Eating with sinners

The gospel reading for today comes from Mark 2 and immediately follows the calling of Levi (Matthew) as a disciples. Later that same day Jesus is seen and criticized for eating with sinners and tax collectors. These incidents still deal with the question about whom God forgives and under what circumstances.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves, “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins? (Mark 2:5-7)

After the call of Levi, they retire for a meal: “While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners sat with Jesus and his disciples; for there were many who followed him.” (v.15) Eating together was a powerful symbol. After the “Gentile Pentecost” at the house of Cornelius, when Peter returns to Jerusalem, he is criticized by some Jews: “You entered the house of uncircumcised people and ate with them.” (Acts 11:3). He isn’t criticized for baptizing them, but for eating with them! This issue is also addressed by Paul in Galatians 2:12.

Some scribes who were Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors and said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2:16)  Jesus is asked to defend his behavior by observant Jews who regard him as someone sharing common values. We might also note that Jesus would have looked more like a Pharisee than a member of any other of the various groups in the story. The reason for the Pharisees’ concerns is that Jesus seems sympathetic to their religious cause while doing things that seem to undermine its foundations. If he were not a religious Jew, they would have had no interest in him.

This is necessary background to the simple remark: “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast.

Fasting in public view was a sign of repentance. The implied inquiry by the Pharisees is that eating with sinners is in itself a sin – something Jesus rejects. He calls upon the imagery of the wedding feast. To refuse to participate in the feast is to dishonor the bride and bridegroom; the host of the party will invite those whom he chooses. The sin is to refuse to join the feast, in other words, to fast. Consider the dishonor the brother of the “prodigal son” shows their father when he refuses to join the feast. He refuses to celebrate and rejoice in the one who was lost and is now found.

As Jesus had already noted: “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” (v.17)

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