After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.
Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (New International Version)
Eating meals together in the Ancient Near East was much more than simply taking in sustenance and having some social interaction. It was also a deeply religious affair of spiritual connection and sharing.
So, it was rather surprising for a lot of people, not just the religious leaders, that Jesus freely ate and drank with people of dubious reputation.
Tax collectors were a hated lot by the Jewish people. Most were Jewish themselves, and so, were understandably seen as traitors and turncoats, colluding with the Romans to squeeze as much tax money out of their compatriots as they could.
Jesus actually calls one of these despised persons into his group. Then, even eats with him and his Mafia friends. This is a radical and unheard of inclusion, completely reversing the exclusion tax collectors had from the Jewish community and synagogue.
The religious leaders, of course, want an explanation for such unacceptable behavior by Jesus. He gave them a simple answer, short and sweet: It’s unhealthy people who need help, not healthy ones. I came to help.
For the malady of sin with all its guilt, shame, and exclusion, a powerful remedy is the act of hospitality.
The word “hospitality” literally means “love of the stranger.” It is an invitation to accept another into our home that we do not know very well and befriend them.
Hospitality is what Jesus did. Because of our sin and disobedience, humanity we were estranged from God – we were on the outside. But because of God’s great love, the Son was sent, the Lord Jesus, to come and dwell among us.
Jesus invited us into the life of God. He is now standing at the door and knocking, and we are to invite Jesus in (Revelation 3:20). Christ has so closely identified with his people that when we invite others into our homes and lives, we are inviting Jesus in.
Keep in mind that for Matthew to invite Jesus into his life and home cost him time, effort, and negative attention from those not around the table. There was no grumbling or belligerence by neither the tax collectors nor Jesus.
In an ideal world, we always receive something back for our own work of hospitality – an invitation from the other person, or, at least, a simple thank you. But that does not always happen, and it cannot be the driving reason why we practice hospitality.
Hospitality must be a work of love that comes from a heart that has been touched by the hospitality of God. Our earthly hospitality is to be a form of saying “thank you” to God for his great grace to us. And that is precisely what I believe Matthew was doing with his own hospitality.
Complaining comes when we expect to receive and don’t get it. Yet, if you truly receive another person as though she were Christ himself, you will not complain but will rejoice in your service. Jesus has said, “Whoever receives you, receives me.” (Matthew 10:40)
In ancient Christianity, a concrete expression of love to other believers was providing food and shelter for Christians traveling throughout the Roman Empire. Many times, the traveling strangers were itinerant evangelists spreading the message of the gospel from place to place (3 John).
At other times, believers were deprived of some basic necessities due to the occasional waves of persecution that broke out. They were often poor and needy because of their situation, and of being different; and the townspeople were not typically hospitable. So, Christians had to rely on the love and hospitality of those believers they could connect with who had the means to help.
Hospitality is an important means of showing and providing love.
Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. (Romans 12:13, CEB)
One of the qualifications for church leadership is that they are hospitable.
An elder… must be respected by others. He must be ready to help people by welcoming them into his home. (1 Timothy 3:2, ERV)
There is a great need for hospitality in our world. Many people are lonely, isolated, and withdrawn, sometimes even excluded because of their mental illness or struggles with addiction. Being in a pandemic certainly doesn’t help that situation whatsoever. They have no one to talk to about important matters.
Hospitality cuts both ways for us. We are to invite the lonely into our hearts and homes; and the lonely are to invite others into their hearts and homes, instead of waiting for somebody to just show up.
Jesus fully understood that eating a meal together with Matthew and the other tax collectors was a sacred affair – communicating mutual acceptance, care, and friendship. This is why the religious leaders had such difficulty seeing Jesus eat with “sinners.” By eating with outsiders and those excluded from the community, Jesus was broadcasting his love and acceptance of such persons.
Our dining room tables are little mission stations.
When my wife and I were new believers, there was a Christian couple who often had us into their home. Both of us had learned some unhealthy relations through our families of origin. Here we were, not really knowing what a Christian family should look like.
Through hospitality, eating together and sharing around the table, we began to learn how a family dedicated to Christ lives. We learned life lessons that we probably could not have learned in any other way.
Jesus, on the cusp of his Passion, enjoyed a meal with his disciples. He said…
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28, NRSV)
One thing Jesus meant by those words is that, eating and ingesting the elements of bread and wine, serve as a very tangible way of understanding what life is to be like.
We are to take Jesus into the depths of our lives. We are to ingest him, that is, to engage in a very close and intimate relationship with him to the degree that the two of us cannot ever be separated.
The same is to be true of our relationship with one another in the Body of Christ, the Church. We are to do life together. We are to enjoy eating and drinking together.
We are to share with others, in a radical act of hospitality which emulates our Lord, not only our food, but our hearts.
Let your heart and your home be open today.
Soli Deo Gloria