Question: "What is the significance of Jesus eating with sinners?"
Answer: In Mark 2, soon after calling Matthew to follow Him, Jesus ate a meal with “many publicans and sinners” in Matthew’s house (verse 15). Matthew had been a tax collector (publican), and these were his friends and acquaintances who were now spending time with Jesus (cf. Luke 5:39). The scribes and the Pharisees complained, but Jesus’ actions in spending time with sinners transcended His culture and actually should define Christian culture as we know it.
In Jesus’ day, rabbis and other spiritual leaders were the highest members of Jewish society. Everyone looked up to the Pharisees. They were strict adherents to the Law and tradition, and they avoided those whom they deemed “sinners” because they had a “clean” image to maintain. Tax collectors, infamous for embezzlement and their cooperation with the hated Romans, definitely fell into the “sinner” category.
As Jesus’ ministry grew, so did His popularity among the social outcasts of society. Now that Matthew was part of His inner circle, Jesus naturally had more contact with the pariahs in Matthew’s circle. Spending time with the publicans and sinners was part of Jesus’ mission: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). If Jesus was to reach the lost, He must have some contact with them. He went to where the need was because “it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” Praise the Lord, the Great Physician makes house calls.
Sitting at Matthew’s dinner table, Jesus may have broken some societal taboos, but His presence there shows that He looked beyond culture to people’s hearts. Whereas the Pharisees wrote people off simply because of their profession or their past, Jesus looked past all that and saw their need.
Jesus also transcended culture when He conversed with the Samaritan woman at the well—even His disciples were surprised by that one (John 4:27). Other telling incidents: Jesus forgives an immoral woman in Luke 7, He helps a Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7, He touches a leper in Luke 5, and He enters Zacchaeus’s house in Luke 19.
Jesus came to save sinners (Luke 19:10). Tradition, cultural bans, and the frowns of a few do not matter when a soul’s eternal destiny is on the line.
The fact that Jesus saw individuals, not just their labels, no doubt inspired them to know Him better. They recognized Jesus as a righteous man, a man of God—the miracles He performed bore witness to that—and they saw His compassion and sincerity.
Jesus didn’t let social status or cultural norms dictate His relationships with people. As the Good Shepherd, He sought the lost sheep wherever they had strayed. When Matthew hosted the dinner party, Jesus gladly accepted the invitation. It was a wonderful opportunity to share the good news of the kingdom with those who most needed to hear (see Matthew 4:23). Yes, He would be criticized for His actions, but what prophet ever lived without criticism?
Jesus transcended cultural norms and was not above spending time with the outcasts of society. He spoke truth to sinners and loved them; He offered them hope, based on their repentance and faith in Himself (Mark 1:15).
Unlike the Pharisees, Jesus didn’t require people to change before coming to Him. He sought them out, met them where they were, and extended grace to them in their circumstances. Change would come to those who accepted Christ, but it would be from the inside out. Jesus knew better than anyone that the kindness of God leads sinners to repentance (Romans 2:4).
Jesus showed us that we shouldn’t let cultural norms dictate whom we evangelize. The sick need a physician. Lost sheep need a shepherd. Are we praying the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into the field (Luke 10:2)? Are we willing to go ourselves?