Jesus chose his twelve disciples very carefully, making sure they had the right pedigree and college degrees. Not! They were a bunch of nobodies, at best. They included a few smelly fishermen, an anti-government activist and a tax collector.
Maybe the least likely of them was the tax collector, a young man named Matthew. Guys like this were not respected by the proper people in Jewish society, since they made deals with the oppressive Roman government to squeeze taxes of various kinds from their fellow-citizens for a cut of the take. But Jesus saw that there was more to Matthew, a spiritual curiosity and a longing for a higher calling. He invited him to become one of his “select” few, and Matthew responded.
Shortly after this critical meeting, Matthew invited Jesus to be the honored guest, along with the other disciples, at a dinner to meet his friends. We can read about it in the Gospel attributed to him, Matthew 9:10. The invited guests were people like Matthew, described as “tax collectors and sinners.” We’ve already talked about the negative image tax collectors had. “Sinners” is a generic term for lower-class Jewish people who were careless about keeping religious rules and regulations and were ceremonially “unclean.” Eating a meal with people like this was a particularly offensive thing to the Pharisees and other religious leaders in that culture, and they let Jesus, Matthew and the other hosts know about it (verse 11).
If you read the whole of Matthew Chapter 9, you’ll find Jesus interacting with a lot of other outcast types of people: a paralyzed man (verse 2), people who don’t keep religious fasts (14), a man in mourning because of his daughter’s death (18), a woman with chronic hemorrhaging (20), two blind men (27), a mute man who seemed to be demon-possessed (32). It seems that Matthew is trying to make the point that THIS JESUS WILL EAT WITH ANYONE.
This year’s Grammy Award for Best Country Song is entitled “Crowded Table.”* It’s about a person who has a heart like Jesus’ heart, who has a “Ya’ll Come” attitude, with open arms for people who need a little love and grace. The lyrics of the chorus are:
You can hold my hand
When you need to let go
I want a house with a crowded table
And a place by the fire for everyone
Brandi Carlile is one of the authors of “Crowded Table,” and I believe her personal input comes partly from her own Christian journey. She grew up in an isolated rural community, and it slowly dawned on her that she was attracted to women, not men. This was publicly disclosed when she was 15 and about to be baptized by her Baptist Pastor. In front of her parents and friends, he asked her some preliminary questions about the seriousness of her Christian commitment, and when she disclosed she was a lesbian, he refused to baptize her.**
The great news is that her faith in Jesus weathered that Pharisee-rejection, and now, more than twenty years later, she is open about both her mature Christian faith and her lesbian marriage. She tries to share the message of acceptance with other modern-day misfits, that there’s room for them at Jesus Crowded Table. And a place by his fire for everyone.
It’s interesting that this chapter in Matthew’s Gospel ends with a challenge to invite unlikely people into the comfort of his presence:
When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (verses 36-37).
If we don’t see the plentiful harvest, maybe we’re looking in the wrong places.
– Pastor George Van Alstine
* Thanks to my friend Mike Hale for calling my attention to this inspiring song, to Brandi Carlile and her unique story of persevering faith. You may listen to “Crowded Tables” at
** You can listen to Brandi Carlile sing two of her own compositions, “The Story” and “The Joke,” at
If you want to learn more about her faith journey, you can find information at