There’s Eating With Sinners, and There’s Eating With Sinners

During his time here on earth, Jesus made a habit of “eating with sinners.” The authors of all three synoptic gospels make it a point to tell the stories multiple times, and they use these stories as a vehicle to draw a stark contrast between Jesus and the religious leaders of the time. Just how stark that contrast is, however, has been lost today as the modern Church stumbles over itself debating the foolishness of just how far it’s okay to go when we interact with folks in our day.

At risk, folks argue, is legitimizing or condoning sin. Everyone must know where we stand on every sin issue, or – supposedly – we are by default saying sin is okay. In short order, we find ourselves unwittingly on the side of the Pharisees rather than the side of Jesus.

Here’s how it went down back in Jesus’ day: Jesus meets people the religious folks have deemed immoral or unclean. Jesus goes to their house and eats with them. Religious folks enter, get pissed off, and Jesus rebukes them. It’s a good formula for a “speaking truth to power” kind of moment. But it goes even deeper than that.

When the gospel writers wrote these stories (for example, in Luke chapter 5), they recorded an even greater contrast in the Greek. When they note that Jesus is eating with these people, they use the Greek word katakeimanoi, which translates into the rich Jewish notion of “table fellowship.” Table fellowship was an extension of the vitally important value of hospitality in Jewish culture, and it was understood to be much more intimate than simply physically eating a meal. It meant sharing life with someone, entering into their world, showing you cared and showing you loved them. Table fellowship to the Jewish people, writes Craig Blomberg at Denver Seminary, “created intimate friendship, so it was reserved for those whom a person deemed the right kind of companions.”

According to the Jewish teachers in Jesus’ day, “the power of the unclean to defile the clean far outstripped the ability of the clean to sanctify the unholy.”

Sound familiar?

Jesus took that entire notion, said “Screw that,” and proceeded to have table fellowship with all the worst kinds of people.

So there, religious leaders.

But this is where it gets even better: when the Pharisees came in and got upset, they weren’t upset that Jesus was sharing table fellowship with immoral people. They couldn’t even see that far. No, the writers used a completely different Greek word to describe what the religious leaders were upset about: esthiete. Literally, to put food in your mouth. The physical act of eating while someone was beside you. Nothing more.

And so we get to the point of these stories. Jesus is katakeimanoi — having table fellowship with sinners, becoming intimately involved in their lives — and then the Pharisees come in and ask why Jesus is esthiete — physically eating food with them.

Did you catch it? The Pharisees, in their quest for holiness, simply did not get it. It’s like the gospel writers were saying, “These religious people could not possibly miss the point more than this.” They were mad at something so little, when Jesus was up to something even more scandalous that they couldn’t even see!

We miss the point a lot of the time today, too.

We put up walls, protect ourselves from the unclean, and expect others to do the same. In the name of purity and holiness we look suspiciously on anyone who would dare even esthiete with “sinners.” Meanwhile, Jesus is inviting us — expecting us! — to go so much further than that and katakeimanoi with them! Screw the rules. Screw this false sense of holiness and purity. Get down in the mud with people and show them you actually care about them.

It seems to me we worry so much about legitimizing sin, we miss the fact that we are delegitimizing grace.

We’ve somehow subscribed to this awful sin-focused “gospel” which forces us to care only about ugliness and purity. Instead, we need to become re-enamored with a grace-focused gospel which forces us to care only about people.

Somehow, after enjoying table fellowship with Jesus, I seriously doubt the tax collector got up, left the house, and thought, “Huh. That Jesus fellow didn’t say anything about my tax business. That must means it’s totally legit! Sweet!” No, I imagine he left that house in awe of being accepted, cared for, and welcomed as a human being. And because of that, he was changed.

It’s time we stopped worrying so much about legitimizing sin and lived our lives in a way that legitimizes grace.

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