And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” – St Matthew’s Gospel
Last week, I had the pleasure of taking some friends – a family we have embraced, out to lunch. Picture the scene. Me in a suit, a mother and her two sons, all from Housing Commission, all with mental disabilities, marching into the local trendiest café in town. Their choice.
The eldest son, a young man we met lying on the pavement many years ago, lives in barely more than a squat and is visibly mentally ill. Verging on obese, his clothes haven’t been washed in a while. The others similar, suffering high anxiety and looking decidedly dishevelled. The son decided it was appropriate for us to sit in the very centre of the café and proceeded to order half the menu. He would dine out on this for at least a few days. Before eating, a small eskie was brought out, which contained an entire cleaning apparatus. We were to go through a noisy, ritual cleansing prior to eating. It was hilarious.
Driving home later, I reflected on the experience and the Holy Spirit reminded me of Jesus total identity with the lost, the last and the least. He seemed quite comfortable, thrilled even in the presence of outcasts. Make no mistake, we could feel the stares as we walked into that café. The waitress was short, quick as though she couldn’t wait to move on, to ‘normal people.’
I’m sure Jesus hung around such people at least partly because they had a story to tell, they were interesting, rich in the muck of everyday humanity. Our conversation was a delight, meaningful, authentic and genuine. They talked of growing up in poverty, facing hardship at schools, moving around, suffering the ignominy of mental illness; being slow meant they found it hard to keep a job, and usually had to live miles away from families if they want government housing. While they had perhaps become hardened to the attitudes and finger pointing of those around them, the blows still hurt.
It’s one thing to be running Bible Study in people’s homes, it’s quite another to be seen with them in a local café, full of trendy’s (like us). To be seen out, is to fully identify with them as friends, family even and so in turn to be stared at. Our labels matter so much to us.
Yet Jesus saw past all that and recognised people made in the image of God. He loved them, ate with them and saw many respond to his message. Our conversation around the table was also full of God’s grace, with the expectation that one day all of us were waiting for a life to come, a city built by the Father of Spirits, where festal gatherings with angels occurs, as Hebrews tells us.
What did I learn from my simple lunch? As a believer, I don’t really identify with the lost, the last the least as much as I should, or as much as Jesus did. That in fact, is where the rich soil of the Gospel lies, where Jesus is most likely to impact lives. Money, status it seems simply hardens hearts towards God. That I could do a lot more to ‘bring God’s Kingdom to earth’ than I do, to show love to those in need not so much by giving them anything, but by walking alongside them in full view.
Jesus’s Gospel is very clear as an example to us. The only people that he ever railed at, were the rich, the elite of his day. Their hearts hardened against God’s own loving Son, as they counted the cost of following him and decided it was too much.
The poor, the maligned, the sick though – almost without exception they came to him face down on their knees, with their hands up, hoping against hope that he would heal them, love them, accept them. How do we see ourselves today, who do we associate with? Is it Jesus’ Gospel you and I are living?