We ‘ate’ our way out of Paradise: can we ‘eat’ our way into heaven? Adam died for eating the forbidden fruit. The second Adam died that whosoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood, shall attain eternal life.
Table fellowship defines Jesus’ communality. ‘Eating’ is so patterned into the scheme of his work revealing a striking centrality of food to Jesus’ ministry.
Gospel narratives are framed around meal settings. The gospel of Luke, for example is contextualized with references to Jesus’ meals. Each meal portends significant lessons, yet also becomes scandalous in the eyes of Jesus’ critics. Jesus turns each ‘eating controversy’ into a teaching opportunity as well as a fellowship unique for its open welcome.
After the first four chapters, the Gospel of Luke becomes a story of Jesus’ meals. In Luke 5, Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners. In Luke 7 Jesus eats at the home of Simon the Pharisee and is anointed by a sinner. In Luke 9 Jesus feeds the multitude. In Luke 10 Jesus eats at the home of Martha and Mary. In Luke 11 Jesus at a meal and disagrees with the Pharisees.
In Luke 14, Jesus teaches the need to invite those who cannot invite us back. In Luke 19, Jesus eats in Zacchaeus’ home. Luke 22 records the Last Supper and Luke 24 has Jesus breaking bread in Emmaus, and another meal in Jerusalem.
Notably, Jesus states his mission as: “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking…” (Luke 7.30), and Jesus’ critics described him as a “gluttonous and a drunkard, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners!” (Luke 7:34). Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley make an interesting observation that Jesus was killed “because of the way he ate; because he ate and drank with sinners.”
He crossed ‘taboo’ boundaries and caused offence by his open welcome. Questions of kosher aside, a host of sinners reclining at the table with Jesus cast doubt on Jesus’ credibility. Luke (7:36-39), for example, records: “a woman … who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume.”
As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
Deeply theological, but equally cultural and religious questions arise.
If Jesus were a prophet, would he let a sinner touch him? Would he not know? In response, Jesus points out that love is commensurate with the appreciation of how much one has been forgiven. Jesus then draws an extraordinary conclusion that, ‘her many sins have been forgiven as her great love has shown” (7:47). Hospitality inspires love, following which genuine repentance and fellowship is a real possibility.
Jesus’ meals were meant to illustrate a new social order. Significant to note is that miracles of healing and stories of forgiveness are often intertwined with these meals. The sick is healed, the sinner is forgiven, and incredibly the outsider is ‘invited’ not only to the table but also to a communion with the divine, Jesus Christ – the host of the reconstituted and redeemed community.
The most undeserving of people are given a place at the table – to be heard, healed, forgiven, restored, taught, feed and to become beneficiaries of divine hospitality.
The Last Supper synthesizes the meaning of all the meals Jesus had with his followers. We are retrospectively reminded of the manna and prospectively of the coming heavenly banquet. An aspect of service stands out in John 13, where Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. Looking back and looking forward while lovingly serving one another can provide a rewarding fellowship in which we can learn from each other in humility and mutual hospitality.
In deep gratitude the Samaritan woman partook of the hospitality of the ‘water of life’ and the ‘food the disciples knew nothing about.’ Her experience was redemptive resulting in a shift of understanding and the appreciation of Jesus as the messiah.
‘Food’ was uppermost in Jesus’ mind even after the resurrection. He meets the disciples and asks: ‘Have you got anything to eat? (John 21:4; Luke 24:41). The feast continues. The Emmaus meal (Luke 24: 19ff) results in opening of eyes – heralding a new beginning, affording a revelatory experience. This recalls the miracle of Cana through which Jesus reveals the glory of God. In John 21, Peter has a meal with Jesus.
But now at the table fellowship, Peter is re-oriented and ‘invited’ into a re-union. With love and generous hospitality, he is commissioned to ‘feed my sheep.’ The ‘feasting’ goes on as the sheep are ‘fed’ in the ministry of love.
Uninhibited hospitality models Jesus’ style of ministry. Everyone is ‘invited’ to learn in humility, to serve, listen, and grow together. Such a model affords redemptive and revelatory experiences bringing healing, forgiveness and reinvigoration of fellowship.
Eating with sinners, tax collectors and Pharisees caused deep offence, Peter’s betrayal deeply hurts but ‘depart from me you evil doers’ is reserved for a time yet to come. In the meantime, can we learn from Jesus’ hospitality and let the wheat and the tares grow together?