"Being first is a problem. I have to eat so much."
- Ronald Reagan (quoted in Time, 9/23/1985)
The Gospels, especially Luke's, devote a great amount of material to accounts of, and disputes about, Jesus' eating. His and His disciples' eating habits were often the source of criticism and condemnation by His contemporaries, especially the religious ones.
"And the Pharisees and their scribes were grumbling to His disciples saying, 'Why do you eat and drink with tax gatherers and sinners?'" (Luke 5:30)
"And they said to Him, 'The disciples of John fast often and say prayers, and likewise those of the Pharisees, but Yours eat and drink" (5:33).
"And it was on the Sabbath and He was going through the grain fields and His disciples were rolling the heads of grain in their hands and eating. But some of the Pharisees said, 'Why are you doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?'" (6:1, 2)
"For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine and you say, 'He has a demon!' The Son of Man came eating and drinking and you say, 'Look, a man who's a glutton and a wino, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'" (7:33, 34)
Then there's the story of the "town sinner" who washed His feet with her tears while He was dining at a Pharisee's house (7:36-50). "And when the Pharisee who invited Him saw this, he said to himself, 'If this one were a prophet, He would have known who this is and what sort of woman she is who's touching Him, that she's a sinner'" (7:39).
"... a Pharisee asked Him to have lunch with him and He entered in and reclined. And the Pharisee was amazed when he saw that He didn't first wash before lunch" (11:37, 38).
Then the first 25 verses of chapter 14 give a series of incidents that occurred while He was dining at the house of a Pharisee on the Sabbath. First He healed a man, which was considered to be unlawful on the Sabbath. Then He followed this with a series of parables and sayings punching holes in their ostentation and pomposity.
Again in chapter 15: "And all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to hear Him, and the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling, saying 'This one receives sinners and eats with them'" (15:1, 2).
Or the account of the conversion of Zacchaeus (19:1-10), a notorious tax collector, who promised after coming to Jesus that he would make amends to everyone he had swindled and give half his possessions to the poor. All we read of the crowd's reaction was, "All who saw this were grumbling, saying, 'He's going in to lodge with a man who is a sinner!'" (19:7)
So what were these people so uptight about and why did Jesus seem to enjoy pushing their buttons?
There are many explanations and not all fit. An answer usually given to the first question is that the Jewish people of Jesus' day attempted to rigidly follow 'Kosher' laws. There were rules in the Law of Moses, the Torah, prescribing what kinds of animals could be eaten, as well as how these meats were to be prepared. There were rules regarding cleansing and laws specifying who could eat what. There were also rules regarding the Sabbath day, the day of rest and what could or could not be done on that day. Then the rabbis had added more rules on top of these to ensure that the God-given laws could be kept. This was referred to as "building a fence around the Law."
While there were of course, many who strove to observe all the rules, there were also those who felt themselves specially chosen to make sure those rules were kept. And of course, there were others, who didn't or couldn't keep all the rules. These folks were regarded as "sinners." They were defiled and all who ate with them were defiled as well.
Jesus kept the Mosaic Law. We read of no incident where He broke it. But He did push the line and in pushing the line, He often crossed the artificial lines that fenced in the Law. And He Himself explained why He behaved the way He did and as to why He ate with the outcasts -- the tax collectors and sinners: "The healthy have no need of a doctor, but those who are ill do. I didn't come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (5:31, 32).
I don't know if His hearers -- "the righteous" -- caught the sarcasm in those words. Jesus was a man on a mission; he had come to bring people back to God. And He had to start with those who were sinners, who recognized that they were in some way alienated from God. He seems to have given up on those who felt that they were already right -- "righteous" -- before God (and that God was lucky to have them).
But in befriending "sinners," He had to break with tradition, with those man-made rules. And in doing this He became regarded as unclean in the eyes of the "righteous."
I have often attempted to get a mental picture of Jesus reclining at the table with disreputable people. I can see Him surrounded by loud, shaggy, dirty, smelly men (and women), laughing as He tilts his glass and chugs down one more round. He must have been pleasant company, as we're told that they sought him out. He was their friend.
And though He was on a mission, I can't help believing that He was enjoying himself immensely.