Eating seems to have been a rather large part of Jesus’ ministry, and many criticized him for it. They compared him to John the Baptist, who seemed more authentically pious. Not that they were entirely consistent. John the Baptist was a bit too strange. They thought he had a devil. Like a bunch of children, they wouldn’t dance to a merry tune or mourn to a dirge, replied Jesus to the charge of being a glutton and drunkard.
We’re in the series “Stories of Jesus and the Character of God,” looking at a few episodes of Jesus’ journey from Temptation to Cross. The whole series aims to find in Jesus clues to what God is like. This is the 15th in the series. Developing Table of Contents for the series here.
Some of Jesus’ most characteristic teachings come in the context of a meal. While dining he accepts the “sinful” woman who washes his feet with her tears. At another meal he notices and criticizes the custom of seating at a banquet according to rank and vying for the places of honor.
Glutton and drunkard, really?
The gospels report many occasions in which Jesus eats at someone’s home. Most of the stories we have put the meal in the home of a rich person. There are Zaccheus (a tax collector), a synagogue official, Levi (another tax collector), a Pharisee, a “leading” Pharisee.
Jesus must have eaten at poor people’s homes, too. Some critics scolded Jesus for eating with tax collectors and “sinners,” often a code word for the poor. Poor people could not afford the time, effort, and education to know, much less follow, all the rules as interpreted by the Pharisees. Jesus offended certain sensibilities by eating with the tax collectors. They were hated Jews who collaborated with Rome. He offended other sensibilities by eating with the poor. They were merely despised.
Mark, whom Matthew and Luke follow in this, is entirely consistent with the tenor of Jesus’ ministry in telling two stories of feeding the multitudes. (I discussed the reason for the duplication in a previous post.) The theme of eating a meal is strong in Jewish religious practice, from the Passover tradition to the obligation of hospitality to strangers. Jesus’ final gift, himself as food, continues those traditions. I like to think Jesus may have thought about the hospitality obligation in reverse. It’s also a kindness to accept hospitality from another. Jesus went so far as to invite himself over to Zachaeus’ place. (Luke 19:1-10)
Greatness in the Kingdom of GodJesus’ disciples also faced the glutton and drunkard charge. People complained the disciples didn’t fast the way the Pharisees and John’s disciples did. (Luke 5:33) But the disciples can’t fast while the “bridegroom” (Jesus) is still around. I think I see the early Church wrestling with the contrast between Jesus, glutton and drunkard, and John, the abstemious one. John’s and the Pharisees’ style must have seemed more devout, more heroically religious.
Jesus doesn’t criticize John for not joining the “wedding” party. In fact, he says that, up to now, there has been none greater than John the Baptist. But, he continues, “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Luke 7:28)
It’s a strange saying. It makes over, if it doesn’t totally undo, our idea of greatness. Jesus also called a child into the midst of the disciples. He said, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:2-4)
We call God great. Could God’s greatness be more like the child’s than the ones who called Jesus glutton and drunkard or even the ones we consider greatest? When we think of great love, we tend to think of great sacrifices or difficult deeds, but maybe God’s love is like the love of a child—easily, blissfully enjoying something or someone. Maybe that’s how Jesus could say:
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-29)
Image credit: liveregnumchristi.org via Google Images