[Several weeks ago a friend asked me to share with a group of pastors on the topic of “engaging the world.” I presented some of the material below as a way to think big by thinking small. It also ties in well with my church’s summer focus launched yesterday on sharing our lives.]
What would it look like for evangelism to be something naturally spilling out of our lives rather than another ministry to-do we add to our calendar? What might be a way of creating a welcoming environment full of grace-growing relationships that also allows room for speaking the truth in love? One answer is the simple but biblical act of hospitality where we share our lives with people by sharing a meal with them. Jim Peterson (author of Living Proof: Sharing the Gospel Naturally) writes, “I know of no more effective environment for initiating evangelism than a dinner at home or in a quiet restaurant.” I want to briefly talk about how we can engage the world one meal at a time.
There are three times the statement “the Son of Man came…” appears in the gospels.
1) He came not to be served but to serve, to give his life as a ransom for many (Mk. 10:45).
2) He came to seek and save the lost (Lk. 19:10).
3) He came eating and drinking (Lk. 7:34).
The importance of eating meals is a big part of Jesus’ ministry in all four gospels, but it’s especially a trademark of Luke’s gospel. One commentator says that in Luke Jesus is either having a meal, leaving a meal, or going to a meal. Here are some of the passages where food and meals are a part of Jesus’ ministry.
• Mark 2:13-17;Mt. 9:9-13; Lk. 5:27-32 (Jesus eats at Levi’s with tax collectors & sinners)
• Mark 6:30-44; Mt. 14:13-21; Lk. 9:10-17; Jn. 6:1-15 (Jesus feeds the 5,000)
• Mark 8:1-10 (Jesus feeds the 4,000)
• Matthew 11:19; Lk. 7:34 (The son of man came eating and drinking)
• Lk 24:30-35, 42-43; Jn 21:9-15 (Jesus breaks bread with those on Emmaus and eats fish breakfast with his disciples after the resurrection)
• Luke 7:36-50 (Jesus eats in the house of Simon the Pharisee and the “sinful woman” cries on his feet, wipes them with her hair, and anoints Jesus)
• Luke 10:38-42 (Jesus comes to the home of Mary and Martha)
• Luke 11:37-54 (Jesus eats with Pharisees, doesn’t wash before dinner, and pronounces woes) cf.: Mark 7:19-23
• Luke 14:1-24 (parables of wedding feast and parable of great banquet)
• Luke 15:1-2 (Jesus eats with sinners then gives 3 parables)
• Revelation 3:20 (Jesus stands at the door and knocks; he will come in and eat with us)
• Revelation 19:7-9 (Wedding feast of the lamb); cf Is. 25:6-9; Mt. 8:11
There’s a lot that I’d love to share on this topic but we’ll settle for looking at three simple things we see in the meal ministry of Jesus and just connect that to our worlds today.
1) Jesus didn’t require repentance in advance to eat with him—although that was his desired outcome.
Luke 15:1-2 “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’”
We probably don’t realize just how staggering it was that Jesus ate with sinners. He received or welcomed those who were rejected by religious leaders. The Pharisees are so appalled because this is not the way things had always been done. Even in the OT, the purity and cleanliness laws were in many ways designed to draw boundaries that kept Israel away from others. The Pharisees took these even further and used meals and pre-meal washing to draw lines between the clean and the unclean, the religious and the sinners. The Pharisees would only eat with those who kept up with their strict oral laws.
When Jesus started eating with sinners it shocked everyone because he didn’t require repentance in advance or as a requirement for eating together. He welcomed and received sinners, eating and drinking in their company. These tax collectors—who were seen as the enemies of the average Jew—and the “sinners” were probably as surprised as everyone else. All they were ever told was that they were the problem. They needed to get their act together and clean their lives up. No respectable person would associate with them. Just imagine how different and intriguing Jesus would have been to them. Here’s a respected rabbi and religious leader who’s kind to us, who eats with us, and talks with us around the table. They saw in Jesus grace embodied and they felt for the first time a welcoming invitation. No doubt this opened new doors for Jesus to speak truth into their lives.
