The Arimathean winced involuntarily as he watched the casual touch. How could this Galilean teacher so carelessly ignore the barriers with the Magdalene? It wasn’t that his hand lingered inappropriately when he tore off the bread and passed it to her. It was just that he made no attempts to avoid the touch.
And the embrace of the traitorous tax-collectors as the former Carpenter met them one after the other. It was as if he was the host to a throng of kings and princes. No special ceremonies or washings had been done to overcome the defilement of this place of publicans and sinners. No special prayers to atone for accidental impurities along the way.
The ceremonial jars for washing stood unused by the gates. Joseph of Arimathea had made use of them already several times as unclean peasants brushed up against him without regard for his status. The Sanhedrin had delegated him to monitor and confront the radical teachings of this one who proclaimed his disturbing grace. And yet, even more than the teachings, it was the disturbing wave of unrestricted joy the Nazarene found in just celebrating with people from every walk of life.
The addictive smell of roasting lamb danced hypnotically in Joseph’s nostrils. The heady scents of fresh baked barley loaves combined with the enticing aroma of newly poured wine. Joseph’s stomach grumbled its complaint at being deprived of this feast but the holy man was determined to hold his ground.
How could this God-talking road-walker surround himself with fishermen and claim to be the very fulfillment of every believer’s prayers? Joseph caught the glare of the Pharisee, Simon, lounging just inside the garden gate. His arms were crossed in self-protection from all he saw. His long flowing robes and extra lengthy tassels went unnoticed in this place. No one called him to take the most important seat. He was clearly agitated as he wrestled between his scuffled pride and his inner urgency to stay pure and isolated.
The eyes of the guardian of the Torah urged Joseph of Arimathea to hold fast against the flaunting of everything sacred now being witnessed. This public setting circumvented all the laws of decorum between men and women; between those ceremonially clean and unclean; between those approved of God and those not. Banqueting in the courtyard of Matthew Levi’s home was no place for any self respecting rabbi sent from God. Surely Matthew’s father Alphaeus would roll over in his grave to see such activity.
It was true that Nicodemus whispered subtle support for the character and wisdom of the teacher. The great teacher of Israel had secretly spent night hours with the one who spoke so openly about God’s love and grace. He was being swayed to believe that Yeshua was perhaps the Messiah who truly saw into the hearts and souls of men. Joseph was sure that if Nicodemus had witnessed this scene of disturbing grace he might become more cautious.
It was one thing to speak the words of grace. It was another to live without regard for the status and purity of those whose choices had bound them in chains of disgrace. The tax collectors here would not have been permitted to come near the temple grounds. The women of shame would not have been allowed near any true teacher of Moses. And yet here the banqueters celebrated as if having emerged from darkness into sunshine for the first time in their lives. As if God’s grace was actually meant for them.
Simon stealthily sidled up beside the Arimathean and motioned for John and Andrew to join the informal circle. The burly fishermen rose from their place at the table and stepped over reclining bodies to huddle with the members of the Sanhedrin. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”1 The hissing question was full of accusation and condemnation.
When the feeble attempts at defending their teacher proved fruitless Andrew disengaged himself and worked his way back through sprawling legs to the side of the teacher. He knelt a moment and whispered his inquiry.
The teacher broke off his conversation to trumpet aloud his response. The band of the broken stuttered into silence. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”2
Joseph suddenly felt sick.
1. NIV Matthew 9:11b
2. NIV Matthew 9:12-13
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