Can a person change? The Lukan author certainly thinks so. Change happens in the Lukan account when Jesus seeks out people and spends “table time” with them. Repentance – personal change of mind and heart – is the result of encounters with Jesus. Such change is not the precondition for such life-altering interactions. Jesus goes looking for tax collectors and sinners in order to invite them into a new way of living.
John Kilgallen argues that the Pharisees – at least in the Lukan account – shared Jesus’ intention that sinners should repent and find new life. The disagreement was about the most effective and appropriate method. He suggests that the Pharisees, as portrayed in the Gospel accounts, went to great lengths to make sure that the Law was fulfilled – such as washing to the elbows in order to make sure one’s hands were clean. More to our point, they tended to avoid contact with “sinners” in order to impress upon the community the importance of repentance.
The assumption of the Pharisees, as described in the Gospel accounts, is that sin could infect the righteous. Thus, the company of sinners should be avoided when possible. “Not only should one not suggest an indifference to the lives of sinners,” Kilgallen writes of the Pharisees, “but one should avoid them lest one fall into their sinfulness. Finally,” he continues, “how best to influence a change in behavior of sinners, if not to avoid them and so make them ever conscious of their sinfulness?” (page 591).
Jesus adopts the opposite strategy. He welcomes tax collectors and sinners and eats with them. Kilgallen notes that this is a narrative concern and focus at least four times in the Lukan account. The concern begins in Luke 5:27-32 with the call of Levi, the tax-collector. Jesus takes the initiative with Levi and calls him to be a follower. Levi gets up, leaves everything, and follows Jesus. In Lukan terms, Levi becomes an ideal disciple.
In response to this gracious call, Levi hosts a large dinner party at his house, apparently with Jesus as the guest of honor. The table was occupied by a large crowd of tax-collectors as well as other people. The Pharisees and their scribes observed this party (from some distance, we can assume) and were complaining to Jesus’ disciples. They asked, “On what basis do you all eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30, my translation). The grammar of the question makes it clear that they want to hear some justification for the unusual strategy.
Jesus tells the Pharisees and their scribes that avoidance is the wrong treatment. A physician wouldn’t do much good for a patient by avoiding contact with that patient. Physicians stay away from those who have no need of treatment. But the tax collectors and sinners need this gracious, personal, direct, and sustained contact with Jesus. “I haven’t come to call the righteous ones,” Jesus concludes, “but rather sinners into repentance” (Luke 5:32, my translation).
In this account, Kilgallen argues, we now have the reason for Jesus’ unusual strategy. We don’t yet have a description of why this mode of “treatment” will work. The next reference in the Lukan account to tax collectors and sinners moves the conversation forward. We find that mention in Luke 7:31-35. On the one hand, Jesus’ opponents have criticized John the Baptist for being too austere. On the other hand, they criticize Jesus for having too much to eat and drink and for being “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”
Jesus drops a cryptic quip in response. “Wisdom is justified on the basis of all her children” (Luke 7:35, my translation). In other words, the wise person looks at the results, not just at the theory. The quip serves as the lead-in to the forgiveness of the “sinful woman” at the home of Simon the Pharisee. Jesus’ strategy results in repentance and reconciliation on the part of the woman. Simon the Pharisee is left as he is, forgiven little and loving less.
“What Jesus offers now in chap. 7,” Kilgallen writes, “is a proof that his method is justified, for…he points to a number of people who have done what God and Wisdom have asked: they have repented” (page 595-596). So far then, we have the reason for Jesus’ strategy and some general demonstrations of its effectiveness. This takes us to the next mention of tax collectors and sinners – in Luke 15.
The same complaint appears. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus responds, in the Lukan account, with the three parables. Kilgallen notes two points in the first two parables. “They show that it is unremitting searching that finds what was lost,” he writes, “not disinterest in or distance from sheep or coin…Moreover,” Kilgallen continues, “finding what was lost leads surely to great joy and celebration. The latter aspect, that of rejoicing over finding what was lost, confirms the value of searching, achieving happiness for going after what was lost till it is found. Indeed,” Kilgallen observes, “one cannot imagine how else the sheep and the coin will be found except by continued searching” (page 596).