Following Jesus means we come to him by grace not by our works or performance. We don’t ask people to clean themselves up before they come to Jesus. We ask them to come to Jesus, the only one who can clean them up. This grace is embodied in beautiful ways in the welcoming nature of a meal. We bring others into our homes to love them, to get to know them, and to share our lives with them. And not because they’ve gotten their act together or changed their ways. Yes the goal in eating with them is that they might be drawn to God, but that is not the requirement in advance.
Opening our homes or even just eating with someone at a table is a gracious act because it puts all of us on the same level. You sit eye-to-eye and there’s no one better or worse at a table. When we eat with people it’s a way of saying, “I see you as a person just like me. You don’t have to earn your place at the table by saying you believe what I say or by cleaning up your act.” This act of grace will indeed open doors that otherwise would have remained shut.
2) Jesus thought his holiness was more contagious than the impurity of sinners.
Luke 5:29-32 “And Levi made [Jesus] a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’ And Jesus answered them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.’”
Jesus can welcome, eat, and talk with sinners because he’s not concerned about their sin rubbing off on him. He sees them as people and while the Pharisees are much more concerned about their reputation and façade of righteousness, Jesus rubs elbows with the unrighteous. The attitude of the Pharisees was to withdraw from anyone who didn’t look the part of a good Jew who kept the law. They weren’t concerned about a righteousness of the heart that leads to love but a righteous appearance and reputation.
The parallel passage to Luke 5 is Matthew 9. There Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” The word for “mercy” is the word for steadfast love and “sacrifice” represents religious observance. Jesus is getting in the face of the Pharisees who made their religious rules and outward appearances their concern, not a life of love towards others. Their distancing of people who didn’t measure up shows they’ve missed the point.
Jesus takes the opposite approach, which actually shows the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and just how un-god-like they were. Instead, he speaks with, touches, talks to, and even eats with all those people that the religious leaders ignored. Jesus doesn’t do this with an “I’m okay you’re okay” attitude that overlooks their sin and brokenness. He still calls these people to repentance and to discipleship. Craig Blomberg writes, “Jesus’ rationale for associating with the outcasts is simple: ‘he wishes to draw them to God.’ Yet he does not participate in their sinful behavior. As has become a pattern in his ministry, it is the lifestyle of discipleship, purity, and doing God’s will which Christ believes he can impart to others, rather than being contaminated by their impurity.”
Part of why Jesus goes into homes and eats with them is because he knows his holiness and joy are more contagious than their sin. Their sin isn’t a like cold you catch by being too close to people. But, when they eat with Jesus, when they see how he loves them, when they hear his words of grace, when he tells them about God’s invitation to be made right with their God again, they hear the words of life and see grace in action.
This is really why I think we can engage the world one meal at a time. One of the reasons I think that happens is because the home especially can give a taste of the kingdom of God. I don’t mean that they see a spotless house and want to be converted. It’s not that you have a perfect family where you and your wife never disagree and the kids are perfectly behaved. But, when unbelievers come into your home they will hopefully see a different world, an “alternative city” as Tim Keller says. They’ll see what it looks like to have a home where people love one another, laugh together, and like each other…all because the grace of God. Just imagine the potential for engaging our city if we thought by eating with unbelievers Jesus could rub off on them more than their sin would rub off on us.
3) Jesus comes to seek and save the lost, and therefore, he eats and drinks with the lost.
Luke 5:30-32 “ And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
Why does Jesus become the friend of sinners? Why does he eat with them, welcome them, and love them? He does this because he knows they are people in need, and they’re probably more aware of their need. He’s saying, don’t you get that I came to save the lost. The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost, and the Son of Man came eating and drinking because that’s where he befriended them.
