The Eating Habits of Jesus

by Richard Groves

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32


s strange as it may seem, it is nonetheless true that Jesus may have been killed because of his eating habits. Not so much how he ate as with whom he ate.

There was a well-known proverb in the first century-Jesus may have heard it. It said, “I saw them eating and I know who they are.”

There is certain wisdom there. Eating is more than a biological necessity; it is a social activity with its own dynamics and understood rules. One of the rules is that we do not eat with just anyone. Can you imagine anything more unpleasant or stomach-churning than sitting down to dinner directly across the table from someone you absolutely can’t stand? We don’t do that. We eat with people we are comfortable with, people whose company we enjoy.

That being the case, it stands to reason that you can learn something important about a person if you can find out with whom s/he shares meals. That was the wisdom of the ancient proverb, “I saw them eating and I know who they are.”

I do not know whether Jesus’ critics were familiar with that proverb, but they knew its truth. “This man receives sinners,” they said, “and eats with them.” They understood that the fact that Jesus made a habit of sharing meals with people who were on the margins of respectability implied an openness, a receptivity that was in violation of-and indeed might even be destructive of-the customary ways of structuring society.

They were right. Jesus welcomed all kinds of people. And his hospitality was a threat to the way society was structured in his day, no less than it is a threat to society as it is structured today, whether we perceive the threat or not.

Several years ago, I taught an introductory course to the New Testament at Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where I live. With midterm exams approaching, I offered a review session during the last week. Attendance was optional, and the atmosphere was casual.

After an hour and a half of reviewing their notes and asking for clarification of things they were unsure about, the students fell into a conversation about the portrait of Jesus that is painted in the Gospels.

Jesus is pictured as being comfortably open to people who lived on the other side of the boundary that declared the outside limit of societal approval: tax collectors, traitors to their country because they collected taxes from their own people for the hated Romans; prostitutes; Samaritans, toward whom the animosity was so intense that people from Jerusalem would rather walk around Samaria than through it, which was just as well because there were Samaritan villages that wouldn’t let you walk through anyway, not if you came from Jerusalem; lepers, who were compelled to live in colonies for the deformed and the dying, colonies which, ironically, became islands of community, for there Jews and Samaritans were welcome, their suffering and alimentation created a common identity that superseded religious and ethnic differences.

Jesus welcomed all these people, and he ate with them.

One student was trying to make the point that we have become so accustomed to reading familiar Bible stories that we no longer see how really radical Jesus was. But she was having no success whatsoever with one of her classmates who was just not getting the point. Finally, in exasperation, the first student said, “Let me put it this way-would your mother want you hanging out with Jesus?”

In any other circumstance a question like that might have led to a knee-jerk, pious response. I halfway expected someone to break out it in the first verse of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

Surprisingly, it elicited a sober reply. “I’m not sure I would want to hang out with him,” said the student to whom the question had been directed. “I would like to think I would. But there are people who do the kind of things Jesus did and say the things he said and take the stands he took, and I don’t hang out with them. What makes me think I would hang out with him?”

It was one of those rare moments of troubling honesty, reminding us that Jesus is a threat to the way our own society is set up just as he was a threat to they way his own world was structured.

It is not surprising then that some members of the religious establishments found Jesus very threatening. “So,” Luke writes, “Jesus told them his parable.” He told them –the Pharisees and scribes-the parable. It is always important to figure out at whom Jesus was aiming a particular story. It makes a lot of difference who its target was.

Luke wants us to know that the parable of the prodigal son was told by Jesus to the Pharisees and scribes in direct response to the criticism that he was associating with and welcoming the wrong kind of people.

What did the story say to those who were so bitterly critical of Jesus’ table companions?  And what does it say to us?

I will tell you what I think. But first I need to take a moment to point out some things about the larger setting of our text. Jesus actually told three parables in response to the criticism that was leveled by the Pharisees and scribes, not just one; there was a story about a lost sheep and another about a lost coin, as well as the parable about the lost son.

There are similarities between the stories. In each parable something that was valued was lost. In one parable it was a sheep, in another parable it was a coin, in the third parable it was a son.

In each parable that which was lost was found. In the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin the owner took aggressive actions and searched until s/he found what was lost. In the parable of the prodigal son the father waited patiently until the son came to his senses and returned of his own will.

And in each parable there is an invitation to rejoice. Embedded in each parable is the question, “Will you rejoice with me?” The shepherd says to his friends and neighbors, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.” The woman calls her friends and says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost.” The father sends word to his older son, saying, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.” In other words, “Rejoice with me, for my son who has been lost is found.”

