Just before this story in the Gospel of Luke Jesus has healed a paralytic and forgiven him of his sins. A little bit before that he had stirred up controversy with his public proclamation of the purpose of his mission. And now he again stirs up trouble by talking to Levi, inviting him to be one of his followers, and eating at his table with other tax collectors.
First of all, it’s good to understand why this would have stirred up trouble for Jesus. All of Judea was occupied territory – the Roman Empire had taken over. Where Rome came, taxes came. And with taxes came the need to have locals (who knew the area and language) collect taxes (usually backed by Roman militia). So tax collectors were hated because they were willingly working for the occupying force and, on top of that, collecting money from fellow Jews to give to that same occupying force.
But there was a bit more at work in the revilement that most Jews felt for these Jewish tax collectors. The tax collectors could read, write and handle ledgers. When they came to the home of the average Jewish citizen there was no way for the tax payer to know if the amount they were being charged was correct. Consequently, many (but not all) tax collectors tended to collect a little extra on the side for themselves. They made a nice sum of money off of the backs of people already being taxed beyond a reasonable amount.
So tax collectors were automatically considered sinners for two reasons – they were working for the invading force, and they were stealing from their countrymen. What happened if you were one of the honest tax collectors? You were lumped into the bunch of bad ones – popular prejudice (judging someone before getting to know them) said that every tax collector was, of course, stealing from everyone else.
And then Jesus comes along. He doesn’t pre-judge Levi. He doesn’t lecture him on his choice of professions. He doesn’t chastise him for his past behavior. He simply invites Levi to follow him. Levi, moved by the offer, decides to throw a party for Jesus, Jesus’ friends, and his own friends. Jesus (party goer that he is) accepts.
The dinner party goes well, except that there are some Pharisees and scribes (not invited to the party) who are a bit upset at Jesus’ choice of company. By this time in Luke’s gospel Jesus has performed several signs of God’s coming reign. His reputation is starting to precede him, and people . . . except more of him. Imagine if you heard that Mother Teresa was coming to visit your area. In your excitement to meet her you put on your best clothes and drive out to where you’ve heard she’ll be. You find yourself travelling to the seedier side of town, and finally find Mother Teresa at the home of a known drug dealer, sitting at their table, eating their food, and socializing with their . . business associates. 🙂
That might capture the feel of how these students of religion and the Scriptures felt seeing Jesus and his disciples surrounded by tax collectors (read: sinners). They weren’t chastising them, they weren’t preaching to them, they weren’t condemning them – they were actually enjoying themselves and sharing a meal.
I can almost imagine a bit of jealousy creeping into their thoughts: “Why is he hanging out with those people? Why isn’t he spending time with us?” And when they confront Jesus with his outlandish behavior, Jesus reminds them that it’s people who are very sick who need doctors the most, not those who are pretty healthy.
Jesus came to “bring good news to the poor . . . proclaim the release of captives . . . to let the oppressed go free (Lk 4:18).” And that necessarily entailed spending time with the undesirables of his day. I like to compare it to modern day times – if Jesus came back today he would be spending time with HIV patients; drug dealers and drug users; pedophiles; tax collectors (some things never change! :)); children and teens abused and beat up for having same sex attractions; biker gangs; gangs in general; prostitutes; the poor, lowly, downtrodden, invisible, unwanted, unwelcome masses that sometimes live on the fringe of polite society because they don’t feel welcome there at all.
So I have issues with parishes and dioceses (in my particular Catholic denomination) and churches in general (in any given Christian denomination) who place such a high premium on how people come dressed to Mass (or service). My thinking says that if Jesus welcomed “sinners” with open arms and heart, then we should do the same. Accepting people where they’re at, and meeting people where they’re at, were staples of Jesus’ ministry. When we put artificial barriers to that acceptance, we’ve become part of the problem, not part of the healing that Jesus came to bring.
What I see Jesus doing over and over again in the gospels is entering into relationships with people. No judgement, no condemnation (unless they were being overly righteous or hypocritical) – only a merciful acceptance of all the historically contingent idiosyncrasies in their lives that had led them up to where he found them. Once he entered into a relationship with individuals, then he called them to conversion. But he respected them enough . . . he valued them enough as individuals – to meet them where they were at. No artificial barriers to his friendship – just a deep seated desire to affirm their beauty as echoes of the divine breath within them, in all their broken glory.
It was only after this time of relationship that he begins to challenge them to conversion of heart, mind, body and soul.
If we place such a high premium on how we dress for Mass, then our role should not be one of gate keeping: “that’s too short, that’s too tight, that’s too revealing, that’s too baggy, how dare you come into my church wearing that clothing!” It should be one of relationship – entering into a messy and complicated relationship with individuals with no predetermined agenda except getting to know them as reflections of Jesus Christ. Once we have the courage to enter into their lives, and let them enter into our lives . . . then and only then do we have the privilege – not the right – of challenging them to change their lives.
It could something as innocuous as what they wear to Mass (because in the grand scheme of things, this is a very small thing!). It could be something as life altering as their choice of professions, or past times, or life partners. But if we are not willing to enter into the messiness of a real relationship with them – not a “let’s get to superficially know them so we can tell them how to act or dress” – but a real relationship that has the capacity to hurt and to change both ways . . . if we’re not willing to do that, then we do not have the privilege or the right to denounce them for dressing or acting in a certain way.
I don’t think this applies to those of us who are a bit more “churchy,” mind you. If we’ve been lucky enough to spend time around church all of our lives, if we’ve been lucky enough to have been catechized well and taken it to heart . . . then, in a very real sense, we know better. Dress up a bit for church. Make it a special occasion. But don’t assume that everyone has been so lucky. Welcome people with open arms. Show the whole body of Christ – not just those who dress and talk and act like us – that they are welcome in our church, in our community, in our hearts.
Until we can do that, we have no business whatsoever telling people what they can and cannot wear to worship.
Blessings & Peace,