Often I think we have this image of Jesus in our mind as this peaceful, gentle, pious and soft-spoken person. I’m sure at times, probably most times, Jesus was a very tender person, just like each of us. But without a doubt, Jesus was also a bit of a trouble-maker, a rabble rouser, a rebel. In fact the history books kept by the Romans say that he was put to death because he caused serious public disturbances. He was actually executed as a political agitator.
He was not some laid back, easy-going fella – at least not all of the time. But rather, he fought very courageously for what he believed in and people were so outraged by what he taught, his message about God was so counter-cultural, that in the end it got him killed. The Religious leaders of Jesus’ day, called the Scribes and Pharisees in the bible, taught that God was very concerned with the 613 religious laws of the day everyone was to know them and follow them perfectly and if you didn’t, God was very judgmental and a bit scary.
But Jesus thought differently. Jesus was sent to tell us the good news that no sin that we could ever commit could ever be bigger than God’s love for us. The whole of the Gospel message is that God loves us without boundary or breaking point, without exception. Not because of who WE are or how good we are, but rather because of who GOD IS.
One of my very favorite TV shows of all times is The Simpsons. In one episode the main character, the loveable oaf of a father, Homer, discovers that he only has 24 hours to live after being accidentally poisoned by eating a badly prepared blowfish. So, he does what I suspect most of us would do with his precious remaining hours – he makes a list of everything he would like to do on his last day of life.
In the show, we (the viewers) hear his thoughts, and we learn a lot about Homer in the way he prioritizes his day. After deciding against his first ideas of hang gliding and telling off his boss he ends up spending his last day, teaching his 10-year-old how to shave, spending time with his wife, listening to his daughter play her saxophone, and making his other infant daughter a videotape of his wise advice so she would know what her father was like.
Some good choices, AND some very telling choices about what kind of person Homer is and what he holds most dear. Truly, what could be more telling about a person than how they would choose to spend their last 24 hours of life? (think about it a minute…if you knew you were going to die tomorrow, how would you spend your last 24 hours of life? This is very telling about what you value and think is important.)
So too with Jesus. The way in which Jesus chooses to spend his last 24 hours is very telling. Very significant. So what does Jesus do this final night before his death? He throws a dinner party – and this is something that Jesus did so often that in the gospels many people call him a glutton and a drunkard. The full meaning of meal sharing is not really understood by Americans of today. In Jesus’ time to share a meal with someone was an invitation to friendship. To invite someone to dinner in the 1st century was to say “I want to be your close friend.”
What made Jesus different is that it was considered breaking the law to share food with people who were poor, or beggars, homeless, sick, or those who didn’t have respectable jobs or worked for the Roman expire to collect unfair taxes, or who were prostitutes. To eat with such people – the outcast of society – was a very serious and dangerous thing to do; a heavy duty religious, social and cultural no-no – complete taboo to put it mildly, and yet, Jesus did it all the time!
Jesus’ practice of sharing meals with the “undesirables” – those who were different, or sick, or in other ways considered unacceptable sinners – caused a lot of anger among the religious leaders right from the beginning of his ministry because Jesus said he was doing this, breaking the law and eating with sinners, in the name of God. He was teaching with not only his words, but his actions.
With this practice, Jesus was not only breaking the law, he was undermining all that was being taught about God by the leaders of his day; he was changing people’s understanding of God and changing their Theology.
It would be impossible to over-estimate the impact that these meals must have had upon the poor and the so-called “outcasts” and sinners. By accepting them as friends and equals, Jesus had taken away their shame, their public humiliation, and guilt. By showing them that they mattered to him as people, he gave them a sense of dignity. He recognized them as special and valuable in God’s eyes.
Think about what it would be like if Pope Francis came to your lunch room and sat down next to the most unpopular, most disliked person in your school or work, maybe the person who sits alone at lunch every day because they are a little different. How would that person feel after the Pope came to visit just them and tell them how important they are? It would make this person feel very loved and special, right?
Well, so too with the people that Jesus ate with, especially because, like Pope Francis, Jesus was thought of as a man of God and a prophet, so they would have interpreted his desire of friendship with them as God’s approval of them – they were now acceptable to God.
So, thru meal sharing Jesus was teaching us about God’s boundless love for everyone – even those we sometimes label as unloveable. Jesus declared loud and clear that everyone is loved and cherished by God. So sharing meals with the most unacceptable people in society is one of Jesus’ most dramatic (and dangerous) ways he lived out the message he came to share.