Why Christ Eating with Pharisees and Sinners is (Good) News 

Christ is risen! 


First and last alike receive your reward; rich and poor, rejoice together! Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!  You that have kept the fast, and you that have not, rejoice today for the Table is richly laden! Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.  

Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith. Enjoy all the riches of His goodness! Let no one grieve at his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.  

Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free. He has destroyed it by enduring it. (Excerpt from St John Chrysostom’s Paschal Homily)


St John Chrysostom’s Homily read every year at Pascha, takes on an almost carnival “Come one, come all!” message as it encourages everyone from the diligent to the lax to enjoy the Feast of Feasts. The joy of God’s Kingdom is experienced first and foremost in the Mystical Supper received by all who come to the table of the Lord. Then the Feast is continued in the banquet of blessed foods which all can partake in the parish or in their homes.

In my post, Jubilee and Liturgy, I mentioned how Christ’s behavior indicates He was proclaiming the year of jubilee to His fellow Jews, and yet they rejected the miraculous blessing. The sign of the jubilee is Christ God sitting at table with tax collectors (Roman collaborators!) and sinners and Christ frequently telling people, ‘your sins are forgiven’. The exacting, observant Jews of His day, criticized Christ for eating with sinners and for claiming to be able to forgive sins.


Worth noting in the Gospels is that He not only sat with sinners but also willingly sat at table with the Pharisees! The general forgiveness of sins and amnesty was being offered to them just as it was to the sinners and tax collectors. Christ is offering forgiveness of sins gratis to sinners and to those who think of themselves as righteous and thus perhaps not in need of God’s forgiveness. The sinners welcomed His message, but the super-righteous Pharisees didn’t see themselves in need of God’s forgiveness, they thought rather they were deserving of being rewarded by God for their strict adherence to the Law, not forgiveness which in their minds was the need of sinners or unbelievers.  St Cyril of Alexandria reminds us: “… we have been saved, ‘not by works of righteousness that we ourselves performed‘ (Titus 3:5), not by achievements of the Law, since ‘the Law made nothing perfect‘ (Hebrews 7:19), but from the clemency of the God and Father, who for our sake placed a powerful-that is, strong and mighty-love (Habakkuk 3:4) of the Son” (quoted in HEARING THE SCRIPTURES, p 135).

Christ tried to show all Jews, whether the righteous or the lax or sinners, that God’s love and forgiveness was available to them for free (by grace) if they wanted it. Orthodox scholar Fr John McGuckin does a superb job in describing Christ’s use of meals to proclaim the Gospel of forgiveness and the debt cancelling of jubilee. McGuckin starts by describing the fact that for religious Jews a fast was also a sign of God’s absence (which may also be why Christians embraced fasting as a joy – it didn’t mean God’s absence but was a sign of returning to God’s paradise). A meal on the other hand for the Jews was a sign of communion and Jews believed sinners and the religious lax would not be at God’s table.


If holding the celebratory meal in the first place contradicted the major premise that the correct attitude of a religious Jew was to lament ascetically the absence of God [i.e., to fast], then the invitation of sinners flatly contradicted the minor premise of the Jewish tradition that a distant God needed persuading before he would soften his heart to his people’s needs. The God of Jesus Christ, on the contrary, was a God, very near, not far away; a God who needed no persuading at all to have mercy but who poured out his mercy with an almost reckless prodigality. This forgiveness of sins, freely given, freely received, in the wedding feast of God’s return to his people, was the heart of Jesus’ evangelion, or ‘Good News.’ It consequently must have struck him as perverse that many of his fellows rejected this theology, and thus opposed his personal insight into religion and his claims to prophetic authority in preaching it. These he characterized as the ones who refused to join in the celebration, those who would not come to the feast: ‘Tell the guests the banquet is all prepared: my oxen and fattened cattle have all been slaughtered. All is ready. Come to the wedding. But they were not interested.‘ The reaction of the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Father who was too incensed at the ‘easiness’ of forgiveness granted to his dissolute brother to be able to come to the celebration, is a typical illustration of the case in point.


Many contemporaries of Jesus must have found his doctrine of the merciful presence of God dangerously lax, even irreligious. But those who, beyond their own expectation, heard this gracious invitation to a feast celebrating God’s mercy, discovered in Jesus’ doctrine of prodigal forgiveness, not an easy option, but rather the heart-rending demands of a Divine Mercy, which in embracing the sinner, called out even to the sinner to embrace all others in equally great mercifulness. The wholehearted acceptance of forgiveness imposed on the recipient the necessity of forgiving, a far more difficult asceticism than any form of fasting from food ever could be; yet a liberating experience that allowed the followers of Jesus to enter, in some way, into his uniquely personal experience of what the Kingdom of God meant: the drawing close again of God, who wished to show mercy and love to a people who had become alienated.   . . .


When Jesus wished theologically to connect the doctrine of God’s joyous return to Israel with Israel’s need to offer mutual forgiveness, he carefully chose the symbol of the prophetic sign of village meals: bread, and wine. The break with the tradition of the ‘sign of John’ (the Baptist) was sufficiently shocking as to cause the disciples of John to question Jesus’ motivations and practices. Why was he not at the river calling for a repentant and purifying mikveh; why was he in the hill towns carousing with sinners? But the sign of the Kingdom, which is festive eating because God has returned to Israel, is, in and of itself, also a sign of conversion; for the forgiveness that the feast presumes is a forgiveness that the feast demands. When the visiting Rabbi, guest of honor at so many of the towns where he went to preach in Galilee and Judea, also made sure that at the feasts he attended the ‘unacceptable’ were also present (bringing into social interaction, Pharisee and tax collector, righteous lawyer and unobservant sinner), he caused a crisis at those meals. His sign of reconciliation also became a sign of judgment. If the righteous refused the presence of the sinner (whom God had declared righteous because he had declared them forgiven on Jesus’ prophetic word), then they rendered themselves unrighteous as part of the kingdom’s surprising vindications.   (WITNESSING THE KINGDOM, pp 21-24)


We turn to God seeking God’s mercy and forgiveness, that may be the easiest and most graceful part of our spiritual lives.  If we accept God’s love and forgiveness, then comes our asceticism – our self denial and taking up our cross as we turn to forgive those around us who have offended us.  The jubilee doesn’t end when God extends His forgiveness and mercy to us. Rather, that begins in us our asceticism as we then extend the same forgiveness to others as we cooperate with God in spreading the Kingdom of Grace.

Truly, He is risen!