25 – The Accusation
And the Pharisees and the scribes were murmuring and saying,
“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
It is interesting to note that when the religious leaders are grumbling and murmuring, the accusation is not usually about anything that Jesus said, but had more to do with what he was doing. Several times in his gospel, Luke refers to their complaining.
Luke 5:29-32 Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were murmuring to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
Luke 7:33-35 Jesus said, “For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”
Luke 19:1-10 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. ….. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to murmur and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost!”
And then the reason for Jesus telling the three-fold parable in Luke 15:2 surfaces; “The Pharisees and the scribes were murmuring and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
But why would his eating & drinking with the irreligious be such an issue with the religious leaders? What was it that got their knickers in such a knot about this practice that they will seek his death in the ensuing days?
Was it because he seemed to disregard the Law of Moses on this issue? Deuteronomy 21:18-21 says, “If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.” Are they angry because this vagrant Rabbi is setting an evil example to others? Perhaps.
But there may be more to it than that. Kenneth Bailey[i] comments that “The rabbis were expected to gather followers from among those who were doing their best to keep the law… and at meals, only those insiders who attempted to do so were allowed to join.” He adds the observation that the Essenes had decided to withdraw into the isolation of the Dead Sea Scrolls community, for they believed that the Law of Moses could not be kept properly by anyone who lived in Jerusalem or among the “people of the land”. They practiced repeated baptisms to keep the pollution of culture at bay. The Pharisees on the other hand had decided to stay in the cities, but tried to find ways to minimize the contagion of the unwashed masses by washing their hands frequently to sanitize themselves against all such infection. Can you imagine them eating out of the same bowl with such people? Not a chance! Jesus, however, felt no such compunction, nor did he limit himself to eating only with his approved followers, but ate with those who were obviously unclean. If we are “known by the friends we keep”, then Jesus was obviously a sinner who rejected the wisdom that advised, “Do not join with those who drink too much, or gorge themselves on meat.” (Proverbs 23:20)
But something else is going on. It is interesting to note the word that Luke chooses, to identify the Pharisaic reaction to what Jesus was doing. He says that they were “Murmuring”. It is an evocative word that would catch the attention of anyone who knows their Old Testament well. This word is used almost exclusively and repeatedly to refer to the people of Israel at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. That miraculous moment was considered by Judaism as the great Salvation Event in their history when they were delivered by God from slavery in Egypt, and who were adopted as his special people, and given The Law as their prize possession. But when that story is told it is not only a story of God’s great act, but a story of the sad response of a people who “murmured” throughout the entire event. In Exodus 15:22-24 and 17:1-4 they murmured about what they had to drink. In Exodus 16:1-12 they murmured about what they had to eat. In Numbers 14:1-36, they murmur about the dangers of invading Palestine. Throughout Numbers 16 & 17 they murmur about the leadership of Moses and Aaron. When the Book of Deuteronomy begins, Moses identifies their murmuring as one of the besetting sin of Israel (1:26-28) as does the hymn writer in Psalm106:25 and Paul in I Corinthians 10:10.
What is this thing called murmuring? It is translated with many synonyms in our language. Murmuring is identified as whining, muttering, complaining, and grumbling, It flows from petulance, peevishness, spitefulness, and pettiness. It is one of the most unpleasant facets of childish behavior, particularly when it occurs in adults. It is usually the response of the powerless against their leaders.
But why would the religious leaders in Jesus’ day resort to such behavior? Could it be that those who had been the leaders for so long, are now seeing themselves displaced by this wanderer, whom the common people listen to gladly? Do they sense a threat to the Judaism that they have created, in this non-person from The Galilee? Do they fear that if he succeeds it may be the death or diminishment of what they have loved? What we do know is that they were discerning people. They could see early on, that this man and his followers were becoming so dangerous, that killing him and his followers might be the only way to stop this thing. For whatever it was that made them begin with murmuring, it will lead them to murdering. Jesus was an enemy that must be slowed down or stopped.
As we return to the story of the father and his wayward sons, it is interesting to note the whining in the voice of the elder brother as the father comes out to meet him. “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” This is his version of murmuring, and it places him in the company of Scribes and Pharisees. We do need to take a closer look at him, this angry son of a sad father. But before we do, we need to explore not only the audience that Jesus spoke to, but also Luke’s unique audience, which is no longer the Scribes and Pharisees, nor Publicans and Sinners, but Christians who are in two minds.
It has long been noticed that Luke appears to have a fascination with Jesus and meals. The other three gospels will make note of that activity in passing, but Luke makes a major point of Jesus dining with any and all. Here are the passages that attract our attention. The matters that are unique to Luke’s gospel are marked with an asterisk.
- 1:53 * In Mary’s Magnificat she notes that God has filled the hungry with good things and the rich have been sent away hungry.
- 2:41-43 * Three times we are told that as a 12 year old Jesus went with his parents to the feast of Passover.
- 3:11 * John the Baptist’s preaching included the note that the one who has food should share with those that have none.
- 4:1-4 When Jesus us tempted it is noted that he fasted for 40 days and was hungry, and that Satan tempted him to turn stones into bread, which Jesus rejects reminding us all that “man does not live by bread alone.”
- 4:14-30 * In his first sermon, Jesus is doing fine, until he reminds the audience at Nazareth that there were many widows in Israel during a famine in Elijah’s time, but God sent the prophet only to a Gentile widow. It is then that the congregation tries to kill him in their fury.
- 4:36-39 Jesus heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and she gets up feeling well and begins to wait on them, presumable to feed them.
