The Gospels describe a characteristic of Jesus that really got the attention of his contemporaries. He was evidently rather surprising in his choice of table companions. He seemed willing to share table fellowship with anyone, no matter the person’s reputation. This practice scandalized many religious people, people most committed to their religious tradition.
Of course, Jesus was not denying the centrality of religious tradition. But he wanted people to get religion right. Like the prophet Hosea, he reminded people God wanted not sacrifice, but mercy in a mutual relationship of covenant. When Jesus applied Hosea 6:3–6 to the people sitting with him at table in Matthew 9:9–13, he meant that God’s outreach to sinners outweighs other considerations and is the heart of the law.
When I attend ecumenical dialogue meetings with Lutherans, they frequently link these stories of table fellowship to Paul’s perspective. In Romans 4:18–25, for example, Paul uses the story of Abraham and Sarah to illustrate how faith saves us. If we open ourselves in faith to what God is doing, we’ll find ourselves—like Sarah—amazed at the unexpected results.
For both Paul and Martin Luther, despite their different contexts, this message is good news. It relieves us of the imagined burden of earning something that can never be earned. Salvation is a gift, won by Christ, and in the Gospel stories of table fellowship we learn that he gives it away rather lavishly to the least likely people. Only mercy, only faith, is required. So the picture of Jesus sitting at table with sinners is a kind of icon for Paul’s teaching that it is faith, rather than works, that justifies.
These stories about Jesus warn against self-righteousness, a constant temptation for religious people, and a temptation to which we Catholics sometimes capitulate. We forget that it is Jesus who hosts the table of the Eucharist and instead sometimes think that we are the hosts.
I think about the inclusiveness of Jesus and the temptation to self-righteousness especially when I attend ecumenical dialogue meetings with members of the Disciples of Christ. Every day during our meetings, the Disciples of Christ attend Catholic liturgy, but they may not receive Communion. This is painful for everyone there, but especially for the Disciples, who separated from the Presbyterian Church centuries ago precisely because it demanded elaborate proofs of worthiness before admitting anyone to the Communion table.
Of course, the tradition of restricting Eucharistic practice to a closed circle is a very ancient one, and Christian history shows many good reasons to support this discipline. From the earliest centuries, the church was concerned to show the link between baptism and a transformation of life, as well as the communal nature of Eucharistic communion. As a Catholic, I always follow this strict discipline of the Catholic Church in these matters; furthermore, I often explain and defend it.
Still, at times our concern with Eucharistic discipline seems painfully similar to the attitude of the religious people scandalized by Jesus’ table companions. And sometimes it seems odd that we continue to apply these ancient disciplines with a one-size-fits-all-Protestants attitude, even in a very different context from that of the early church. In those days, the rules served to exclude the unbaptized and Gnostics from the Eucharist by making its reception the last step of Christian initiation. But today, these disciplines also usually exclude Protestants and Anglicans—other Christians whose baptism we recognize and whom we call our brothers and sisters in Christ. Although our ecclesiological perspective on them changed at Vatican II, our Eucharistic discipline toward them still does not fully mirror these changes: though better than preconciliar practice, it still has an inner inconsistency. This is especially painful when we recognize that today Disciples of Christ, Lutherans, and most of our ecumenical partners confess the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, even if they do not use the language of “transubstantiation” to describe it. They are hardly like the Gnostics or other nonbelievers of the first centuries of the church.
Kevin Seasoltz, a Benedictine liturgical scholar, notes a certain contrast between Jesus’ tables and ours. In the light of subsequent Christian tradition, he writes, “the Eucharistic table has often been reserved for those who thought themselves worthy to approach it.” But the Gospels, he says, “report that the broken, the sinful, and the unrighteous were both privileged and delighted to share communion with Jesus.” Seasoltz’s reflections should lead us to reconsider the disciplines that surround our tables and our pulpits, and to ask whether sometimes they have neglected what Jesus sought: mercy, not sacrifice.
Fortunately for us Catholics, it is the Jesus of the Gospel stories who invites us to his banquet and offers us the feast of himself. We too are sinners—whose sin may be self-righteousness—and we too are fed at this feast of mercy. The Catholic tradition of celebration, at its deepest, knows that Jesus was lavish in extending his hospitality. Seasoltz notes that not one of us really deserves the Eucharist: it is a gift given to us by Jesus Christ. Like beggars, we come with our bowls empty, and we are fed. Happy are those who have been called to this banquet.
This article is based on remarks made in June 2008 at Jesu Church in Miami, Florida.