You Have Prepared a Table Before Me
Finding Mercy at Matthew’s Table
One of the most common insults spoken against our Lord is a variation on a question in the Gospel for the Saturday after Ash Wednesday: “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Lk 5:30). More pointed than a question, it’s an accusation which even our Lord quotes, “They say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Mt 11:19). It was, in fact, this very complaint that occasioned the greatest of all parables, that of the Prodigal Son: “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Lk 15:2). The criticism is supposed to prove that the Lord doesn’t know what religion is all about. He’s got it all backwards.
In the Pharisees’ mind the issue is contamination. Good people mix with good people, bad people with bad. By associating with Matthew and his friends at table, Jesus unambiguously forges a bond with them—thereby appearing, in the eyes of some, not only to condone sin but to contract it Himself. The Pharisees understood as we understand what our Lord’s gesture meant: Table fellowship means sharing more than food. It indicates union of persons, friendship, having something in common apart from bodily hunger and thirst.
But the Lord is not guilty by association any more than a physician is unhealthy because he tends the sick. Jesus invites us to look more closely. While the Pharisees think that His actions prove one thing, the Lord intends them to prove something entirely different: “Go and learn,” He tells them, “the meaning of the words, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt 9:13). Here at table in Matthew’s house Jesus has set up His throne of grace and mercy, and only those who see their need may approach and find help (cf. Heb 4:16).
When God walks upon the earth as man His love takes a special form: mercy. One who is merciful, according to St Thomas Aquinas, seeks to dispel the misery of others as though it were his own. God’s love for sinners is this mercy, because our deepest need is for a love that makes us whole. St Matthew sees Jesus fulfilling Isaiah’s messianic prophecy exactly in this way: “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases” (cf. Mt 8:17). If, in order to bear our burdens, Jesus must give the impression that He’s got a lot in common with sinners, He’s willing to risk it. For the sake of our salvation, respectability and public opinion are expendable.
So that what was disgraceful and scandalous about this table arrangement ends up being our saving grace. Against righteousness understood as separation, Jesus by reaching across a table closes the gap between righteous and unrighteous. In becoming man, in seating Himself at table with us, Jesus goes right to the heart of the problem of fallen people: He inserts Himself into the complicated and contradictory lives of sinners, looks us in the eye with eyes just like our own, and asks if we are well or sick. That is how He calls sinners, not first by shaming, much less by condemning, but by showing us that something greater awaits us, and allowing us to freely follow the pull of grace.
If we come to recognize that we’re not doing so well, then He opens our eyes to see the answer staring us in the face—with a face equally human, but with eyes of infinite compassion. St Josemaria reminds us of this: “He is our physician, and he heals our selfishness, if we let his grace penetrate to the depths of our soul. Jesus has taught us that the worst sickness is hypocrisy, the pride that leads us to hide our own sins. We have to be totally sincere with him” (Christ is Passing By, no. 93).
By His conversation, His personal interest in those to His right and left, our Lord is quietly drawing all things to Himself. Because behind the human interaction—the sharing of food and conversation—God sits in their midst, engaged and interested. God accepts offers of food and drink. God feeds Himself from the same bowls and vessels as everyone else. In the “wrong” venue with the “wrong” crowd God is visiting His people as He always promised He would.
The spectacle of Jesus settling Himself in this company provides us with an open window into the religion that God has given us to follow. As tax collectors and sinners all come near to Jesus, human misery and divine mercy dovetail—sinners find love, forgiveness, salvation. This is what religion is supposed to bring about: People who had been hardened in sin, who formerly had no interest in conversion or the things of God, surrounding Jesus at table, loving Him and being loved by Him. And they are completely open to whatever the Master has to say, and whatever He might ask of them. Their sins are no longer an obstacle to carrying out God’s purposes for their lives.
We need no further proof that God is working in our midst than to see spiritual outcasts breaking bread with gladness over the table which the Lord has set. The Lord has prepared a unique banquet, and when those invited come, the feast is like a family reunion wherein all of God’s scattered children are gathered into one (cf. Jn 11:52). “Wisdom is justified by all her children,” Jesus tells us, just as St Paul puts on His lips: “Here am I, and the children God has given me” (cf. Lk 7:35; Heb 2:13). We can even see fulfilled the words of the Psalm: “your children will be like olive shoots around your table” (cf. Ps 128:3).
At the beginning of Lent, this Gospel teaches us too how to become Christ’s welcome table-fellows. But the table to which He now calls us is that Table which is also an altar of sacrifice, an empty tomb, the most privileged place of our communion with God. We cannot think of Matthew’s table without also thinking of the other, because the table of sinners and the altar from which we partake of the Lord are one and the same table. It is the place where our deepest needs are met with God’s infinite bounty.
St Josemaria exhorts a reconciled soul in The Way to “Go to Communion. It doesn't show lack of respect. Go this very day when you have just got over that 'spot of trouble.' Have you forgotten that Jesus said: It is not by those who are well, but by those who are sick, that the physician is needed?” (no. 536).
Whatever might be our ‘spot of trouble,’ our sickness, we can be certain that the Lord calls us to find the remedy where He sits as Host, as Food, as the One who comes to share what is ours so that we might share what is His.