Sunday, February 20, 2011

Gay Gospel Doctrine Class: A Place at the Table

This lesson (#7), as presented in the LDS Gospel Doctrine Sunday School class manual, covers the miracles of Jesus in the opening days and weeks of his early Galilean ministry.  But there is also a little vignette tucked in amongst all the stories of miracles that is not addressed in the "official" manual.  Partly for that reason, this lesson will deal primarily with that vignette, which focuses on the man Levi, also called Matthew.  

Of the many miracles that are mentioned in the reading for this lesson, I have decided to focus on one:  the healing of the long-suffering woman of Capernaum who suffered from an issue of blood.  But because this post was growing too long, I have decided to split the lesson into two parts; the second part, entitled "The Hem of His Garment," will be presented tomorrow.  Don't worry, however, if you happen to be among those who read this who will be attending a real Gospel Doctrine class today and had hoped to make comments based on this gay version of the lesson:  I don't think you'd be brave enough to use the content of tomorrow's post as the basis for a comment in class.  Stay tuned ...

The Feast of Levi (Matthew)

From the gospel of Mark, Chapter 2, we read (New Living Translation*):

13   Then Jesus went out to the lakeshore again [in Capernaum] and taught the crowds that were coming to him.
14   As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. So Levi got up and followed him.
15   Later, Levi invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. (There were many people of this kind among Jesus’ followers.)
16   But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with such scum?”
 17  When Jesus heard this, he told them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”

[* If you are interested in alternative translations of the Bible, i.e., other than the King James Version, go to]

Tax collectors were hated by everyone at that time. No other rabbi except for Jesus would have offered them his presence. Rome's method of collecting taxes was to employ as tax collectors locals who knew who had money and where they kept it. A province was divided into tax districts. Locals would bid for the contract of collecting taxes in a district. The bid was the money they were contracted to pay the government; whatever they collected over that amount was theirs to keep. The chief tax collector owned the contract for his region; he would employ others to collect taxes in the various villages.

Tax collectors were widely regarded as thieves and robbers. They were hated men. All a tax collector would have to do is threaten to report a person to the soldiers of Herod or Rome, and he could take what he wanted by extortion. Tax collectors who collaborated with the hated Romans were despised even more.

To eat with a Gentile or tax collector was considered by the strict Pharisees to render one spiritually or ceremonially unclean. Uncleanness was conveyed by touch and association. Even a house entered by a tax collector was considered unclean. Tax collectors were both hated and avoided by respectable society.  The term "sinner" was also used to designate individuals who didn't keep rules of purity as strictly as what was considered the standard. But since tax collectors were excluded from society, Matthew had no one else but tax-collectors to invite to his banquet to honor Jesus.

Much has been written about these four verses.  (The feast of Levi garners a footnote in the Gospel Doctrine manual.) For the purposes of this lesson, I would like to quote extensively from a sermon by Rev. Dr. Dale K. Edmondson, retired pastor of the Judson Memorial Baptist Church (W&A) of Minneapolis, which focuses on the application of the story of this feast to the plight of gays and lesbians in the church. (The full text of the sermon can be found here.)

“Jesus has been invited to dinner at Levi's house; and the scribes and the Pharisees, the ever-present watchdogs of morality, are scandalized. Jesus was a rabbi; and he should have known he wasn't to eat with tax collectors, members of a socially repudiated profession. And at the table with them were other social outcasts —"sinners," the Pharisees called them. How could a good Jew be so oblivious of boundaries? Sharing a meal had deeper significance in Jesus' social world than it does in ours. It wasn't a casual act, but one which implied a mutual acceptance: you just don't eat with unacceptable people.

“Levi had invited Jesus, but that invitation wasn't the whole of the story. Look at who came with him! A cadre of sinners — marginalized folk, disenfranchised people. Lesson one: when you invite Jesus to your place, you'd better be prepared for the folk who come with him. When you invite Jesus to your place, he turns it into an open house. He breaks down the walls between the right people and "the other people."

“Dinner with Jesus is … a model for his church. You find table-mates there who wouldn't have been together, except for Jesus. It's a radically different community. A new community. And the new sometimes breaks the old wide open. To make sure no one missed this point, Jesus described the radical thing that was happening as new wine being poured into wineskin bottles. But be careful, he was saying, that you use new wineskins; new wine will split the old ones.

“Have you noticed how time and again God is involved with the new? … Observers of the moral history of humanity have seen it in the ending of human sacrifice, the abolition of slavery, the rejection of child labor, the overthrow of apartheid. New wine, new occasions, a new community. When we meet together in Jesus' name, it is an "open house." All are welcome and all are loved.

