While reclining at the table in Matthew’s house, enjoying his dinner with the scum of the earth, Jesus noticed the Pharisees had arrived. These religious leaders, masters of image management, and experts in social demographics, peered through Matthew’s gate at the festivities in the courtyard. Imagine what they saw. A lavish house, a large table filled with food and drink, the courtyard stirring with obnoxious people dancing, smoking, and laughing—behaving the way people do when good wine is abundant. And right in the middle of the revelry is Jesus, the notorious rabbi, reclining at the table and enjoying the party.
The Pharisees were appalled. Calling one of Jesus’ disciples to the gate, they inquired with a disgusted tone. “Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But it was not a disciple who replied. Jesus found the question important enough to answer it himself. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick,” he said (Matthew 9:11-12). The Pharisees saw a rabbi defiling himself among sinners–the enemies of God, but with his response Jesus was trying to open their eyes to see something more. Not a rabbi among sinners, but a doctor healing the sick. Somehow, by simply sharing a table with Matthew and his ungodly friends, Jesus was bringing healing.
The English word “hospitality” originates from the same Latin root as the word “hospital.” A hospital is literally a “home for strangers.” Of course, it has come to mean a place of healing. There is a link between being welcomed and being healed, and the link is more than just etymological.
When we are loved and accepted for who we really are—the true self that resides behind the false consumer identities—and welcomed into the life of another person without conditions, it brings healing to our souls. The love of the world is always conditional. Every strata of our culture and every advertisement we encounter reminds us that our significance and acceptability is rooted in what we achieve, what we have, what we do, how we look, and how we perform. Our acceptability is always conditional, and every human soul carries the wounds of rejection from not meeting someone’s standard. How terrible when that wound is inflicted by a parent, a spouse, a community, or a church. Rejection always leaves a wound—not a visible one, but a cut in our souls whose scar we may carry for the remainder of our lives.
Philo of Alexandria once said, “Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” We are all fighting a terrible battle to be loved, a battle to prove we are significant and acceptable. Some of us fight by moving from one relationship to the next seeking to heal a wound that will not mend. Others fight by purchasing bigger and better tokens of successful. Men often seek acceptability through achievement, but by their absence at home they inadvertently wound their wives and children and the cycle continues. Those who are most weary of the battle give up by turning to drugs, alcohol, food, sex or any other temporary pleasure to mask their pain. In this way the brokenness of their souls is manifested in their bodies.
But hospitality, real hospitality, can be a healing balm on these wounds. To be accepted and loved just as we are—isn’t that what we long for? And to be welcomed into another’s life without facades and falsehoods—isn’t that what we really want? Such soul healing cannot be achieved by target marketing or preference surveys that reinforce the facades of consumerism. And a church that indirectly communicates who is welcomed into its homogeneous unit will be an ineffective spiritual hospital. No, this kind of healing hospitality is personal, human, and beyond the powers of church growth strategies. This is the healing that only Christ, and the community filled with his Spirit, can perform.
Jesus was not blind, and he certainly was not ignorant. He knew that his dinner companions at Matthew’s house were not moral people. He knew the depravity of their lives even better than the Pharisees did. But he loved and welcomed them nonetheless. He offered these wounded souls a refuge from their battle. Such is the love of God. His love is not blind. He sees us as we truly are. He excavates the broken identity we’ve buried beneath a mountain of Gap denim and overpriced lattes, sees its filthy condition and says, “Come, my child, sit down and eat. I have prepared a table for you.” It is, after all, God who prepares the table and not us (Psalm 23:5). He creates the place of refuge and rest that we are welcomed to in the presence of our enemies. And once there we discover the warm glow of Christ himself illuminates the faces of all who have gathered at his table for healing. And for the first time we see one another as we truly are. Not as enemies, or labels, or categories. But as wounded people still wonderfully made in the image of God.
As our culture becomes more divided, and as the forces of politics and business sort and label us into increasingly nuanced “interest groups” and “markets,” Christians face a choice. We may either participate in this dehumanizing practice that inflates our group’s sense of righteousness at the expense of another’s rejection, or we may offer an alternative vision of community than that of our hyper-partisan consumer culture. We can either position our churches as the frontline in the culture war, or become battlefield hospitals for the wounded to find rest and healing. We can emulate the Pharisees by dividing “sinner” from “saint” and “us” from “them,” or we can affirm our shared human struggle for love, acceptance, and forgiveness. This counter-cultural vision of a healing community may seem difficult to accomplish, but it doesn’t have to be. All that’s needed is good food, good wine, and a table where Jesus Christ decides who is welcomed rather than me.
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