DINNERS WITH SINNERS
There are few things that cause more torment to the soul than the experience of being marginalised by your society or ostracised by your family. While the causes of this alienation can be many – from disease to desertion – the fact is the sense of shame this kind of exile fuels is so agonizing that it’s almost beyond description. The soul craves and longs for homecoming above all things, so when your community or your family denies you that – for whatever reason – the fractures can feel at times as if they are beyond repair and the wounds beyond all healing.
There is really only one hope left when we find ourselves in such a plight.
It is ‘the kindness of heaven.’
But where are we to find such a thing?
On one occasion in his ministry in Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth was being hounded by a group of religious leaders. These men were legalists. In other words, theirs was a religion which was meant to exhibit the law of love but had ended up promoting the love of law. They saw the meal tables of Jesus and it caused their religious hackles to rise. Jesus was eating and drinking with prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners – the litter layer of Jewish society. Far from keeping himself apart from the “untouchables”, he was revealing himself to be the Messiah of the Marginalised.
The legalists were enraged.
“If you were the Messiah,” they sneered, “you would not be having meals with messed up people. You’d be spending your time with us, not in the cesspit of the great unclean.”
I don’t know how you’d have responded in that situation but I know how Jesus did. He told three stories – a trilogy in which each of the three tales ends with a party.
He told about a sheep that was lost but then found, causing the shepherd to go wild with joy and hold a party for all his friends – a party with a wet, wandering sheep at its centre.
He told a tale about a coin that was lost by an impoverished widow, who spring cleaned her house before she found it, and then held a party for her neighbours – no doubt holding the coin above her head and dancing extravagantly around her generously adorned meal table.
Finally he told a story about a boy – a rebellious and insensitive son who rejected his dad, sauntered off into pagan lands and selfishly squandered his father’s money on an addictive lifestyle; but who had an awakening in a odorous pig pen and came home, stinking to high heaven, to the open arms and the open table of his father.
That’s some trilogy!
And it’s quite a reply to the religious leaders who were interrogating and critiquing him.
But what’s the point that Jesus was making?
It’s quite simple.
God is not religious.
He is radical.
He doesn't believe in exclusion.
He believes in embrace.
If Jesus tells us what God is really like, then we can say with absolute confidence that he loves having meals with marginalised people.
He loves having banquets for the broken.
He holds parties for prostitutes and soirees for sinners!
He is exactly like Jesus.
And speaking as one who has known what it feels like to live the exiled and marginalised life, I can honestly say that this is a life-saving and soul-restoring revelation.
In the end, the open table of Jesus is not a meal with a message.
The meal is the message.
The open table of Jesus shows us the kindness of heaven.
It shows us how the kindness of God leads to our hearts being changed and our lives being transformed (Romans 2:4).
It reveals how the Father turns our shame into honour and our exile into homecoming, through his open arms and his open table.
And while some may never experience reintegration into the mainstream of society, or a welcome home by their own families, the kindness that emanates from the meal table of the Father's house is more than a comfort.
It is a homecoming.
Perhaps no one has ever put this better than one of my oldest and dearest friends Bob Stamps, in his much loved hymn “God and Man at Table are Sat Down.”
Beggars, lame and harlots also here
Repentant publicans are drawing near
Wayward sons come home without a fear
God and man at table are sat down
God and man at table are sat down.
This is what Christianity is really all about.
It is not religion.
It is heavenly kindness, shown at a meal table where we sit down with the love of all loves and find hope and healing in the kindness of heaven.