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It has been said that Elijah was not only a renowned prophet of Israel but also possessed magical powers. Legend has it that once Elijah was walking through a town when he heard the sounds of a party coming from a very large house. He swirled around and instantly became clothed in the rags of a beggar. He knocked on the door of the house and, when the host answered, he took one look at Elijah’s miserable clothing and slammed the door in his face. Elijah swirled around a second time and was instantly clothed in the garments of a gentleman. He knocked on the door again and, this time when the host looked at his splendid attire, he ushered him in immediately. At the feast, there was a long table of food. Elijah went to the buffet immediately and began to stuff food into his pockets. The other guests all stepped back in horror to watch this strange sight. Then Elijah pushed more food into his shirt and poured wine over his shoulders and down the front of his attire. It was not long before the host became irritated and asked Elijah, “What do you mean by your horrible behavior?” “I came to your door dressed in rags,” replied Elijah, “and you did not invite me in. Then I came to your door as the same person but dressed in fine garments and you welcomed me to your feast. I could only conclude that it was not I who you invited but my clothes. So I fed them with your food and drink.” The people were so ashamed and looked down at the ground embarrassed. When they looked up again, Elijah was gone.
The effect Jesus had upon people was often similar to that legend about Elijah. In our gospel lesson this morning we see that in the eyes of many Jesus kept the wrong company. A tax collector whose name was Levi and fisherman were not considered high society in Jesus’ day. The fishermen who became Jesus’ disciples were considered to be part of the middle class in their society. Had they decided after a time that following Jesus was not in their best interest, they could have easily returned to their previous vocation. This was not the case for Levi (who is better known among us as Matthew) who is the focus of our passage in Luke. Levi was a wealthy tax collector. Leaving a profession like tax collecting was a life-changing event. Levi could not give up this vocation and return back to this job if things did not work out in following Jesus. Levi gave up his wealth, privilege and position to follow Jesus. With this thought in mind, the many accounts of Jesus’ interactions with others, none were more scandalous and dangerous than from our gospel lesson from Luke this morning. This account talks about the company Jesus kept around the dinner table. Even today we are still struggling with whom we want around our tables as a society. The charge against Jesus was simple. “He eats with sinners.” As we learn from our Scripture lesson, Levi was happy about his decision to follow Jesus and he wanted to celebrate. He threw a party and invited his friends who were also tax collectors. Jesus gladly accepted Levi’s invitation to join them and this created a bit of chaos among those who witnessed this gathering.
To those who felt rejected by others, Jesus became a person of inclusion. To those who regarded themselves as superior to others, Jesus became a person who seemed to defy the cultural norms of society in his day. Perhaps it is difficult for us to really understand the force of such condemning words as “He eats with sinners.” While today we may consider the Pharisees in Luke’s account of being self-righteous, in biblical times they were simply reacting as most people would in seeing Jesus eating with those who were considered sinners. In biblical times not everyone was regarded as a sinner. Only certain people were singled out for that special category of being a sinner. People with skin disease (lepers) the maimed, the blind, Gentiles, Samaritans, tax collectors and many of the poor and women. In this society, “sinners” were a fairly large number of people and apparently they hung around Jesus in masses.
According to traditional Old Testament theology, God did not welcome sinners and did not forgive them either. God embraced the righteous, which were those who kept the law, observed these proper codes of conduct and stayed away from sinners. Sinners were outcasts both from God and from society. For Jesus, this was more than just criticism; this was condemnation by his enemies. To the eyes of the envious and proud, Jesus’ willing association with those considered unacceptable threatened the religious, social and political establishment.
Jesus’ table fellowship proved to his religious contemporaries that they were wrong in their attitudes and beliefs. Table fellowship in biblical times and for the most part today in our society symbolizes acceptance. To eat with someone is to say, “I have no reservations about you, we are not different we are one.” Not only did Jesus’ table fellowship destroy that norm, people also began to question their attitudes about God. Through Jesus’ actions we learn that God does not reject sinners rather God chooses to embrace sinners. How well do we embrace sinners around us? An equally important question to ask is how well do we recognize the sin in our own lives? Speaking of sin, the story is told that at the close of a sermon on Sunday morning in a rural church, one of the members of the church came forward at the invitation of the pastor. She was noticeably disturbed and moved by her conviction of sin in her life. With tears flowing and a crack in her voice, she took the pastor’s hand and meant to tell him that her life was full of sin. But what came out in her nervousness was, “My sin is full of life.” As soon as she had spoken she realized her mistake and changed it, but in reality her first statement was the real reason for the second. Her sin was full of life and that is why her life was full of sin.
In today’s society we see a lot of well meaning people who look with disapproval on different lifestyles, beliefs and behavior that are contrary to our own. Throughout his ministry Jesus never seemed to make a distinction between those people normally thought of as sinners and those who disliked such people. He helped people recognize the sin in their lives and encouraged them to change their way; sometimes he was successful in these attempts other times he was not. Jesus never stopped trying throughout his ministry in reaching the lost. During Jesus’ time, there was a well-ordered society where people knew their places. In Jesus’ world the few who were rich and many that were poor knew their places. Jesus’ actions threatened the very existence of this well ordered world. If everyone were invited to God’s banquet, then the prostitute down the street would become our neighbor. The solider that occupied our house would now be considered part of our family. The tax collector that never forgot to call on us the first of the month would get to break bread with us. There would be no telling who would be sitting next to whom.
What would happen at Christ Moravian if our Youth Lunch which we have today had all sorts of people attending? Imagine if the tables in our Fellowship Building were filled with men, women, children, elderly, rich and poor, powerful and powerless people. People who live in expensive homes and the homeless would be enjoying fellowship with one another. Certainly this would be a powerful expression in expressing Jesus’ vision of God’s embracing love. Jesus throughout his ministry encouraged people to examine their lives and see the hypocrisy, the selfish ambition and spiteful thoughts that we all have and share with others.
In the words of our Savior himself, we must remember that he came among us to call sinners, not the righteous. Even when we believe we are good and have good intentions, we are still sinners. In the words of the apostle Paul, we all fall short of the glory of God.
How to be a happy sinner? The answer is to realize we are sinners and that while we try in our lives to separate sin in our lives, we should never separate ourselves from sinners.
The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.
February 10, 2019