Plenty of room at the table
How can we reflect God’s big heart of welcome to others?
I have just preached on Luke’s version of the story where Jesus and His disciples go to a party at the home of Levi (otherwise named Matthew) the tax collector (Luke 5:27-32). Luke’s Gospel is often seen as the Gospel which most portrays Jesus as embracing those on the margins of society. It is perhaps through Luke that we see God’s big heart of welcome reflected in Jesus most clearly. This same story is found in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark as well, but I chose to preach from Luke’s version because it contains some interesting features which are unique to his account. (1) These special features help us to capture insights into what it means for us to reflect God’s big heart of welcome to others.
In this story, both Jesus and His disciples attend a meal at the home of Levi the tax collector. We know that Jesus was definitely there because Luke’s version of the story says that Levi organised the meal specifically for Jesus. (2) So, interestingly, Levi showed great hospitality and welcome towards Jesus in the first instance. But Jesus showed an even greater sense of hospitality back to Levi by accepting his invitation and going to his home. Visiting someone’s home doesn’t sound very radical in our context, but for Jesus to go to the home of a tax collector was totally radical in His day. To understand just how revolutionary Jesus was in this story, we have to step into the first century Jewish world and comprehend something about tax collectors.
Tax collectors were Jewish people who chose to work for the Roman occupying forces. There were some set taxes which were levied against the people, but tax collectors also set their own income by deciding how much tax to charge the people. Because of their allegiance to the Romans and through the way they lined their own pockets, tax collectors were seen as collaborators, traitors, extortionists and ritually unclean in the eyes of the Jewish Law because they associated with Roman Gentiles. When I preached my sermon on this passage, I recruited six volunteers from the congregation who were each given a card on which was written one of the following words:
Murderer, robber, cheat, bully, taxman, politician
I asked the congregation to rank these kinds of people from the best to the worst and the volunteers swapped positions at the front to reflect their choices. The congregation (after much amused wrangling!) placed them in the following order, from best to worst: taxman, politician, cheat, bully, robber, murderer.
Then I told the congregation how the Jews categorised tax collectors according to a text called the Talmud. This revered text contained teaching by Rabbis, interpreting the Jewish Law. In the Talmud tax collectors were put in the same category as murderers and robbers! Tax collectors were barred from the synagogues because of being considered unclean, so in their day they were the equivalent of those we might called “unchurched” in our current context. Today there are people who feel they couldn’t go to church or they have been before and had a bad experience, so they haven’t been back.
Tax collectors in Jesus’ day chose to stick together, because no one else wanted to have anything to do with them. That’s why so many of them rocked up to the party that Levi threw in his home. Tax collectors tended to only meet other tax collectors.
In this story there’s a group of Jewish people called the Pharisees. They tried to keep the letter of the Jewish Law. They believed that if you associated with the wrong people, you would end up being polluted by them. In the story the Pharisees grumbled to Jesus’ disciples about their going to Levi’s party. The Pharisees would not have gone anywhere near Levi’s home themselves, so they must have heard about the party on the grapevine and then moaned subsequently. In another of Luke’s special features in his version of this story, the Pharisees say to Jesus’ disciples: “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors?” In Matthew’s and Mark’s editions, the Pharisees ask the disciples why Jesus was eating with tax collectors. But in Luke, the question is directed to the disciples, not just about eating, but, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors?”
Jewish culture expressed its acceptance or dismissal of people by the use or rejection of table fellowship. Eating a meal with someone implied acceptance of those you dined with. To express your disapproval of someone, you refused either to enter their home or to eat with them. So, it was very radical for Jesus and His disciples to attend the party at Levi’s home. All of Jesus’ disciples ate with the tax collectors. They all went to the party. Jesus was breaking down distinctions between groupings. Jesus said He was like a doctor whose job is to help sick people. Jesus was saying that God’s new era had dawned and now forgiveness and life transformation was on offer for everyone.