The third parable shows the life and death stakes of the seeking and finding. The parable of the Prodigal Son “means only to reinforce what the first two parables had made clear: whatever can produce joy in heaven is worth doing. One cannot prefer not searching after sinners, if one is convinced that such searching is the way,” he argues, “the best and necessary way to produce joy, and life.” Luke 15, then, gives the reason for Jesus’ strategy of welcoming sinners and eating with them. If God is rejoicing, it must be a good thing.
The final installment of the tax collectors and sinners throughline is, of course, the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. This time it is an anonymous voice from the crowd that grumbles loudly. “He went along with a sinful man to be a guest!” It’s not just eating and drinking this time. Jesus is staying at the house, taking up lodging for a brief stretch. Jesus has raised the stakes of the interaction even higher.
“For our purposes,” Kilgallen suggests, “the most striking feature we find in this story is the fact that we have been given a clear example of the result that comes from Jesus’ fraternizing with sinners” (page 598). The results of Jesus’ strategy are individual repentance and promises of repair consistent with Old Testament regulations in Exodus 21, Leviticus 6, and Numbers 5. Welcoming (and being welcomed) by tax collectors and sinners and eating with them is what it takes to seek and to save the “lost.”
The criticism from the crowd comes as a reminder that Jesus’ strategy is not the accepted way of dealing with tax collectors and sinners. The result meets this criticism head on. In addition, Zacchaeus didn’t come predisposed or prepared to repent, Kilgallen argues. Instead, he begins with “benevolent curiosity” rather than some expressed desire for repentance. “No,” Kilgallen concludes, “it is only the actual time spent with Jesus that accounts for repentance” (page 598).
Can a person change? The Lukan author certainly thinks so. Change happens in the Lukan account when Jesus seeks out people and spends “table time” with them. I am reminded of a congregational ministry to, with, and for incarcerated people who are preparing to return to life “in the world.” The ministry revolves around Sunday worship, a communal meal, fellowship, and Bible study. Interested participants are interviewed to orient them to the nature and operation of the ministry. But the one real qualification for attending is whether or not one likes to eat.
I was often struck, when I was involved in that ministry, by the suspicion that such a gracious invitation evoked. The suspicion was understandable. Our guests were coming from a world in which no one ever did anything “for free.” For the first six to eight weeks that the typical guest attended, that guest would ask at least three or four times, “What do you want?” Nothing of value in this world is free, the questioner reasoned. Therefore, we must want something. The trick, they thought, was to figure out what “the catch” was.
There was no “catch.” A few of our guests never caught on to that fact. They tended not to stick with the ministry. But most of the guests had a personal epiphany during that initial time period. These people really don’t want anything from me. “Free” really means free. Grace really is grace. While these people don’t want anything from me, they certainly something for me. What they want for me is a life of wholeness and joy. And that’s it.
Honestly, we didn’t go into this ministry thinking about any of this. We were just trying to help some folks who weren’t getting much help. But, over and over, we got to witness the transforming power of real Grace. Personal change happens when Jesus seeks out people and spends “table time” with them. In the life of the Church, Jesus uses disciples to seek out people and spend that table time with them.
This is why eucharistic hospitality is really the measure of health and faithfulness in a congregation. Who we welcome to the table and under what “conditions” says everything you need to know about the life of a congregation. That welcome includes our willingness to put that table on legs and wheels and to meet people where they are, at their tables and in their lives. Going out to eat, as Jesus did, removes the last “condition” that might impede our eucharistic welcome.
Grace changes people. That’ll preach.
Resources and References
Abraham, Heather R. “Segregation Autopilot: How the Government Perpetuates Segregation and How to Stop It.” https://ssrn.comb/abstract=4006587.
Burke, Trevor J. “The parable of the prodigal father: an interpretative key to the third Gospel (Luke 15: 11-32).” Tyndale bulletin 64, no. 2 (2013): 216-238.
Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.
Dinkler, Michal Beth. ““The Thoughts of Many Hearts Shall Be Revealed”: Listening in on Lukan Interior Monologues.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134, no. 2 (2015): 373-399.
Kilgallen, John. “Was Jesus Right to Eat with Sinners and Tax Collectors?” Biblica 93, no. 4 (2012): 590–600. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42617310.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.
Wright, N. T. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
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