Eating with Sinners FFOZ
The disciples of the sages often criticized our Master for eating with, associating with, and even teaching “the tax collectors and the sinners” (Luke 15:1).
The Pharisees and Torah scholars implied that Yeshua was guilty by association with bad company. They reasoned, “If He eats with sinners and fellowships with sinners and even takes sinners for His disciples, then He must be a sinner.” The Pharisees did not share table fellowship with those they considered sinful: “Let not a man associate with the wicked, not even to bring him to the Torah” (Mechilta). Rabbi Yeshua’s behavior baffled them. They considered the tax collectors to be traitors, Roman collaborators, who made their living through dishonesty and extortion while raising money to support idolatry. The so-called “sinners” consisted of many ordinary irreligious and Hellenized Jews, more-or-less equivalent to the normal secular person who doesn’t give much thought to religious observances or the Bible’s moral standards. Throughout the ministry of the Master, He seemed to aim sharp criticisms at the religious and the faithful while at the same time generously offering warmth, hospitality, and gentle teaching to the irreligious and lawless of society. To the religious and observant Jews of the Master’s day, it must have seemed as if Yeshua spurned those who strove to live lives according to God’s Torah while coddling those who lived in open rebellion to God. He was a friend to tax collectors, terrorist-like Zealots, fallen women, and Sabbath-breakers. The Pharisees were at a loss to explain His seemingly irrational behavior. He claimed to be a prophet of God (and more than a prophet), but rather than rebuking the sinners, He preferred to rebuke the righteous. At Matthew-Levi’s banquet in Luke 5, Yeshua attempted to explain His reasoning. He explained to the Pharisees that He had business with sinners and tax collectors in the same way that a doctor has business with sick people. He told them, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32). We should not read sarcasm into the Master’s words. He genuinely meant what He said to the Pharisees. Messianic Jewish luminary Rabbi Yechiel Tzvi Lichtenstein explains in his Hebrew commentary on the Gospels:
He kept preaching repentance and healing souls with his sermons, and of this, he said: “I didn’t come to call the righteous … but sinners. Therefore, I eat with the tax-collectors, for they are the greatest of sinners in the land, and I especially need to draw them near and restore them to HaShem.
This explains why Yeshua sharply criticized the religious people of His day. Despite their human shortcomings and propensity toward religious hypocrisy, Yeshua categorized the Pharisees among “those who are healthy” who do not “need a physician” (Mark 2:17). Therefore, He held them to the higher standard that they themselves espoused. He was quick to point out hypocrisy and pretence. However, he did not level His criticisms as a rejection of the religious; rather, He sought to bring correction where it was due. Yeshua Himself was, theologically and philosophically, a Pharisee. In religious discourse, disagreements are always sharpest and the most acrimonious when they concern two parties with otherwise nearly identical convictions. We generally don’t engage in arguments with those we consider outside of our own. That’s why we rarely see Yeshua arguing with the Sadducees or other sects of Judaism. It’s only because the Pharisees considered Him one of their number that they continued to pester Him, and it’s only because He considered them to be “not far from the kingdom” that He continued to engage them and to clash with them (Mark 12:34). On the other hand, when He was among the irreligious, He did not rebuke them as He did the Pharisees and teachers of Torah. He uttered no harsh words or condemnations. The irreligious stood outside of the domain of the Torah. It does no good to rebuke someone for disobeying a law in which they do not believe. He sought first to entice them to repent and return to obedience to the Father. He needed to bring them into the kingdom before holding them up to the standards of the kingdom. Rather than dismissing them as “tax-collectors and sinners,” Yeshua referred to them as “the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 10:6, 15:24). The Pharisees misinterpreted this behavior as hostility toward themselves and love for the wicked. They criticized Him, saying, “He hangs out with bad company.” The Pharisees and Torah scholars considered Yeshua to be one of their own. As we saw in the previous lesson of Jesus, My Rabbi, they hosted Yeshua in their homes and welcomed Him into the exclusive society of their table fellowship. They opened their table fellowships only with those who maintained a high level of ritual and moral purity. Moreover, the Pharisees insisted that the food they ate needed to be ceremonially clean at a standard over and above the Bible’s dietary laws. They adopted the ceremonial standards that ordinarily applied only to the priestly portions of the sacrifices and sacred foods. In addition, they showed scrupulous concern over the question of whether produce served at a meal had been properly tithed. If 10 percent had not been separated as tithe at the time of the harvest, they deemed the food unfit for consumption. Because of these high standards, the Pharisees considered Yeshua’s behavior scandalous when He ate and drank with commoners, irreligious people, and those of low reputation.