“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”” (Luke 7:34)
The first thing to say is that if you think this famous verse is about how much Jesus ate or drank, you have missed the point entirely. The key is in the phrase “And you say.” The verse is about what people said about him.
It was trial by gossip.
But for the gossip to really work, it had to have some piece of truth wrapped up in the innuendo. In this case, it was the comparison between Jesus and John the Baptist. John was well known as an austere, ascetic type, whereas Jesus ate and drank with those of the worst reputation (as the following story in Luke 7:36-50 indicates).
Opponents of the two managed to find fault with both lifestyles!
Certainly the gospels portray Jesus as someone who sometimes feasted well and enjoyed a good party — think of the wedding at Cana (in John 2). However, except for the above accusation, the gospels don’t give us any evidence of Jesus acting drunkenly or inappropriately. There are many references to Jesus praying and fasting (the forty days in the wilderness, for example).
Perhaps it is best to look at Jesus as one who can both teach us how to celebrate with abundance when appropriate, but also how to show restraint over our physical cravings.
But the central point, as I said, is not diet or lifestyle but gossip and criticism.
Jesus has come to town and they treat him like a rock star. But instead of staying with the reputable and ritually pure, he eats with the hated tax collectors and the unclean. He openly shows contempt for the hoity-toity religious leaders, calling them “hypocrites” and a “brood of vipers.” Why was he so harsh? Something of the reason is explained here:
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.” (Matthew 23:13)
Their attitude was excluding people from the grace of God.
This gossip is their revenge. They call Him a glutton and a drunkard. They criticise Him for healing people on the Sabbath and for forgiving people and for calling God “Father” – or even “Dad”. Imagine such familiarity!
He heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, stands up for the social rejects, touches the untouchable. This chapter even includes the account of his healing a Roman Centurion’s servant. A foreigner! A Gentile! An oppressor!
Do you see the thread? Jesus is redrafting the rules of what is “clean” and what is “unclean.” It was a lesson that Peter had to learn in Acts 10: “Do not call unclean what God has made clean.” In the face of God’s grace-in-action, lepers can be touched, the sabbath is characterised not by prohibition but celebration and the morally pure Jesus is “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”
And so the religious leaders hated that earthy, real Jesus. His compassion just didn’t fit with their religion.
They plot to kill Him.
They crucify Him.
That’s what religion does to you.
So – what will it be? Religion … or Jesus?
The thing is: if Jesus didn’t eat and drink with the lost then I would still be lost and hungry. God didn’t stand aloof from our pain but entered into it completely, sharing and caring with those who knew they needed it, whilst the self-righteous and self-important excluded themselves from the party.
But God is looking for those who are ready to receive. It was to a Pharisee called Nicodemus that Jesus spoke these words (in John 3):
“ For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
This is the verdict: light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.”
To “believe” Jesus is to take your stand with him, to join the party, and to identify with those who acknowledge their need of him.
Only sinners need apply!