Dangerous Devotions: Jesus' invites the outcasts into his social sphere, cutting into our social comfort zone
Most take what Jesus says here in a self-protecting and spiritualized manner as if Jesus said, “I have not come to call the [self] righteous but [all] sinners [that is, those who recognize they are sinners] to repentance.” But this is not what Jesus said nor meant at all. “Righteous” and “sinners” are titles, stock terms, totally recognizable to the audience at that party. “Righteous” are those who keep the law of Moses, who have recognized status and position in and among Israelites; more narrowly to temple leadership and Jewish leaders of the Pharisees and Sadducees. “Sinners,” on the other hand, are the uneducated in the law of Moses, shepherds, outcasts, the disfranchised, Jewish tax-collectors for Rome, the working class, the poor, beggars, and slaves. This is made clearer by the Pharisees and Scribes pointing out, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
One cannot get around the social and cultural location embedded in this: The Jewish tax-collector for Rome, Levi puts on a banquet-meal for Jesus, who is to be the honored guest and symposium speaker for the evening. Jesus clearly states that he had come to call [probably the idea here, given the setting, "invited" to Jesus’ banquet-meal table], not the Jewish temple leadership, but social and religious outcasts. Jesus describes his banquet-meal and table as one of social leveling and transformation, along with the purposeful association of those considered outcasts and disenfranchised.
We tend to generalize and uproot Jesus’ terms the “righteous” and “sinners,” so as to keep our categories of people comfortably and neatly in place. But in the end, Jesus still upsets our social categories, for this is the nature of the gospel of the kingdom. We need, in light of this text, to rethink "church" and "evangelism" and the importance use of meal and table as a venue for creating new social spheres and acceptance.
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.