“Some find this a very uncomfortable idea. Community leaders in sixteenth century Italy did. They were outraged by Paolo Veronese's painting [pictured below] of the biblical story. He painted it in modern dress, showing an opulent table of genteel Italian society. They dragged Veronese before the Inquisition to answer for picturing Jesus in the company of ‘buffoons, drunkards and similar vulgarities.’

“The notion of such inclusiveness is uncomfortable ... [A] penchant for purity is still alive today, but I believe its most virulent expression is now being directed against homosexual people. Most denominations in our country are divided over welcoming them and affirming them in the life of the church …

Edmondson then tells the story of their church director of music who was attacked one night because he was gay.  The congregation rallied around him, expressing outrage to the local police and calling for apprehension of the perpetrators.  Word of the church’s response got out to the press, and letters of both support as well as condemnation were received.  But there was much good that came from the experience.

“Some people who were not gay found [our church] for the first time and made it their home because they wanted to belong to people they believed were courageous. And there were gay and lesbian people who found they could worship God there without denying their identity. The church became the richer for it all …

“As time went on, the church began to articulate its rationale for what it knew by faith-instinct to do. Here are some of the reasons this congregation believes it is important to welcome and affirm sexual minorities into its life. At the most basic level it wants to announce that God loves all people, regardless of race, age, circumstance, or sexual orientation … In making its declaration, the congregation wanted gay and lesbian people to know there is a place for them in the Christian church. There is a place for them in a church which tries to practice what Jesus taught and lived and which honors the scripture in its central affirmations, not in literalistic interpretations of statements wrenched from historical context ...

“[The church also] wanted to add its weight to the cause of justice for homosexual minorities. Isn't that a political issue? Yes, it is. Just as political as Amos the prophet saying to the powers of Israel, "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:24) … Where discrimination exists in employment or housing because of sexual orientation, or restrictions prevent committed same-sex couples from having the same financial benefits that committed different-sex couples have, then there is injustice. The biblical story of God is that God sides with the oppressed. Faith in the God of justice calls us to throw our weight on the side of justice.

“A final reason … was to stand with its gay brothers and lesbian sisters. There's pain in isolation. We need, all of us, to have people who will stand with us. One of the New Testament words for the Holy Spirit is the word "paraclete," which can mean, "one who comes alongside." John Donne reminded us that none of us is created as an island. We have a need for someone who will come alongside us and be with us.

“During the German occupation of Denmark, a Nazi order was given for all Jews to wear yellow stars as identification. In this way they would become easy targets for control (and abuse). But on hearing the order, the king of Denmark placed a yellow star on his own clothes; and many Danes followed his lead. How could one tell, then, who were the people to be persecuted? In putting on the yellow star, the king became one with the Jews and made himself vulnerable to their plight. Suppose we were to stand with our gay brothers and lesbian sisters in such a way that the lines would be obscured between heterosexual people and homosexual people — we would all become equally vulnerable [like the scene from the movie “In and Out”] . . . and equally blessed.

“At the end of the day, the most important thing the church might be able to do would be simply to stand with our sisters and brothers, regardless of race, age, circumstance, or sexual orientation — to stand, knowing that they and we — all of us — are people whom God loves. People who are invited to God's open house to dine with Jesus and all his wonderful table-mates.”


  1. Beautiful lesson. Jesus is THE example which to follow- I loved the line "dinner with Jesus... is the model for his church."

    And, I loved the story about the King of Denmark and his wearing of the yellow star. As one who is related to Danish royalty AND European Jews, I was especially touched with this story.

    Thank you for ALL of the time you put into providing this lesson. Because of a serious health issue, I am currently unable to attend church, so your lessons become even more important for and to me.

    Love and respect, always.

  2. "There's pain in isolation. We need, all of us, to have people who will stand with us." How true this is. Going to church would be so much easier if I knew I had true friends and allies sitting next to me in my meetings. Without such I go feeling as an outsider, someone who yearns to feast at the table of Christ, but is only willing to nibble on the scraps found at the periphery. Life is interesting, don't you think?

  3. @This Blog Author - I hope that your health issues will soon improve. Best wishes for a speedy recovery. I'm glad you enjoyed the lesson.

    @Clive - I think the important point is that there is always a place for us at Christ's table, even if that is not the case - which it is - at the Church's or our collective brothers' and sisters' table. You are so right: things would be different if the Church was different. Unfortunately, it isn't, and we are left to deal with that in the way that works best for each of us. Best wishes, friend.

  4. @ Clive...anytime you want a friend to attend with you...let me know and I will be there!
    @ Pilgrim...thanks again for all you do. This is a ton of work, and it is appreciated!