One morning this past week, as I was eating breakfast and listening to a podcast of the readings for the day, the Gospel struck me so profoundly that I was moved to tears. It was a passage from Matthew’s Gospel which tells the story of Jesus eating with a tax collector:
As Jesus passed by, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ He heard this and said, ‘Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9:9-13).
This passage is only five verses, yet it contains such richness. Jesus reaches out to a tax collector, someone who was marginalized and vilified. Tax collectors were despised because they not only worked for Rome, collecting taxes for the Roman emperor, but they also often cheated their constituents by requiring higher taxation than necessary and keeping the extra coins for themselves. By modern standards, tax collectors would be con artists, working the system to exploit innocent people. This is the type of person to whom Jesus says, “Follow me.” The tax collector, Matthew, gets up and follows Jesus, and then invites Jesus to eat with him in his house.
Jesus eating a meal with tax collectors and sinners cannot be undervalued. In his article “From Human Meal to Christian Eucharist,” theologian Philippe Rouillard beautifully encapsulates Jesus’ actions:
While accepting his invitation, Jesus transforms the meaning of the occasion… Having come as a guest, Christ reverses the roles and… invites and gathers the sick, the poor and the ostracized; the meal in which he takes part is transformed into a locus of healing and welcome (141).
In the simple act of eating with people on the margins of society, Jesus changes the meal into an event of profound acceptance and deep love. He does not ask that they leave their sinfulness at the door; he knows that these people need to be respected and treasured as all human beings ought to be treated.
The meal becomes more than just a meal, with the participants imbibing more than simply human nourishment. Jesus feeds spiritual hunger and quenches spiritual thirst. Real food and real drink restore the body. Jesus, as spiritual food and spiritual drink in the Eucharist, restores the human spirit and the soul. The tax collectors and sinners hunger and thirst for the food that Jesus has to offer of himself. This meal is really a sacramental meal, a human act with spiritual consequences.
When asked by the Pharisees why he eats with sinners, Jesus responds by asking them to learn what it means to desire mercy and not sacrifice. Mercy doesn’t require punishment before offering forgiveness. Mercy doesn’t mean conditional compassion. Mercy means unconditional love, means that we are all sinners, all souls on the same journey, all struggling to be holy people.
We are all tax collectors and sinners. We are all those people who needed to eat and drink with Jesus. We are all those who are sick and in need of a physician. But luckily for us, Jesus came not to “call the righteous but sinners.” There is relief in that; there is contentment and relaxation in knowing that the people to which he ministered were sinners just like us. His friends, teachers, and parents were people struggling to live holiness just like us. They were not perfect and we certainly are not perfect; we are people.
Perhaps we can learn from Jesus and pass on the love. Perhaps we can invite the outcasts to dinner. I want to reach out to the downtrodden people in my life and say, “You are holy, and you are worthy, and I know you are struggling, and I love you. Would you like to eat dinner with me?”
I think that I was moved to tears by this passage because I felt particularly unworthy to sit at Jesus’ table. I did not believe that I was holy enough even to picture myself sitting at dinner with Jesus. In these five lines from Matthew’s Gospel, I found renewed strength; I found affirmation and healing. May they do the same for you and may you journey on, refreshed and invigorated by the restorative food that Jesus provides.