Luke’s version of the story emphasises that Jesus’ disciples were at the party. And when the Pharisees have a grumble, it is the disciples they moan at because they had been to the house of a tax collector. Scholar Howard Marshall believes that this special emphasis in Luke’s Gospel reflects the situation of the Christian community to whom Luke first wrote his Gospel. Those Christians were coming under criticism for associating with Gentiles and other outcasts in the way that their Master had done. Luke therefore wrote the story to encourage that Christian community that Jesus is the One who intervenes and stands up for them when they choose to have the same heart of welcome as God does. (3) In our day, let’s be encouraged that Jesus is cheering us on when we open up our doors in recognition that God’s invitation to relationship goes out to everyone.
Jesus’ approach towards meeting people was the opposite of the Pharisees. They thought they would get polluted by people but Jesus associated with all people, confident that His goodness was stronger to rub off on them. We welcome people like Jesus so that we might lead them to Jesus.
In this story another of the special Lucan features is when Jesus speaks about His role. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus says He has come to call “not the righteous but sinners.” Luke adds an extra bit: “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” That means that life-change was part of the process as Jesus stepped into Levi’s world and showed him the big welcome of God. True acceptance is not about saying that everything someone does is OK. Acceptance is saying we desire God’s very best for that person and will love them even when they fall short of God’s best. Jesus’ use of the word “sinners” was His way of inferring that there were aspects of the tax collectors’ lives that needed change. But His heart of acceptance meant He would engage them in relationship, knowing that His goodness would encourage them towards God’s best for them.
From this story I would like to draw out two important principles of welcome for churches in the way they relate to visitors who come to services.
There are no second chances to make a first impression
This story is the first time in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus reaches out to tax collectors. Now of course He may have related to tax collectors prior to this event, but it does represent the first recorded incident. And the first experience of Jesus that the tax collectors have is a very positive one. Jesus knew there are no second chances to make a first impression.
In a previous church where I was a minister, I led some training on how to be a welcoming church. This church was actually quite friendly, so they were already doing quite a good job, but it is always worthwhile to think afresh about principles of welcome. As part of the training process over several weeks, unbeknownst to the church, I arranged for a good friend who had never been to this church to visit unannounced for a Sunday service and report back on his experience.
Our friend received a warm welcome on the door as he arrived and he settled himself into a pew at the back of church. No one else spoke to him prior to the service, other than the person on the front door to say, “Hello.” After the service, he moved to a social space at the back of church and went to the kitchen hatch to get a cup of tea. Holding his cup of tea, he chose to stand very conspicuously in the middle of the social space, sipping from his cup. No one came up to speak to him. He decided to walk slowly up and down the main church aisle, as some people were still sitting in the pews talking with each other. Still no one approached him. He returned and stood again in the middle of the social space, drinking his tea. To make his newness even more obvious, he went and picked up some welcome leaflets from a table and stood reading them. Regular church members stood in huddles only feet from him, but no one spoke to him. Our friend returned his tea cup to the kitchen hatch and quietly slipped out the church unnoticed. He walked a short way down the road, and went into the local leisure centre where we fell into a lively conversation for 20 minutes with a staff member at the reception desk. In his report, he concluded that he had received a warmer welcome at the leisure centre than at the church.
Now, as I said earlier, this church was actually quite a friendly church and generally did welcome well. But the regulars were deeply shocked to read our friend’s report and to realise they had let their welcome slip on that very week when he visited. What they powerfully grasped through that episode is that every week has to be a good welcome week. You never know when a visitor might come and you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
When a visitor tries us out for the first time, they will rate us entirely by that one experience. If they have a poor experience, we probably won’t see them again. We won’t get a second chance with them. Nobody expects you to be perfect, but people are looking for a positive experience, particularly in terms of welcome and hospitality.
