The Jews had particular rules about who could eat with whom as Jesus’ meal with Levi reveals. The Greco-Roman meals of the day specifically encouraged and were often framed by friendship as a means of social bonding. Thus, “the meal became the primary means for celebrating and enhancing community ties.” But for the Jews in particular, it is important to note that the dietary laws given in Leviticus 11 served in one sense to create a visible separation between the Jews and other people; these laws created religious and ethnic identity in very real and serious ways.
By Jesus’ day, Jewish legal tradition had added multiple layers of behaviors and requirements regarding what defined ritual purity to the dietary laws originally given by God. Thus, righteous Jews were not only to keep the appointed feasts and ascribe to ritual purity, they were to avoid eating with Gentiles and unclean Jews, as well as anyone known to be wicked, for example those associated with the reputed gluttony, drunkenness, and sexual idolatry of Gentile feasting. So we should not be surprised that, in the case of Jesus’ meal with Levi, the Pharisees and their scribes are dismayed to see a Jewish teacher flaunting their carefully crafted rules for ritual purity. Under Roman occupation, a Jewish tax collector was vilified for being nothing better than a corrupt Roman puppet. Consequently, eating with such publicly renowned sinners made one unclean, so much so that it was unconscionable to be a friend or companion of (com meaning with and pan meaning bread) such persons. It simply was not done. But Jesus intentionally, even provocatively joins these “wicked sinners” so marginalized by the Jewish elite at mealtime, using the meal setting to demonstrate the purpose of his ministry to love the unlovable, to call them to repentance, and to openly show the grace with which God “includes those the world excludes.”
From our perspective, the Pharisees and scribes seem excessively arrogant in their self-righteous exclusivity. But, we must remember that it was God who called his people to be separate, who gave them visible boundary markers like the dietary code to preserve them from the ungodly nations all around them. “Through exclusive practices [a] group differs from its social environment. [A] group uses them to practice boundary maintenance. In contrast, the inclusive practices are also practiced by the social majority and enable their members to integrate themselves into the surrounding culture. That means that every group that wants to be discernable as a group is in need of an at least partially exclusive ethos which functions outwards as ‘boundary marker’ and inwards as ’identity marker.’” So, the Pharisees and scribes, among others, were separatist for what they believed were very good reasons, and any Jew who blurred the lines of separation was, by association, himself impure. “The significance of the fact that Jesus would set the stage for the abolition of these laws in early Christian practice can scarcely be overestimated.” Jesus means to show the Jewish leaders that in their self-righteous comparisons to Levi and his associates, and because of their insistence on exclusivity at the expense of inclusive love, they fail to comprehend the rottenness of the fruit of their own obedience to the letter of the law rather than its spirit.
The Pharisees continue to badger Jesus and his disciples with inflammatory questions. Why didn’t Jesus and his followers fast like John? Why did they just go on eating and drinking? Why did they pick and eat the heads of grain on the Sabbath? (Luke 5:33-6:5). Luke gives us a clear picture of how deeply the religious leaders of the day suffered from spiritual starvation-so much so that they couldn’t begin to fathom the kind of nourishment Jesus offered. The Jewish leaders were so fearful of being contaminated by the unclean that they failed, in their blinding legalism, to recognize the pure, unblemished, sinless Messiah in their midst. It is an important lesson for us when we find ourselves mired in a “we vs. them” mentality. In such instances, we should stop and reflect on our attitude to test if our determination to be exclusive is blindly sinful.
In the next post, we will study the actions and attitudes of Simon the Pharisee during a meal to which he invited Jesus.
 Dennis E. Smith and Hal E. Taussing, Many Tables: The Eucharist in the New Testament and Liturgy Today, (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990), p. 31.
 Tim Chester, A Meal with Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community and Mission around the Table, 2011, p. 32.
 Michael Wolter, “Primitive Christianity as a Feast,” in Feasts and Festivals ed. Christopher Tuckett (Walpole, Massachusetts: Peeters, 2009), p. 172.
 Craig L. Blomberg, Contagious Holiness: Jesus’ Meals with Sinners, p. 39.
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