Today in Mark 2:13-17, we focus especially on verse 16 “Why does he eat with such people?”
In Holy Communion the focus is often placed specifically on Jesus' death. The broken bread, a symbol of Jesus body broken on the cross. The wine or grape juice, a symbol and reminder of Jesus blood that was shed.
But I believe that we limit the full meaning of Holy Communion if we just limit it to a remembering of Jesus death. Holy Communion should be as much about remembering how Jesus lived as it is about how Jesus died, because how Jesus died in many ways was a consequence of how Jesus lived.
And that is why I have chosen our Gospel passage today, because it is a story that illustrates how Jesus lived his life. He lived his life with an open table.
Eating meals with people was a central element to the ministry of Jesus. And the thing that stood out about Jesus' meals, is that everyone was welcome. Both saint and sinner were welcome to eat with Jesus. This was in marked contrast with the Pharisees, and in fact most Jewish groups of Jesus day. For most Jews there were strict rules about who you could eat with and who you should not eat with. Anyone who was regarded as a sinner was not welcome at most Jewish meals.
For most Jewish groups therefore, the meal table was reserved only for the righteous and the respectable.
And this is what set Jesus apart from most other Jewish rabbi's and teachers. One of the most radical things about Jesus is that all were welcome to eat meals with him. Saint and sinner alike. At no point in the Gospels does one see Jesus refusing to eat meals with other people. Jesus is pictured eating meals with prostitutes and tax-collectors (the lowest of the low in Jesus day).
This practice of Jesus was a source of great scandal. The rest of Jewish society was deeply disturbed by this ..
We see it reflected in our passage today. As Jesus calls Levi the tax-collector to follow him, so in the next scene, Jesus is pictured eating a meal with Levi. But not only with Levi. The Gospel writer points out that there were a large number of tax collectors and other outcasts who were with him and we read these scandalous words “...many of them joined him and his disciples at the table”.
When the Pharisees asked his disciples the question “Why does he eat with such people?” It expresses just how disturbed they were that Jesus should do so. “Why does he eat with such people?” You can almost feel the sense of horror, disdain and disgust in their voices.
But Jesus didn't only eat with the lowest of the low. In Luke's Gospel, Jesus is even pictured eating meals with respectable Pharisees, the very one's who were most opposed to Jesus. He eats meals even with his enemies.
And according to Mark's Gospel, in the last supper, Jesus even eats his last meal with Judas, his betrayer present.
Throughout Jesus ministry, Jesus refused to place boundaries around his table. All were welcome.
And so it is intriguing that for much of Christian history, despite the example of Jesus, at Holy Communion, where we come to remember and celebrate the life of Jesus, most Church's have had rules about who can and who cannot attend. Rules about who can and cannot receive. The suggestion is that somehow, only the righteous are welcome at the table of Christ.
In our passage, when the Pharisees ask Jesus's disciples “Why does he eat with such people”, Jesus replies: “People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts”.
And so based on this text, Communion is surely not somehow only for the worthy, in fact, if Jesus is anything to go by, then it is most especially for those who are unworthy.
“People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts”.
In the 1980's there was a hit song by James called Sit Down. In the middle of the song there are some beautiful words that express something of the spirit of Jesus in this passage:
Sit down, oh sit down, sit down next to me...
Those who feel the breath of sadness
Sit down next to me
Those who find they're touched by madness
Sit down next to me
Those who find themselves ridiculous
Sit down next to me
In love, in fear, in hate, in tears
Sit down next to me…
And so today, if you feel unworthy to receive Holy Communion, then know that this meal is especially for you. All are welcome at Christ's feast of love, for it is only in the light of Christ's love that sinners can be made well. Christ invites us to his table of love saying: Sit down next to me.