So, no pressure folks, but we can never say that welcome doesn’t matter. We can’t say, “Oh, we don’t have to worry about a good welcome this week.” Our welcome has to be good every week. And the only way we can do that is if everyone recognises they have a part to play by creating a culture of warmth and welcome. Now we all know that at times life deals us a bad hand of cards and we can come to church feeling quite broken. At such times, we may not feel like reaching out to newcomers; what we need is for our brothers and sisters to reach out to us. In saying that welcome is an every-week activity, this means for the local church as a whole. Each week we simply need as many people as feel able to reach out in welcome to guests. Just as Jesus and all His disciples reached out to the tax collectors, so welcome is an all-In, every week, activity for us.
We need to think, speak and act with an awareness of what it feels like to be in the shoes of a first-time visitor.
During my talk, I got the congregation involved in another interactive exercise, called the Tappers and Listeners Game (4). I gave a volunteer a spoon and asked them to tap out the rhythm of various tunes onto a table top to see if anyone from the congregation could guess the tune. It’s an activity that’s really easy for the tapper and hard for the listeners. That’s because the tapper is tapping out the rhythm with the actual chosen tune going round in their head. But the listeners don’t have that knowledge. All they are hearing is what sounds like a random series of taps and they are left often to make wild guesses as to what the tune might be.
This activity illustrates something called the Curse of Knowledge (5) – once you know something, we forget what’s it like NOT to know that same thing. Those of us who are used to church, forget what it’s like not to be part of a church. We forget that for a new person it might be a very daunting task even to arrive at the church’s front door, let alone get inside. We get so used to the patterns and features of a church service, but a visitor may never have been to church before and will not know what to expect. Our task is to warmly welcome them into the story that God has for our church, for His story has plenty of room for others.
In the Bible story I preached on, Jesus and His disciples chose to go to Levi’s home. Jesus was saying, “I am willing to go into YOUR space.” That’s a really important principle of welcome. We should not make assumptions that someone understands what we do. We must not fall under the Curse of Knowledge. With our words, we should not employ insider jargon. Instead we can be curious, asking the person to share with us what their story has been and how they currently understand things. True hospitality involves standing in the shoes of the people we are hosting, to understand them and seek to do something for them. As illustrated by the story of our friend visiting the church unannounced, sometimes the best people to offer feedback to us about welcome are people who are visitors themselves. Seek to gather as much feedback as you can from those who do visit your church. Did they find it easy to locate your church’s front door? Were people friendly towards them? Was anyone overbearing in their welcome? Was the service uplifting? Would the visitor choose to return?
Our entire welcome strategies as churches must be built around the experience of visitors and how we can assist them at every stage of their visit. We must stand in their shoes, look with their eyes, feel with their hearts. Jesus showed us the ultimate act of hospitality in giving His life for us: “It was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Now that we are His people, He still invites us as sinners to His table, where through broken bread and outpoured wine, we remember His great sacrifice and imagine His outstretched arms of welcome for us on the cross (6).
When Jesus and His disciples went to the party at Levi’s house, they stepped across conventional barriers to make a vital connection. May we do the same in our churches as we recognise the importance of every connection with visitors and seek to step into their situations to reflect God’s big heart of welcome in Christ.
1. The best way to identify the particular emphasis of a Gospel story, compared with its counterparts in other Gospels, is to use a text like Gospel Parallels by Burton Throckmorton (Thomas Nelson publishers, 1979) which sets out in columns every Synoptic Gospel passage so you can see the similarities and differences at an easy glance.
2. We also know Jesus Himself attended the party because of how the story is told by Matthew and Mark. Luke’s version (chapter 5 verse 29) adds a single dative pronoun to state that the great banquet was held “for Him”, i.e. for Jesus.
3. See Marshall I H, The Gospel of Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1978, p217
4. This game formed the research for a psychology PhD by Elizabeth Newton at Stanford University in the USA in 1990. The experiment is described in the book Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Random House publishers, New York, 2010, p19-21
5. This phrase originates from an article in the Journal of Political Economy by C Camerer, G Loewenstein and M Weber. It is cited in the Made to Stick book referenced in footnote 4
6. The wording of the Anglican Prayer of Humble Access from the Holy Communion liturgy is very relevant here: “But you, Lord, are the God of our salvation and share your bread with sinners.”