In the biblical tradition meals were important occasions rich in symbolism. It was customary to ratify agreements or covenants at meals, and the sacrifices offered in the temple often involved meals. The figure of Wisdom invites those in search of wisdom to her banquet. Jews in Jesus’ time pictured the kingdom of God as a great banquet, sometimes with the Messiah presiding. The meal was an image of hope for the fullness of God’s kingdom.
In today’s reading from Matthew 9, we are told that Jesus ate with “tax collectors and sinners.” Tax (or toll) collectors were suspected of skimming off the revenues for themselves and of collaborating with the Roman occupiers and their Herodian clients. Sinners were those who displayed immoral behavior or engaged in occupations that precluded them from observing all the precepts of the Mosaic law. These were not the kind of persons with whom a pious Jewish religious teacher like Jesus was expected to associate at meals and elsewhere.
Nevertheless, Jesus invites a tax collector named Matthew to follow him and become his disciple. Then he shares a meal with “many tax collectors and sinners.” In doing so, Jesus was performing an “enacted parable” about God’s kingdom and his role in it. With this symbolic action, Jesus was saying that some surprising persons will be part of the banquet in God’s kingdom, and that only those who recognize their need for God’s mercy can hope to enter it. The Pharisees failed to understand Jesus’ symbolism. Their own fellowship meals, which were central to their piety and lifestyle, would not admit such persons. Why would Jesus, with whom they had much in common, eat with such marginal and disreputable persons?
In response to the complaint of the Pharisees, Jesus gives two answers. The first sounds like a proverb: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.” Observing that the sick need doctors, Jesus presents himself as offering spiritual healing to marginal and disreputable persons by reconciling them to God and setting them on the right path of wise living. Jesus’ second answer is a quotation from Hos 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” He presents himself as the agent of God’s mercy by offering those in spiritual need an opportunity to turn to God and enjoy the fullness of God’s kingdom.
Jesus had his greatest success with marginal and disreputable persons. His meals with them were signs of hope not only regarding God’s kingdom but also regarding the kinds of persons who might participate in it. People came to Jesus in the hope of spiritual healing and divine mercy, and they found them in him.