What caused most scandal and hostility towards Jesus during his activity in Galilee was his friendship with sinners. Never had anything like it happened in Israel. No prophet had gone to them with an attitude of respect, friendship and sympathy. What Jesus did was unheard of. The impression that John the Baptist had left was very different. John had denounced sinners. He had reminded them of the punishment that awaited them, and had introduced a major rite of purification and penance to free them from sin. His activity did not scandalize anyone. It was what one expected of a prophet, defender of the covenant between God and the people.
But what Jesus did was difficult to understand. He did not speak of the wrath of God against sinners. On the contrary, according to him in the kingdom of God there was place for sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes. He did not go to them in the name of an angry Judge, but in a friendly accepting manner, in the name of a compassionate Father. He did not threaten them or urge them to undergo a baptism of repentance. He would invite them to sit at table with him, and he invited them to follow him. How could a man of God accept them as friends without first requiring their conversion? How could they join his movement without conditions for their entry put before them?
What shocked people most was to see him at table in their company. It was inconceivable in someone considered “a man of God”. No doubt it was a provocative gesture that Jesus deliberately sought which caused an immediate reaction against him. The various sources faithfully first reflect surprise: “What? Does he eat with tax collectors and sinners”? and then the accusations of those most hostile to him: “Look! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of sinners”. He does not know how to keep his distance. He has no shame. How can he behave like that?
The issue was explosive. To sit at table with someone is always a sign of respect, trust and friendship. You do not eat with anyone at all. Everyone eats with their own: gentiles with gentiles, Jews with Jews, the rich with the rich, the poor with the poor, Pharisees with Pharisees, the monks of Qumran with their community. A pious, religious man would never sit with sinners and prostitutes. To eat together at the same table is to belong to the same group. What did Jesus want to communicate? That he was on the side of sinners? That he belonged to the same group?
Jesus insisted on eating with everyone. No one should feel excluded. There was no need to be pure. It was not necessary to wash your hands. Disreputable people could share his table, even sinners who lived outside the Covenant. Jesus excluded no one. In the kingdom of God everything will be different. An accepting compassion will substitute an excluding holiness. The kingdom of God is an open table where all can sit. No need to gather around separate tables which exclude others in order to safeguard their own identity. The identity of the group of Jesus was precisely not to exclude anyone.
Probably there has never been anyone on earth who has proclaimed with such power and depth, the friendship, forgiveness, and acceptance of God of those who forget or reject him. His message continues to resound for whoever wishes to listen to it:
When you see yourselves judged by the law, know you are understood by God.
When you see yourselves rejected by society, know that God accepts you.
When no one forgives your unworthiness, feel the inexhaustible forgiveness of God for you.
You will not deserve it. No one deserves it. But God is like that: love and forgiveness.
Do not ever forget this. Believe this Good News.
Again Jesus told a parable. This time about a man who organized a big dinner. Naturally he did not invite anyone except his friends, rich and influential people. But when the day came and his servant called them to attend the banquet, they all made excuses and left him alone. The Master reacted in a surprising way. “There will be a banquet in spite of everything”. It occurred to him to invite those whom nobody invites: “the poor, the crippled and the lame” who lived in the slums of the city. As there was still room for more he sent his servant outside the city to the country roads and lanes to call those who lived close to the walls: foreigners, vagrants, undesirable people, those who were expelled from the city at night when the gates are closed.
Those who listened to Jesus could not believe their ears. A banquet open to all without previous lists of guests? A table open to all who do not exclude themselves: men and women, the pure and the impure, the holy and criminals eating together in the company of God? Is it true that at the end there is a feast in which God will be surrounded by the poor, sinners and undesirable people? Is it true that God is preparing a grand final feast open to all who accept his invitation for he holds all as his friends worthy to share his table?
Author: José Antonio Pagola
Read more in: Jesus. An Historical Approximation and Following in the Footsteps of Jesus by José Antonio Pagola. Published by Convivium Press.