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By Chad Pierce
I remember the feeling of hospitality I received twenty years ago like it was yesterday. A couple of friends and I were hiking in lower Galilee, retracing some journey of Josephus or Jesus. I can’t remember. What I do remember was stumbling upon an Arab wedding celebration…in the middle of the second Palestinian Intifada.
Tensions were extremely high, and my companions and I were a little nervous that we (a future minister in the Reformed Church in America, an Anglican, and, even worse, a dispensationalist Assembly of God worship leader) had just crashed a Palestinian Muslim wedding reception.
While I was trying to figure out which one of my friends I could outrun, our soon-to-be Muslim friends welcomed us with open arms, with cold drinks, and with a spirit of community I will never forget. Suddenly our nationality, our religion, or political ideology were secondary to the celebration and ritual Arab hospitality their religion required. By the end of the night, we felt like we were at the reception of a friend. We felt that way because our hosts made us feel that way.
The Calling of Levi
Mark 2:13-17 records Jesus’ calling of Levi. Who was Levi? Some say that he is Matthew, since Matthew too was a tax collector. There is no evidence that this is the case. It appears that Levi, kind of like a guest blogger, is a follower of Jesus outside of “the twelve.”
Since the text says that Levi was sitting at his tollbooth, it is likely that he would have been responsible for collecting taxes for Herod Antipas rather than directly for the Roman government. These booths were located along major highways, bridges, and waterways in order to collect money for the local authorities. Even though he did not collect taxes form Rome, Levi would have been considered to be part of an unpatriotic business and not viewed well by Jews in the region of Galilee.
Tax collectors were considered ritually impure due to their regular contact with Gentiles and their goods. Levi’s commitment to his work would have made him abandon his own religious community. He would not have been allowed in the synagogue, and those who came in contact with him would also have become ritually impure.
It is this man, who was not seeking Jesus or even looking for a way out of his current lot, that Jesus approaches and calls to follow him. In this brief moment, Jesus has just made a radical point, that all are welcome to follow him in his kingdom. If Levi is welcome, all are welcome. The outsider has become an insider to God.
Mark includes this story to tell his readers that all are welcome to follow Jesus. Especially if Mark was written to the Gentile church, who would have been considered outsiders to at least some in the Jewish community, this story reenforces the idea that they too are welcome to follow Jesus.
The Dinner Party
Jesus, Levi, and others move on to dinner. The fact that they were reclining to eat makes this a more formal meal. Think of it as a planned dinner event. The timing suggests that the call to follow Jesus welcomes you not only into a relationship with Christ, but it also invites you into a new community. Jesus reclines and eats with Levi and the others. Some manuscripts include the addition of “and drinking” to the dinner. It appears that later editors wanted to include eating and drinking to hint at a eucharistic dinner. Jesus was not simply eating with sinners and tax collectors but was celebrating the Eucharist with them. This message, while anachronistic, was meant to teach Mark’s audience that all people were welcome into house churches to celebrate the Lord’s supper and to be welcomed into the community.
Some Scribes of the Pharisees question Jesus as to why he is eating with sinners and tax collectors. This is not just about moral purity but also about ritual purity. They are unclean. But it is not Jesus who becomes ritually unclean by eating with these people. Rather Jesus’s righteousness extends to his community. The unclean are made clean in Jesus. Jesus welcomes all just as they are. Jesus welcomes us all and makes us, all of us, clean.
Welcome to the Party
I wonder sometimes if we still think it’s our party, if we set up the guest list, if we are the hosts. No. The kingdom, the banquet, the bridal reception is the Lord’s, and he calls all who are far to come near. That’s what hospitality is, that’s what the kingdom is, that’s what grace is. A grace so wide and deep that even an RCA minister, an Anglican, and a (even worse) dispensationalist Assembly of God worship leader are not only welcome to attend but made to feel as though they are friends of groom himself.