Contagious Holiness Over Dinner?

Jesus befriended sinners because He believed that His holiness was contagious. His friendship with sinners serves as a model for helping people experience God’s transforming grace.

by Craig L. Blomberg

Even in this age of fast-food restaurants and microwave meals, it matters with whom we eat. At least in the U.S., it is rare for complete strangers to sit together over a meal in a public place. As Christians, we may be even more selective about whom we invite into our homes.

In the ancient Middle East, people took hospitality more seriously than most of us and were more guarded with whom they ate. Most cultures had dietary restrictions and taboos; and, in some instances, eating the wrong food could render a person ritually unclean. Only after the passage of time and participation in purification rituals could one be declared clean.

The implications of our dietary practices with respect to evangelism and discipleship are worth noting. Whereas the Pharisees avoided contact with “sinners” so they would not become ritually unclean, Jesus befriended sinners because He believed that His holiness was contagious. This article will examine Jesus’ friendship with sinners as a model for helping people experience God’s transforming grace.

Israel’s Kosher Meals

The ancient Israelites formed a classic example of dietary practices. Genesis 18 depicts Abraham and Sarah having “entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2, KJV), as they lavished a feast on total strangers. But the Law given at Mount Sinai became the basis of kosher laws that prevented the Israelites from eating certain meats and shellfish (Leviticus 11). Over the centuries, this often prevented them from accepting dinner invitations from non-Israelites, lest they defile themselves by eating at the same table or in the same home as those who were, from their perspective, ceremonially unclean.

Second Kings 6:21–23 provides a rare exception to this exclusivism and also illustrates love for one’s enemies. During the days of the divided kingdom with Israel in the north and Judah in the south, Israel is fighting her northern neighbor, the Arameans. After taking a number of prisoners of war, Joram, the king of Israel, asked the prophet Elisha if he should kill them. Elisha told him no and ordered him to prepare food and water for them. The result was a great feast, and the release of these prisoners. As a result of Israel’s kindness, Aram stopped raiding Israelite territory. But even in this turn of events, the writer of Second Kings does not describe the Israelites as eating togetherwith the Arameans, but merely providing a lavish meal for them.

The importance of table fellowship emerges in the Psalms in new ways. Psalm 23:5 promises, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” The Psalmist wanted David’s enemies to see how the Lord had favored him with abundant provision, but they do not share in it.

When people did share a meal, one of the most treacherous acts ancient Middle Easterners could undertake was to betray a host or a guest (or even a former host or guest). This is what makes Psalm 41:9 so heinous: “Even my best friend, the one I trusted completely, the one who shared my food, has turned against me” (NLT1). Jesus applied this text to His betrayal by Judas (John 13:18).

An exceptional text appears in Proverbs 25:21,22: “If your enemy is hungry, give him some food to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him some water to drink. In this way you will make him feel guilty and ashamed, and the Lord will reward you” (GW2). Paul quoted this principle in Romans 12:20 and saw it as binding for Christians. But in Old Testament times, such sentiments were few. More common were the attitudes that Daniel discloses: he would rather eat only vegetables and drink only water than defile himself with the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar’s meat and wine (Daniel 1:8–20).

During the roughly 450 years between the time of Malachi, the last of the writing prophets, and the ministry of Jesus, Jews became even more entrenched in their anti-Gentile attitudes. Stipulations concerning what constituted ritual purity at mealtime became more elaborate. So also did restrictions on dinner companions. At the same time Jews looked forward to the Messianic Age when the prophecy of Isaiah 25:6 would be fulfilled and all peoples would gather together on Mount Zion in Jerusalem and feast on rich foods and fine wines. But the Jews assumed that all the nations would stream to Jerusalem to learn and practice God’s law so everyone could eat in ceremonial purity. The closer they came to New Testament times, the more the influence of the Greek and Roman empires that occupied Israel made this vision for holy feasting attractive, because the Greco-Roman world was legendary for its debauched partying — feasts thrown by wealthy people leading to excessive consumption followed by sexual promiscuity with courtesans provided for the partygoers.

