“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?”- Luke 5:29
Over the past 10 years, my colleagues and I have shared hundreds of meals with the Lighthouse family. Lighthouse aims to be a Christian community for those who have been battered and bruised by the storms of life. This means it’s not unusual; in fact, it’s normal to sit and eat with those who are struggling with mental illness, homelessness, heroin addiction, alcoholism, those recently released from prison, or those who have just been discharged from the hospital after a suicide attempt. It is a deeply humbling and transformative experience to regard as friends those for whom life has been and continues to be a living hell.
Now, let's be clear: while the food is hot, home-cooked, and often delicious, this is not a fine dining experience. The individuals you share a table with may, although not always, have poor hygiene and unique eating habits. Nonetheless, here, the beauty of the reign and rule of the Kingdom becomes evident: strangers become friends, the broken bring blessing, and the wounded find healing.
In a world that loves to build walls and drop bombs, a new community and family are being forged. It is a sacred experience; a family meal, a covenant meal in which heaven touches earth. In a world that thrives on dividing society based on class and wealth, this meal stands as a revolutionary act, proclaiming through experience that 'The Kingdom of God is at hand'— God's future has interrupted the present.
This contemporary experience finds its precedent and locus in the person and work of the Jesus of history.
When we turn to the Gospel of Luke, we see time and time again Jesus sharing a table with different groups of people such as Tax collectors (Luke 5:27-32; 19:1-10), Women (10:38-42), the poor and ritually unclean (9:11-17), disciples (22:15-20), and Pharisees (7:39; 11:37-54; 14:1-16). Furthermore, the parables of the lost son, lost coin, and lost sheep (Luke 15) are given as a response to Pharisees and scribes angrily complaining about his extension of hospitality to the wrong people.
In the ancient world, to eat with someone was a sign of welcome, friendship, and inclusion. Within this cultural context, to eat with someone is to extend hospitality and friendship to those who were excluded.
‘Jesus is tangibly extending God’s friendship to those who, in the eyes of others, are not righteous, have a low status, and are viewed as unworthy of having friendship with God.’ - Joshua Jipp
To eat, to have table fellowship with someone, points to issues of identity and acceptance and seeks, especially through habitual practice, to answer big questions like Who am I? What community am I part of? Furthermore, eating with someone isn’t just about calorie intake, but reinforces notions of kinship and covenant. For the first-century Jew, a meal, especially a banquet, may also be eschatological, where the banquet that awaits in the age to come is being tasted in the present.
Jesus once told a story about a banquet that links together eating with the marginalized with eschatology.
Luke 14:12–14 (ESV)
He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
Joshua Jipp writes,
‘In his mission to extend hospitality to others, Jesus showed no sense of fear of the stranger, worry about a sinner’s polluting presence, or desire to conform to societal norms. And yet all too frequently, often implicitly, attempts of the church to conform to the pattern seen in Jesus’ ministry are stunted or overwhelmed by its uncritical acceptance of certain societal stereotypes of individuals labelled as dangerous, risky, worthless, or pollutants… The church shares in Jesus’ table fellowship among sinners when we together are known as fellow friends and allies of tax collectors and sinners, the mentally ill, transgender persons, current and former prisoners, and all who suffer.’