The Readings for Saturday, 1st Week of Ordinary Time (B2):
Quare cum publicanis et peccatoribus manducat et bibit Magister vester?
Why doth your master eat and drink with publicans and sinners?
The Latin does render it very enjoyably, no? “Why, with publicans and sinners, eats and drinks this Master of yours? The Greek is much more condensed: Why, with tax collectors and sinners, he eats?
Scroll back a little though.
Our first reading has the anointing of Saul. The Hebrew calls Saul the Annointed (the Messiah). And what’s not to like? He’s tall and handsome. He’s from a wealthy family. He’s both respected and impressive. Why should this man not be the king of Israel, to sit next to neighboring kings at banquets, to woo their daughters. Everything looks good.
But we know the outcome… God will cast Saul down. Looks are not everything. What the people think they want is not the best thing for them. God has a plan.
Now look at Levi: a fallen member of the priestly class. In modern slang, a PK – a Priest’s Kid. He probably grew up thinking he could do anything he wanted – and his parents doted on him so he did, exactly, that. And here he is, with no shred of respect for his own heritage, collecting taxes and chillaxin with the ladies. He was friendly to those in power, who were – quite literally – oppressing his own people. He Uncle Tommed his way in to helping the oppressors and getting rich at the same time. This is how far this Son of Israel and Israel’s Temple had fallen.
Jesus calls him to not only be an Apostle, but also an Evangelist. This man, fixed up by Jesus, with his Levitical education and classical exposure, would know all kinds of things about slander and words that shock. And he would use them over and over to win people to Jesus’ side.
Jesus takes the broken and makes them awesome because they have nowhere to go but up. God cannot much use those on top. They don’t need his help. Saul was only looking for a prophet to help find some asses – like us who only only need the help of Saints to find our house keys. Saul knew he was destined for Greatness: he just didn’t know what.
Levi knew, though, how far he had slid but didn’t know the way out. And when Jesus calls, he’s rather more than confused: his first response is to throw a regular old dinner party for all his friends and Jesus comes.
Jesus’ open table fellowship confuses folks without a Sacramental awareness. They imagine that these radically inclusive meals would indicate something they call “open communion”. But while eating meals with sinners was shocking, Jesus only had the 12 with him for the Last Supper – and even that was only after 3 years (at least) of Catechesis and constant exposure to him and his teachings.
Jesus radically open feasting though, another issue: was itself quite shocking. Quare cum publicanis et peccatoribus manducat et bibit Magister vester?
Sometimes it’s tempting for one in the faith to only want to hang out with those in the faith. But Jesus calls us to these dinner parties with sinners. It’s ok if you want to have dinner with your friends once in a while, yes, but so many of the Gospel Stories are about sharing food and drink as evangelism.
Later in the story of Saul we’ll hear how the Royal Schmuck uses meals as a method of control. Jesus, though, opens wide the doors and says everyone come in. He welcomes them as they are – yes. But they change in response to his love. He heals them. And just coming once into his presence changes everything. The fallen PK, Son of Israel, becomes the herald and writer of the divine proclamation of mercy. Levi, the ruiner of livelihoods, becomes Matthew, the healer of lives.
Saul, the hunter of asses, becomes Saul, the king of them. God lifts up those who are bowed down, but those who are high already… he’s got but little use for them.