Publicans and Harlots and the Last Banquet

This morning’s gospel was a familiar story: the calling of Levi to be a disciple.

As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he arose and followed Him. Now it happened, as He was dining in Levi’s house, that many tax collectors and sinners also sat together with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many, and they followed Him. And when the scribes and Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, “How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?”
When Jesus heard it, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” (Mark 2:14-17)

What struck me as I listened to it was a unique quality of Christ as God incarnate: everywhere He goes the icon of the Kingdom forms around Him. In this particular gospel passage, the image is that of the banquet at the end of the ages, the Messianic banquet. And as Christ warned others, the harlots and sinners have gotten there ahead of them (Matt. 21:31).

Every meal that Christ shares in the gospels, because of who He is, cannot help but be the Messianic Banquet. Every table becomes an altar, every meal, the Eucharist.

Before approaching the Holy Cup at Divine Liturgy, Orthodox Christians say in unison:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess, that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first…

It is not unlike the beautiful communion prayer of the Anglican reformer, Thomas Cranmer: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table…”

It is the true image of the great banquet – a gathering of the unrighteous with the Righteous One, the unworthy with Only Worthy. One of my favorite passages in Dostoevsky is the scandalous image of the drunk, Marmeladov, and his proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom. But the scandal of his vision cannot surpass the wondrous scandal of Christ’s own actions: publicans and harlots gathered around Him at the Last Banquet – of which I am not worthy.

Marmeladov’s Vision…

…”And He will judge and will forgive all, the good and the evil, the wise and the meek…And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us, ‘You too come forth,’ He will say, ‘Come forth, ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!’ And we shall all come forth without shame and shall stand before Him. And He will say unto us, ‘Ye are swine, made in the image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also!’ And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, ‘O Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?’ And He will say,’This is why I receive them, O ye wise, this is why I receive them, O ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.’ And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down before Him…and we shall weep…and we shall understand all things! Then we shall understand all!…and all will understand, Katerina Ivanovna even…she will understand…Lord, Thy kingdom come!” And he sank down on the bench exhausted and helpless, looking at no one, apparently oblivious of his surroundings and plunged in deep thought. His words had created a certain impression; there was a moment of silence; but soon laughter and oaths were heard again.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





16 responses to “Publicans and Harlots and the Last Banquet”

  1. Meg Avatar

    I have to tell you, Father, that this entry has stayed with me all day yesterday, into the evening, and into this morning at church. Who, really, *could* be worthy to spend eternity in the presence of God?! I hope I may carry this with me for all my life.

  2. Margaret Avatar

    Glory to God for All Things!

  3. Leighton Bingham Avatar
    Leighton Bingham

    Please excuse my asking, but who are the persons in the picture and what does it mean?

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    The painting is ‘Holy Rus’ by Mikhail Nesterov, 1905. It depicts Christ appearing to the Russian people, who are gathered around Him in adoration. The saints standing behind Christ, if I am not mistaken, include St. Sergius of Radonezh, a singularly important monastic founder, St. Nicholas, who though not a Russian holds a very, very deep place within Orthodox devotion, and a third saint I cannot identify. This is not a depiction of an historical event, though there have long been stories of Christ wandering about the Russian land. The painting is a depiction of the deep piety of a people. ‘Holy Rus’ is an idea that has sometimes been distorted, but there are few lands who would have as a ‘deep memory’ the sense that they had a calling as a people to be holy. Many lands have a sense that they have a destiny to rule others (even the whole world) but I can think if few if any that as an alternative have a sense that they have a calling to be holy. Like all things in this world, such an idea can be abused, but many times it has yielded wonderful things. The idea of ‘Holy Rus’ is not unrelated to internal sense that was held in Byzantium (which the West sought to emulate but never achieved). But it is not a mere transplant of Byzantium – it has a distinctly Russian flavor.
    America has an internal sense of ‘holy America’ but our idea is entirely Protestant and, I think, is frequently a radical distortion of the gospel, confusing purely American ideas (such as our constitution) with Christian ideas. These things (a holy land) are very easy to get wrong and quickly become religiously charged nationalism. But the root idea, I think, that a land can have a true calling to be holy, is correct. Like divinization, it requires purification and illumination, which are very difficult struggles. The great suffering of the Russian land, whether under the Tartar yoke, or the Communist yoke, did and do yield great spiritual fruit – though at present the fruit is still young (with occasional wild grapes). But amid everything else going on in Russia today, there is a very deep and vital Church life that is gradually appearing. The refounding of so many hundreds of monasteries and the explosion in monastic vocations is perhaps one of the best examples.

