As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he arose and followed Him. Now it happened, as He was dining in Levi’s house, that many tax collectors and sinners also sat together with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many, and they followed Him. And when the scribes and Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, “How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?”
When Jesus heard it, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” (Mark 2:14-17)
What struck me as I listened to it was a unique quality of Christ as God incarnate: everywhere He goes the icon of the Kingdom forms around Him. In this particular gospel passage, the image is that of the banquet at the end of the ages, the Messianic banquet. And as Christ warned others, the harlots and sinners have gotten there ahead of them (Matt. 21:31).
Every meal that Christ shares in the gospels, because of who He is, cannot help but be the Messianic Banquet. Every table becomes an altar, every meal, the Eucharist.
Before approaching the Holy Cup at Divine Liturgy, Orthodox Christians say in unison:
I believe, O Lord, and I confess, that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first…
It is not unlike the beautiful communion prayer of the Anglican reformer, Thomas Cranmer: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table…”
It is the true image of the great banquet – a gathering of the unrighteous with the Righteous One, the unworthy with Only Worthy. One of my favorite passages in Dostoevsky is the scandalous image of the drunk, Marmeladov, and his proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom. But the scandal of his vision cannot surpass the wondrous scandal of Christ’s own actions: publicans and harlots gathered around Him at the Last Banquet – of which I am not worthy.
…”And He will judge and will forgive all, the good and the evil, the wise and the meek…And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us, ‘You too come forth,’ He will say, ‘Come forth, ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!’ And we shall all come forth without shame and shall stand before Him. And He will say unto us, ‘Ye are swine, made in the image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also!’ And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, ‘O Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?’ And He will say,’This is why I receive them, O ye wise, this is why I receive them, O ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.’ And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down before Him…and we shall weep…and we shall understand all things! Then we shall understand all!…and all will understand, Katerina Ivanovna even…she will understand…Lord, Thy kingdom come!” And he sank down on the bench exhausted and helpless, looking at no one, apparently oblivious of his surroundings and plunged in deep thought. His words had created a certain impression; there was a moment of silence; but soon laughter and oaths were heard again.