he probably ripped off his countrymen in order to line his pockets.
No good Jew would have been seen within a mile of Matthew if they could at all avoid it. They definitely would not have eaten a meal with him. The religious culture of the day would have seen that as a tacit endorsement of the tax collector’s behaviour. It would have made them as ‘impure’ as Matthew by association.
Therefore when Jesus accepts Matthew’s invitation to his house for dinner, he was doing something no other Jewish religious teacher of that time would have done.
He was putting relationship ahead of rules. People before dogma. Love over law. He was causing scandal amongst the establishment and destroying any chance of his movement being acceptable to the status quo.
More than that, by choosing to eat with these ‘tax collectors and sinners’ Jesus was enacting a powerful message about the Kingdom of God, and indeed God himself. He was demonstrating God’s unwillingness to exclude anyone who welcomes him into their life, regardless of religious taboos or societal expectations.
He was demonstrating that love trumps law every time.
This really goes to the heart of what Jesus ministry was about. This is the inclusive Kingdom of God he taught about and demonstrated through his actions.
Are there people we as Christians in 21st Century Britain struggle to relate to? Are there social groups that we consciously or sub-consciously exclude from the Kingdom of God? Do we ever put law ahead of love when dealing with others? Are we more worried about our reputation than those in need around us?
The church needs to demonstrate the love of Christ, not the law of the Pharisees. We have the most incredible, life-changing, joyous and liberating message to share- let’s not limit it’s reach!