- 5:27-32 Levi the tax collector throws a great banquet and invites his fellow tax collectors to meet with Jesus, and to announce and celebrate his becoming a follower of Jesus.
- 5:33-34 But right after that banquet, criticism comes about the failure to fast as John’s disciples did. Jesus responds that fasting is inappropriate while the bridegroom is present. The first intimation that the Kingdom of God is like a wedding feast.
- 5:37-39 He then turns to make the assertion that he has come to offer a New Wine that will need New Wineskins. The Kingdom of God sounds like a place where eating and drinking are an essential component of that new life.
- 6:1-5 The disciples are eating grain from the fields on the Sabbath Day, which gets them into trouble with the Pharisees. So Jesus refers them to David and his traveling companions eating the Sacramental Bread which only priests were allowed to eat.
- 6:20-26 * When Jesus is delivering “The Sermon on the Plane” here his beatitudes include the blessing, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled,” but also adds a warning; “Woe to you who are full now, for you will go hungry.” The great reversal that Mary spoke of as future, is now repeated by Jesus as already present in his coming.
- 7:31-35 John & Jesus are compared regarding John’s fasting and Jesus’ feasting.
- 7:36-50 Simon the Pharisee invites Jesus to dinner, but an uninvited woman who was a “sinner” crashed the event to wash and kiss and anoint his feet, which became a teaching moment on love for Simon and his guests.
- 8:1-3 * Women disciples also follow Jesus apparently providing meals from their own resources for the traveling troupe of followers.
- 8:40-56 The daughter of Jairus is raised from the dead, and upon her returning to life, Jesus directed the family to give her something to eat! Life is to be celebrated with food and drink!
- 9:10-17 Feeding 5,000 with 5 loaves and two fish, and all ate and were filled with lots left over.
- 10:6-8 * The sending out of the 70 with instructions “Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid…and eat whatever is set before you…”
- 10:38-42 * A meal in the home of friends Martha and Mary in Bethany.
- 11:1-4 The Lord’s Prayer: “Give us each day our daily bread.”
- 11:5-13 * Parable of the friend at midnight who loaned 3 loaves to a neighbour to entertain his visitors.
- 11:9-13 If a child asks for a fish or an egg, you would not give him a snake or scorpion to eat.
- 11:37-53 * Jesus at a meal in a Pharisee’s home, with unwashed hands, and his accusations of both Pharisees and Scribes.
- 12:16-21 * The parable of the rich landowner who said, ”Relax, eat, drink, be merry”
- 12:22-34 Do not worry about what you will eat or what you will drink. Life is more than food. The God who feeds ravens will feed you.
- 12:35-48 * Be like servants whose master returns from a wedding banquet! “He will fasten his belt, and have them sit down to eat and he will come and serve them!”
- 13:22-30 * “People will come from east and west, from north and south and will eat in the kingdom of God!”
- 14:1-6 * Jesus at dinner with a Pharisee, heals a man on Sabbath and is criticized for it.
- 14:7-11 * Take the lowest seat at a wedding banquet
- 14:12-14 * Invite the poor to dinner!
- 14:15-24 The Great banquet is refused by those invited, so the poor and the maimed are brought in.
- 15:23-32 * Banquet on the return of a lost son.
- 16:19-31 * Rich man who “feasted sumptuously every day” refused to share with the hungry beggar.
- 17:7-10 * A note about servants & masters and when they eat.
- 19:1-10 * Jesus stays at the home of Zacchaeus, and is criticized for it.
- 22:7-23 Passover and The Last Supper, “With desire have I desired to eat this meal with you before I suffer.”
- 22:20-30 * Serving tables & eating and drinking at his table in the Kingdom of God.
- 24:13-35 * Jesus breaks bread with the two on the Emmaus Road after his resurrection.
- 24:36-43 * Jesus asks if they have any food, and ate broiled fish to prove he was not a ghost but truly risen from the dead.
A couple of dozen times Jesus is found at a meal. In fact he is at the meal table so often that it aroused significant derision. His opponents were very discerning. He was always eating and drinking. His first miracle was at a wedding feast, He and his disciples were always on the eat, whether it was grain from the fields or meals in the homes of friends like Mary and Martha. He ate meals in the house of Levi and Zacchaeus, the tax collectors. He ate meals with people like Simon the Pharisee and Simon the Leper. He ate a meal on the night of his betrayal, and after his resurrection sat down with his friends who lived beside the Emmaus road, ate broiled fish on the evening of his resurrection, and shared a barbeque on the beach in the days following his resurrection. When the early church was launched, they carried on his practice as “They broke bread from house to house and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” (Acts 2:46)
The critics were right. Jesus ate out a lot. But that was not because he was a glutton or a free loader. He wanted God to be revealed to these people. His miracles did not give a true picture of God, so he tried to hide them. His sitting down to a meal, to share our common life, did reveal something far more important about God. God wants to share life with us. He wants to be the companion in all of our days. He does not want to be the miracle worker who gets us out of life’s little jams, but he does want to be our divine companion, who sits with his feet under our kitchen tables. For Jesus does not simply want his identity known, he wants to be known.
At the close of the Bible, in the book of The Revelation, Jesus is heard speaking to the Church in Laodicea, “Behold I am standing at your door and knocking. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and have supper with you, and you with me.” That has always been God’s intention from the time he walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day, all the way through to the end of human history. He wants to share life with us.
[i] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jacob & the Prodigal, (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), p. 60.