Jesus’ Meals With Sinners

Keep this background in mind as we observe the practices of Jesus. One of His twelve disciples is Levi, also called Matthew, a tax collector. The Jews would have viewed Levi, a Jew working as a middleman for the hated Romans — often also levying extortionary tribute — as perpetually unclean. Yet Jesus not only called him but also went to dinner at his house along with many other “sinners” (Mark 2:14,15) — a term normally reserved in the Gospels for the most notoriously wicked in Jesus’ world. When Jesus learned of the Pharisees’ outrage over His behavior, He responded, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (verse 17). Luke spells out what that calling entails — a call “to repentance” (Luke 5:31).

When Jesus fed the 5,000 and 4,000 in the wilderness (Mark 6:30–44; 8:1–13), many would have been ritually impure because they did not have water to perform purification rites. Feeding the 4,000 most likely occurred with a predominantly Gentile crowd. In Mark 7:1–23, Jesus and His disciples did not follow the Pharisaic principles for hand washing before meals. Before the end of the controversy this created, Jesus insisted that no foods can defile anyone, only the thoughts and actions that come out of a person. Mark, probably writing in the 60s, adds the parenthetical comment that, by saying this, Jesus was declaring all foods clean (verse 19).

Mark, Early Church tradition affirms, learned most of the information for his Gospel from Peter. The apostle Peter had a vision of unclean and clean animals together descending from heaven on a large sheet, with God instructing him three times to rise, kill, and eat these animals (Acts 10:9–23). The fledgling church understood better in the 60s than they did during Christ’s earthly ministry in the late 20s just how sweeping the implications were of His teaching on what made a person clean or unclean, holy or profane.

Hints of a day when Jew and Gentile would eat all foods together in Christian love also appear in the story about the Roman centurion’s faith (Matthew 8:5–13).

When Jesus praised the belief of a commanding officer of 100 occupying enemy troops as greater than anything He had ever seen in Israel (verse 10), His praise was scarcely designed to win Jewish supporters. Worse still, from their perspective, Jesus added that Gentiles from around the globe would replace Jewish patriarchs in the great Messianic banquet at the end of human history (verses 11,12).

In Matthew 11:16–19, Jesus told a parable about children playing in the marketplace. They first played “wedding,” then acted out a “funeral.” But no one joined in their play. Jesus likened these uncooperative responses to His contemporaries’ rejection of Him and John the Baptist: “ ‘For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon.” The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” ’ ” (verses 18,19).

While Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and sinners, there is no evidence He ever overate or overdrank. Still, the fact when people caricatured Him, they likened Him more to a party animal than to an ascetic, proves telling. He wanted to associate with all people in the intimate context of table fellowship, even if, at times, that led others to misrepresent His behavior or intentions.

Nor did Jesus avoid the more powerful, well-to-do, and respected leaders of His society. He accepted dinner invitations from Pharisees. But when a notoriously sinful woman, presumably a prostitute, crashed one such gathering, He remained calm even though her actions scandalized others. One commentator likened her pouring a costly jar of ointment on His feet and wiping them with her hair to a woman showing up topless at a contemporary church potluck. But Jesus recognized the woman’s gratefulness for His ministry to her and does not berate her (Luke 7:36–50). In fact, when He did berate anyone over dinner, it was when He was eating with Pharisees. Culturally, He came across as a fairly discourteous guest when He rebuked them for their hypocrisies and love of honor and acclaim (Luke 11:37–53; 14:1–24).

Consider Jesus’ meal with Zaccheus (Luke 19:1–10). Zaccheus was a chief tax collector who, not surprisingly, was quite wealthy (verse 2). Jesus’ announcement that He (and, by implication, His disciples) were going to stay at Zaccheus’ house would have been culturally shocking. This was more than an invitation to the evening meal. Jesus and His disciples would not have been able to walk the 13 miles from Jericho to Jerusalem during the safe daytime hours after the meal. Jesus’ words are an implicit request for overnight lodging as well.

Even today, with our more casual approaches to hospitality, we would not, at the last minute, invite ourselves and 12 friends for a meal and a sleepover at the home of a total stranger, and certainly not someone whose occupation is an embarrassment to everything we stand for as believers. But that is in essence what Jesus did (verse 5).