I am convinced that that question-Will you rejoice with me?-is the key to understanding what Jesus was saying to his critics. More importantly, it is the key to discovering what the parable has to say to us today.

Not long ago I received a late night telephone call from two old friends. One of the great pains of their life, perhaps the greatest pain, had been the alienation of their only son, now grown. Mental illness and drugs had combined to damage seriously not only the young man’s potential in life but also his relationship with his family. He had broken off all communication with them.

My friends heard by way of the grapevine that their son was living on the streets. Their hearts grieved, and they worried themselves sick, but they could do nothing. Then one night, out of the blue, the telephone rang and they heard their son’s voice on the other end of the line. My friends were ecstatic, to the point of tears, as they described the conversation-how it seemed like old times, how they exchanged jokes, how their son told them he loved them, how they had made plans to get together for the first time in five years.

How insensitive would I have been if, after my friends had finished their joyous story, I had said, “Could I get back to you? I have a call holding.” Imagine a friend calling with the wonderful news that a lost child had come home and asking you, “Can you come over? We’re celebrating! As soon as you can get here!” Can you imagine being so callous that you would answer that you have something else to do, perhaps some other time? Yet that is the accusation Jesus hurled at the religious leaders in the parable of the prodigal son:

“God’s runaway children-some who left of their own free will and their own foolish choices, others who left because you made them leave, saying they did not fit your definition of what God’s children should look like and act like and think like-are coming home. Wounded and battered in body and spirit, bearing in their souls the scars of lifetimes of hard living, abuse, ostracism, they are not a pretty sight. Their wounds have begun to heal. But they have a long way to go.

“And they want to get well at home. It is a great day. In heaven the angels are singing. God asks you, the spiritual leaders of our people, ‘Will you rejoice with me? Will you share my joy? My children are coming home.’ And there you stand out in the field, all by yourself, away from the home place, away from where the family is gathered, with your arms folded, head back, chin tucked in, and ‘No!’ written all over your face. You cannot or you will not rejoice over the return of God’s runaway children.

That’s what Jesus said to his cultured despisers in that warm, comforting little story that we know so well and find so inoffensive.

And that is what he is saying to us, his church, today. God’s children are coming home from their long, self-destructive exile. In heaven the angels are singing. And on earth God is asking, “Will you rejoice with me? I don’t ask you to understand everything. I don’t ask you to approve of everything they have done. I just want to know whether you can rejoice with me that some of my children are coming home.”

Too many times in the past, the church has responded as the older brother responded. Even in our own time, the church is often found standing out in the field, away from the home place, away from where God’s family is gathering, with its arms folded, its head thrown back in defiance, and a big “No!” written across its face.

Not to some supposed political agenda, but to real live, flesh-and-blood, brothers and sisters in Christ, who have faces and stories, and to Christ himself, who said that whenever we welcome the stranger, even if the stranger is one of our own, we welcome him.

Jesus often referred to the kingdom of heaven as a banquet to which the elite of society had been invited. But those who received invitations could not rejoice with the host over his good fortune; they had other, more important things to do. So the host sent invitations into the streets, to beggars and homeless people, and he welcomed them into his home and around his table.

In Jesus’ day those who came in from the highways and hedges were prostitutes, the homeless, lepers, tax collectors, notorious sinners. In our day, who would they be? People living with AIDS? Gay and lesbian Christians? The poor? Undocumented aliens? Do we rejoice that Gods’ children want to come home, or do we resent them? Do we do everything we can to make them feel unwelcome and unwanted? Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that the kingdom of heaven is the Lord’s banquet. Therefore, the Lord makes out the guest list-not us. All we do is deliver the invitation.

Are the social issues that face us difficult? Are they complicated? To be sure. As Ben Matlock would say, “Ain’t nothing easy.” But beneath everything-beneath questions about scriptural interpretations, beneath vagaries of denominational politics, beneath complexities of social problems-God is asking a simple question: “Will you rejoice with me? My children are coming home. Will you rejoice with me?”

How can we, in Christ’s name, say no, when the very word “amen” means “Yes!” In Christ’s name. Amen.

-Richard Groves is a minister in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. This sermon was printed in Sacred Seasons, Hunger Emphasis 2001, titled “Will You Rejoice with Me?”

Lift Quote

Jesus welcomed all kinds of people. And his hospitality was a threat to the way society was structured in his day, no less than it is a threat to society as it is structured today, whether we perceive the threat or not.

Finally, in exasperation, the first student said, “Let me put it this way-would your mother want you hanging out with Jesus?”

Luke wants us to know that the parable of the prodigal son was told by Jesus to the Pharisees and scribes in direct response to the criticism that he was associating with and welcoming the wrong kind of people.