A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on June 5, 2005.
Based on Matthew 9:9-13 (Proper 5, Year A).
Jesus ate a lot. Or at least the four gospels give us many glimpses of Jesus at meals. Some of these are famous like the Last Supper or the feeding of the 5,000. Others are associated with particular biblical figures like Mary and Martha or Zacchaeus.
On one level this makes perfect sense. Jesus was God in human form so, like you and me, he needed to eat to survive. And food is one of the great common denominators of life. Everyone has experienced hunger and the feeling of being satisfied by eating. We’ve all had particularly memorable meals, fancy meals, celebratory meals, meals that gave us food poisoning. But for the most part our meals are uneventful. We can’t remember what we had for lunch last Tuesday. We eat because we must. But it’s this universality of eating that makes the meals of Jesus so relevant. We can’t necessarily relate to walking on water or healing a leper but we can relate to food.
What’s difficult to comprehend in Jesus’ table encounters, however, are the rules governing who ate with whom in ancient Palestine. Who you ate with was a big deal in first century Jewish culture. There were all sorts of regulations and rituals governing who should or should not be at your table. Of highest importance for the Pharisees was that they would only practice table fellowship with other like-minded Jews. If you didn’t agree about issues of faith you were not fit to dine at the same table. There were also rules of cleanliness. So people of certain cultural backgrounds, like Samaritans, or people of certain professions, like tax collectors, or people of a certain ilk, like sinners, were never included at a meal.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus challenges this notion. And the passage from Matthew we just heard is yet another example. Jesus is once again with a group of his notorious dining companions referred to collectively as “tax collectors and sinners.” This group is often lumped together by the Pharisees as a buzz word for the poor company that Jesus keeps. Their question to the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners,” is a snide accusation. In other words, ‘what kind of crazy man are you following? Doesn’t he even know who these people are?’
Well, of course he does. And that’s just the point. Jesus is eminently aware of the identity of his companions. It is precisely why he came into the world. To break down these false barriers between people and lead even the lost to salvation. Jesus’ propensity to share meals with tax collectors and sinners are political and theological statements. It is a modeling of how true faith must be enacted in the world. And in the process, Jesus intentionally shatters the Pharisees notion of what it means to keep acceptable company. But to make things even clearer, not only does Jesus eat with these ne’er-do-wells, he also calls them as his disciples. At the start of this passage, Matthew the tax collector is called with those two simple but irresistible words: “follow me.” And so not only does this Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners, they form part of his inner circle. They are the ones called to spread the gospel of Christ to the world.
Most of us wouldn’t want Jesus to do any party planning for us. His guest list would most likely be rather suspect. And so we might found ourselves seated next to a homeless guy from the Bronx or a heroin addict from Yonkers. The prostitute from Harlem might spill something on us at the buffet line. And what would the neighbors say?
It’s easy to fall into the trap of sanitizing Jesus to conform to our own sensibilities. It’s safer that way. It’s less challenging to be a Christian when Jesus remains the kind teacher we remember from Sunday School. But to really know Jesus is to remember the company he kept. They were not all passive and well-mannered. Many of them were the dregs of society. The social and economic outcasts. The ones no one else ever paid attention to. And here was Jesus not just speaking with them but eating with them. Taking that bold step of sharing a meal with them, a step no one else was willing to take.
And so Jesus’ greater point in all of this is that divine command trumps human convention. Showing love and mercy to all people is more important than religious or social ritual. And he uses meals to model this to the disciples and the community at large.
For the Pharisees, righteousness means shunning the outcasts and associating only with “the clean.” This way their righteousness through their purity is maintained. And it’s hard to emphasize just how ingrained this thought was. The idea of sitting with the so-called tax collectors and sinners was absolutely inconceivable to them.
It’s a pretty closed system of righteousness. Building a wall around those who are deemed safe and shunning everyone else. By eating with the “riff raff” Jesus shatters this wall.
But amazingly some churches still don’t get the message. Our table fellowship, our community meal, takes place at our altar. We welcome all baptized Christians regardless of age and denomination. To most, this would be considered “open communion.” This policy is set forth by the canons of the Episcopal Church. And I agree that this puts an appropriate emphasis on the sacrament of baptism as the church’s one, true initiation rite. But there is a debate out there in church circles about whether this is truly a policy of open communion. What about the person who hasn’t been baptized? What about the non-Christian person who wanders in seeking Christ who feels excluded from our communal meal? Would Jesus have had any caveat or requirements before inviting someone to sit and eat with him? If we look at the stories of meals in Scripture, he clearly would not have excluded anyone based on something they had or hadn’t done. So it does beg us to at least look at our own practices and wonder whether some of the practices of the institutional church have wandered into the territory of the Pharisees.
As Jesus makes clear, when mercy is lacking, religious formalities are meaningless. As he puts it to the Pharisees quoting the prophet Hosea, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice. Go and learn what his means.” As a church we’re still learning what this means.
But just because we don’t have such strict rules governing our dining experiences doesn’t mean that Jesus’ meals with tax collectors and sinners are any less relevant to us today. Our social customs may be more subtle but they’re equally ingrained. We wouldn’t welcome an uninvited guest to our dinner table. We’d call the police.
Indeed one of the only places we even eat with strangers from the same table is at church. This meal of communion we share each week is different from our other meals. All are welcome to dine at this table. There is no guest list. No maitre d’ to tip for a seat. But of course, for us there are certain requirements. We welcome all baptized Christians…
But even with that communion in many of our churches is full of ritual that can be bewildering to a stranger or a newcomer. When do I get up to go? What do I do with my hands? Why do some people drink from the cup and others dip the wafer? Okay, I’ve received communion. Why is nobody getting up to leave?
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2005