  5. handmaid leah Avatar

    If I may Father Stephen?
    The painting is by Mikhail Nesterov and is called Holy Rus or Holy Russia, the date is 1905.
    In this painting you can see standing right behind Jesus is St Sergius of Radonezh, next to him St Nicholas of Myra & Lycia and behind them, I think St Alexander Nevsky.
    The Church is in the background behing Christ. I do not have an official explanation for this painting – there are people who know far more that I – but Christ is calling to those in the wilderness.
    I would love to know what the scholars say, but for me, its beauty and message are enough…
    In Christ,

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    Nesterov has many such wonderful paintings (as you know). They certainly belong to a “Romantic” view (very 19th century) but are distinctly Russian in their content. They are very beloved to many people.

  7. handmaid leah Avatar

    forgive me, my answer was being composed as yours was being posted! Thank you for the explanation.

  8. Yannis Avatar

    By far one of your best postings/quotings – and in defiance of any conventional piety.

    There is no harvest without labour, no joy without tears, no clarity without confusion, no medicine without bitterness and no salvation without sin.

  9. Romanós Avatar

    “…yet Thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord…”

    I still say this prayer mentally before approaching the communion cup in the Greek church.

  10. Micah Avatar

    Father and all (if I may),

    There are things one can say about Mikhail Nesterov’s Holy Rus that are thoroughly iconographic.

    I am by no means an iconographer but there is this sense of the completion of things, of catholicity, and of man being drawn to God simply because God is in his midst.

    Verily we can say that the heavenly King has come back and has caused the kings of the earth to be overshadowed.

    Kyrie eleison…

  11. OrthodoxCurious Avatar

    What a beautiful thought that story hopes for, but how hard in real life. How many of us could actually have compassion on this drunken man. I know for real how hard this really is.
    My wife and I barely make it ourselves, but we help my wife’s sister who is pregnant by a man who uses drugs and does not work. Even though the sister works, she allows most of her money to go to this guy, which leaves her in need of food and transportation. After she gives birth she will have no income for weeks, and we will have to sacrifice even more than we have to help her,
    I want to have the love of Christ for them, but I don’t. I feel guilty every time I judge them, because I know Christ came for them as well as me. I pray for them, then find myself full of resentment towards them. I’m frankly torn. It’s easy for people to have compassion out of their abundance, or from a distance, but I find it’s very hard to have compassion when the help is a real sacrifice for us and enables them to continue their bad behavior with money I really need myself.
    Perhaps more prayer.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    Forgiveness and compassion are indeed difficult. But resentment and unforgiveness only poison our heart (it makes us miserable not others). More prayer is good for us all.

  13. OrthodoxCurious Avatar

    Thanks for your reply, Father. In my haste to make a comment, I forgot to praise you for your truly blessed blog. I love reading it because it is like I’m reading the personal blog of the Lord Jesus.
    I’m going to make a point of praying each morning that the Lord will grant my sister-in-law and her male friend mercy.

  14. Sarah Avatar

    So so true Father Stephen. Resentment and unforgiveness so just as much damage, if not more, to ourselves than to the target of our bitterness.

  15. zeitungzeid Avatar

    Well said Sarah.

  16. chris in Russia Avatar
    chris in Russia

    The third saint is Saint George according to the State Russian Museum, where the painting is displayed. It was quite something to see it today.

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