Zaccheus seemed honored rather than offended, and gladly provided the requested hospitality. He announced his repentance by promising to restore fourfold all he had defrauded and giving away half of his total net worth to the poor (verses 6–8). Jesus thus declares Zaccheus’ salvation and appends what some have called the thesis statement of the Gospel of Luke: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (verse 10).

The most significant meal during Christ’s life is the one He celebrates with His disciples on the night before His crucifixion. Judas also eats and drinks with Him before leaving to carry out the ruse that delivers Jesus over to the authorities. It seems there are significant sinners at every meal Jesus was a part of in the Gospels. Sometimes the sinners are merely ritually impure; often they are morally wicked. Occasionally, they are the seemingly upstanding religious leaders whose hypocrisy is obvious to few, if any, but Jesus. Finally, even one of the twelve disciples tips his hand concerning his evil heart.

How would Jesus’ mealtime practices have looked against the Old Testament background surveyed earlier? Clearly Christ turned everything upside down. Israelite religion was about preserving the purity of God’s people in both a ritual and a moral sense. Jews believed that dining with the wrong people, even if they were not at that moment consuming unclean food, was simply too risky to be permitted. It was too easy to become defiled, even unwittingly. One might sum up this attitude with the concept that impurity was contagious — catching, readily spreading from one person to another.

Jesus stood this notion on its head. For Him and for His genuine followers it was holiness — purity — that was contagious. Jesus and His disciples brought redemption and wholeness into settings of sin and uncleanness. Even when no food was present, the same principle was at work. Instead of incurring ritualistic and physical uncleanness from touching a leper, Jesus’ touch made the leper clean (Matthew 8:1–4). Unlike the Jewish leaders who imposed long periods of probationary penance on those who claimed to have repented of a lifestyle of sin, Jesus welcomed people as His followers at the first sign of a genuine change of heart (see especially Luke 15:11–32).

The Church’s Missional Meals

The implications of this for contemporary evangelism and discipleship are staggering. Some have characterized evangelicals as separationists — sometimes consciously avoiding close friendships with lost people, and often so busy with their activities with fellow believers they have few, if any, close, unsaved friends. If they do have unsaved friends, evangelicals are more comfortable inviting them to Christian gatherings than hanging out in places their friends like to be — with largely or exclusively non-Christian companions. If someone were to suggest that a good place for Christians to appear regularly and make friends was the local bar, this would horrify many fellow churchgoers. The reason for this reaction is a fear that non-Christians will corrupt Christians rather than Christians having any positive effect on non-Christians. Some might add that even if the Christians involved could resist corruption, they might lead a weaker Christian brother or sister astray. Finally, some will quote the KJV translation of 1 Thessalonians 5:22: “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” The Greek word for “appearance” here means “kind.” The NIV, “Reject every kind of evil,” is less misleading.

First Corinthians 10:13 teaches that God gives every believer the ability to not give in to temptation. Of course, there will be times when we need to dissuade young, immature Christians from placing themselves in situations in which they will be tempted to revert to sinful practices. But Christians must mature beyond this stage.

Jesus’ model needs to captivate us with the vision of our ability — through the Spirit’s empowerment — to make holy the unholy. Christians who move in groups into rough neighborhoods can make a difference in bettering communities. Christians in the workplace who courteously model ethical business practices can over time improve the standard of an entire company. Christians who stay in the public schools as administrators, teachers, or students can make a difference in the moral atmosphere of their institutions.

Missional churches often talk about belonging before believing or becoming. This was my experience as a high school student years ago in a Campus Life/Youth for Christ club. We welcomed all students. We considered anyone who came regularly a valued part of our group. Some were Christians; others, like me, came to Christ through activities. A few never did, but they were all touched in some way.

We need a lot more churches to think creatively about how they can become more contagious Christians.


1. Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.

2. Scripture quotations from GOD’S WORD are used by permission. Copyright © 1995 by God’s Word to the Nations Bible Society. All rights reserved.