As We Need, So Are We Needed
Matthew 9: 9-13
In the midst of stories recounting Jesus touching a man whom society deemed untouchable, affirming the faith of a Roman guard whose own faith heals his servant, stories about calming storms, seeking out the ostracized, and raising daughters from the dead, Jesus hosts a dinner party. On the vip list are those who would have likely not made the cut on any other list in town — including the recently called tax collector, Matthew.
A profession fraught with connotations of greed, exploitation, and intimidation, being a tax collector meant being despised and avoided at all costs — an outcast operating in the center of town relegated to resentful regard. The theologian, Walter Bruggemann, calls tax collectors the “prototype sinners” in Jesus’s day — a stand-in for those who are deemed most unworthy of compassion and least deserving to be humanized for their less-than-stellar reputation. And yet, Jesus calls Matthew to follow him.
It’s a rather short call story immediately followed by a meal with even more folks who look and live like Matthew — societally deemed lost causes all sitting around the table together with the son of God. It seems significant that these two stories are in immediate proximity to one another: abruptly transitioning from the tax booth to the dining table, from the call to discipleship to dinner.
And it begs the question: what does an outcast and a dinner party have to do with discipleship?
What does an outcast and a dinner party have to do with discipleship?
- The most excluded everywhere else are the most included at Christ’s table
- Recognition of mutual need
- Being a disciple means getting to know one another
- Sustained by the company as much as we are by the bread
- To see and be seen
In one of the most concentrated areas of gang activity in the city of Los Angelos, California, and in the world, there is a bakery. Founded by Jesuit priest Father Gregory Boyle, this bakery is a part of a gang-intervention program called Homeboy Industries, which actively trains and employs gang members in LA who are often tossed from job to job or simply not considered due to their organizational associations often accompanied by the shadow of the black mark ‘felon’ ticked off on their record. When Father Boyle showed up to serve Dorlores Mission Church in 1984, a parish intimately familiar with the violence and loss and outcast-to-society-status that inevitably accompanies gang activity, he asked what folks in the community needed. One community member responded quite simply: “We need jobs, man.”
So, in response, Homeboy Bakery opened its doors, providing on the job training and neutral territory for rival gang members to grow in their occupational and relational skills, employing dozens who not only run the ovens but also the management of the business itself. Homeboy Bakery was the first of Homeboy Industries social efforts to bring about dignified change in this gang capital of the world. Since then, they have added numerous other businesses in multiple fields to their program, while also providing services such as gang related tattoo removal, legal aid, peer support, and the list goes on and on. And people have flourished — a testament to just how impactful it can be to remind one another that we are needed. It is profound what can happen when this reminding is done not from a place of pity but from the starting point of empathetic empowerment — a call to live into who we have always been as loved and worthy and necessary. It reminds me of Christ’s calling of Matthew.
The call story of Matthew in this gospel is one verse. The gospel writer does not provide a lot of extraneous detail other than recounting that Jesus invites this tax collector, Matthew, to follow him, and Matthew, well, does. That it’s. And then they go eat dinner with the “wrong” crowd. It’s a simple, sweet, and to the point call to discipleship, but there is much beauty in its brevity. As a man who was likely pretty familiar with the expectation of people expecting the worst of him, when Jesus calls this prototype sinner, this outcast, Matthew does not skip a beat. He does not give a laundry list of doubts or things he needs to do before he can follow Jesus nor does Jesus give Mathew a laundry list of things he needs to do in order to follow him. Jesus says follow me and Matthew follows him. And in the blink of an eye, this outcasted prototype sinner becomes the prototype disciple for how immediately and wholehearted he says yes to Jesus, serving as a model for all.
Jesus looks the most to those who have been seen the least — not out of charity but out of recognition for the unique gift that every life offers this world, empowering the written off and the discarded to help usher in the Kin-dom of God in ways that only each of us can. Jesus looks the most to those who have been seen the least and says I cannot do this without you — especially gang members and tax collectors and all those scapegoated as outcasts and lost causes. What you and only you can offer this world is of vital importance. But your value, your worthiness, your belovedness, does not ultimately come from what you can offer this world but, rather, from who you already are as a beloved child of God. And what better way to get to know our own belovedness and the belovedness of others than sitting down for a meal.
In verse 10, the text says, “And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples.” The phrase “as he sat at dinner” can also be translated: “as he was reclining at the table.” What’s interesting about the word “recline,” here, in addition to having connotations of a royal context, is that it comes from a root word that can also mean, “to appoint” or “to be appointed to.” In other words, when it comes to the Kin-dom of God, this seemingly casual meal with friends, who in society’s eyes are deemed furthest from grace, is not some afterthought to simply satisfy a biological need. No, Jesus is appointed to the table and appoints us all to the table as a means of satisfying not just a hunger for food but a hunger for belonging through the vulnerability of relationship. So, Jesus hosts a dinner party in conjunction to this call to discipleship — an enactment of the very vulnerability we are all called to step into with one another.
The act of eating is an act of vulnerability. It’s as true for humans and is it for the animal kingdom that, when we eat, we are literally opening ourselves up to a greater risk for attack. When we eat, some of the energy that would have been used to sustain our survival mode must now be used to ensure we are nourished enough through the voluntary mechanics of chewing and swallowing and the involuntary process of digestion. In other words, some of the energy that could be used for our defense must be diverted to metabolize nutrients and move things along. And our bodies contain an inherent knowledge that to eat and digest well requires increased attention on what is before us and decreased anxiety about what could be.
If you have ever tried to eat when you are nervous or stressed, you know that it can feel nearly impossible. Your stomach turns to knots because your body is literally telling you that you are in danger and that it needs energy to survive not digest right now. Stress causes the triggering of our sympathetic nervous system: the fight or flight response in each of us that prepares the body to protect itself against a potential threat. When this is triggered, it causes a delay in the emptying of the stomach (which can cause upset) while speeding up the emptying of our large intestine — conserving our energy (and potentially making us lighter) in order to respond to danger. Our bodies know that to eat and digest well, some manner of our defenses must come down and our sense of danger decrease. In other words, we must voluntarily make ourselves vulnerable.
Eating is not only an act of vulnerability, it is an inherent admittance of our vulnerability, too — of our physiological need for sustenance. It is an admittance of our dependency on something other than ourselves no matter how much we try to deny it. No one is above the need for nourishment, and nourishing ourselves in the company of others helps us realize that we are all in need here. It helps us realize that to be human is to be vulnerable, to be in need — a need that requires the dissolving of our defenses and of our very perception of danger, including our fear of the perceived “other,” who might be sitting across the table from us.
To eat together is to be vulnerable together, and vulnerability is the way of the gospel. In a world that pits us against each other for the sake of greed and self-interest, aggrandizing emotional impassibility and a puffed out chest, Jesus says that the way of being in this world that is most conducive to ushering in the Kin-dom of God does not take place on the battlefield or even behind temple doors but, rather, at the dining table. At this table we are invited to look to our friend across from us, our enemy across from us, to the person we ripped off last week; we are invited to look to our rival, to the outcast, to the person who outcasted us, to the one who has been seen the least, and in all, see our mutual belovedness. But in order to do so, we must risk relationship. There are no requirements for discipleship or the dining that follows other than recognizing that we are all in need and needed.
So, come. Eat, drink, and be vulnerable, for being a disciple means dissolving the defensive divides between us — knowing that, in our human vulnerability, as we need, so we are needed.