As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. 10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Matthew 9:9-11 ESV
Every year for as long as I can remember, my family threw a party on Christmas day at our home. The tradition started a year before I was even born and we did it every year without fail for 26 years. I grew up part of a very tight-knit church community where we were more family than friends and everyone knew that the Wallace household would be open to all on December 25th. People brought their family, friends, neighbors–everyone was welcome.
Growing up, I remember the weeks of preparation that went into making this party happen. My dad would buy toys for all the children of our family and friends who came every year and he always bought extra gifts just in case we had unexpected visitors show up with children. My mom would spend hours cooking a ton of food the day before the party–enough to feed the at least 100 people who were sure to show up and any guests they might be bringing with them. We never sent out invitations. We never planned for seating arrangements. We knew there would be people every room. Everyone just came because they knew our doors would be open and they would be welcome.
Ending our 26 year tradition was definitely bittersweet, but we decided as a family that we would do it. The kids had all grown up, people had moved away and we were all part of a new church community. Instead, we decided we’d have a family brunch and spend the day together watching movies and playing games.
Hospitality is BIG in my family and we also knew that there would inevitably be unexpected guests showing up every year anyway and we were determined to always be ready to receive them.
One year in particular, one of my childhood besties told me that she wanted to stop by to spend a little time with the family. She asked me if her co-worker, Emily, who was new to New York and didn’t have any family or friends to spend the holiday with, could come along. She warned me that she didn’t know her very well, but that she didn’t want her to spend the holiday alone. When I gave my mom the heads up about Emily, she was determined to make it the most welcoming experience possible for her.
When they arrived, we greeted them enthusiastically with hugs and words of welcome–which in retrospect was probably a bit overwhelming for poor Emily, ha!–my mom also told Emily that she was family, that she was welcome and that our home was her home. It felt good to be able to show love to her in this way. What we intended just as a warm reception ended up being a whole lot more. You see, Emily didn’t come from an affectionate or close-knit family. At some point during the evening, she’d pulled my friend aside almost in tears saying how she’d never experienced anything like this–a family that loved each other and that actually made her feel like she was a part of it.
What Emily experienced that day obviously effected her in that moment, but it also marked me for life. I don’t tell this story as a pat on the back to my family, not at all. I tell it as a reminder and as encouragement to myself about the power of a welcoming posture. I tell it to remind both you and me that generosity of love, of welcome and of grace is what changes our life and its what can change the lives around us. We never know the weight of what someone else is carrying until we open up and offer our arms and hands.
Jesus himself is the very model of this generosity and welcome. The passage above paints us an image of a reclining Jesus. I can picture him casually kicked back at the table, surrounded by his disciples and people he’s maybe never even met, some with not so great reputations. Right? There he is, among people who were used to making others feel uncomfortable just by being around them, and he’s totally at ease, unfazed by their history, unfazed by the way society perceives them—so much so that the Bible says that tax collectors and sinners came and felt welcome to recline with him as well. How welcoming his posture must have been that people, seeing him there, felt free to come and join him at the table…that people who maybe felt they didn’t fit in anywhere else, felt right at home with him.
I love that to this very day, we can always find Jesus reclining at the table, welcoming people, cozying up to the likes of you and me: his disciples and the tax collectors and the misfits all finding their place at the table. And I love that WE get to be a part of setting that table; WE get to be a part of making room for others to join in at the table of Jesus’s grace and freedom when we open our lives, our hearts and even our homes to the people in our world.
You know, in a city like ours it’s so easy to get lost in the fast pace, in the dog eat dog culture. It’s easy to feel lonely and isolated. As we go about our everyday lives this week, let’s be thinking about how we can be generous–with our lives, our time, our finances, our friendship, our kindness–because when we give generously of our lives, we set the table for others to come RECLINE, to take a load off and find rest, community and freedom with Jesus.