Jesus uses the analogy of a doctor. What kind of doctor spends all of his time with healthy people or with other doctors? No, a doctor exists to spend time with and help the sick people, the ones who desperately are in need of the doctor’s skill and gift. Jesus in essence says, “I came to seek and save the lost, so of course I spend my time with and welcome the lost. I came for the very people you’ve rejected. I welcome them, I show them grace, I give them a taste of life with God in his kingdom, and I call them to follow me and experience what they were created for.”
This is in part why the Pharisees got so mad; because Jesus acts as if they should get down on the same level with these people. If you’ve seen the movie Patch Adams you might remember that the University Dean couldn’t stand Patch Adams and did everything he could to get him kicked out of medical school. The University Doctors cared about their prestige, about being known as a doctor, about keeping a healthy and professional distance from patients. Patch gets on their level, laughs with them and cries with them. People open up to Patch in new ways because he befriends them. There’s one moment where the Dean erupts in frustration after Patch asks why he’s so threatened: “We’re their doctors not friends. You want us to get down on their level.” The disconnect between Patch and the Dean is that Patch saw doctors existing for the patients so that’s who he spent his time with.
In Luke 5 Jesus is the doctor who spends his time with the sick people. He came to seek out the lost and the unrighteous, so that’s who he spends time with.
My hope is that the application here is somewhat obvious. Church ministry can become so busy that sometimes we spend all of our time caring for one another. That should be a primary concern for us but we must also spend time with the lost. We don’t need a bunch of evangelism outreach events or new programs, just the gentle nudge to be in relationships with people who don’t know Jesus.
“Jesus didn’t run projects, establish ministries, create programs, or put on events. He ate meals. If you routinely share meals and you have a passion for Jesus, then you’ll be doing mission. It’s not that meals save people. People are saved through the gospel message. But meals will create natural opportunities to share that message in a context that resonates powerfully with what you’re saying.”
Asking Ourselves the Tough Questions
What we’ve seen is that Jesus considers meals as essential to his ministry because that’s the place where he welcomes sinners in grace and speaks the truth in love. Jesus viewed the time around the table as a chance to build community, to embody grace, to engage the world, and to provide a taste of life with God.
It might hurt us and help us to ask ourselves a few questions. How are we doing when it comes to sharing our lives with the lost? Engaging the world is a lot easier if it means giving to a cause or serving in a ministry, but it’s risky when it means having strangers in your house and getting involved in the mess of someone’s life.
Are we doing this first with our own families?
As I thought about this I was convicted that I need to make sure my wife and I are more regularly eating together quietly over a meal, learning about one another. Do your kids always eat in front of the television or are there times where you enjoy a conversation with them over a meal? Do you model for your kids eating with unbelievers so that they can do this in their high school, in college, or in their future homes?
Are we doing this with our own church people?
Do the people in our churches just show up to destination meetings they can slip in and out of, or are there willing to break bread together? We need to help our people know one another not from a distance but up close and personal.
Then finally, are we doing this with the lost?
Just imagine if we started opening our homes or just going to restaurants with unbelievers. What if we started engaging the world through simple acts of going into their territory and getting to know them? Or, having them in our home, welcoming them as friends, letting the gospel spill out into our conversations? Do we believe grace abounds more than sin and that Jesus can rub off on others?
Eating meals together certainly isn’t the only way to engage the world and eating meals together isn’t an end by itself. But if we want open doors and strong relationships where we can speak the truth to a lost world, I think one simple and biblical way is to return to eating meals together. As we share our lives by sharing a meal we welcome people in grace and the beautiful truth of Jesus will spill out.
 Jim Petersen, Living Proof: Sharing the Gospel Naturally (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1989), 119.
 This point is made well by Craig Blomberg in his excellent book on meals and holiness. Craig L. Blomberg, Contagious Holiness (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005).
 Craig L. Blomberg, Contagious Holiness (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 150.
 Tim Chester, A Meal with Jesus (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 89