Parables of Intimacy: A Biblical Theology of Eating & Drinking (Part 5)

Just in time for Thanksgiving, I’m finishing a paper on a Biblical Theology of Table Fellowship.  So, for the next 5 days, I will post short excerpts from my paper that help us think about what we do, and the significance of eating and drinking with one another.  Here’s part 5: Table Fellowship in the New Testament. (Or go back to read part 1part 2part 3, or part 4 )

table fellowship

Table Fellowship in the New Testament

Gospels

As it relates to the present study, the cultural atmosphere of Second Temple Judaism does not significantly alter the message found in the Hebrew Bible. If anything, the theme of association intensifies. Blomberg describes the development: “If shared meals in the OT typically marked off close friends or co-religionists from outsiders, even while acknowledging an ideal age in which the ground rules would differ, the period between the two testaments saw Judaism develop an even clearer nationalist or ethnocentrist emphasis.”[1] This certainly makes sense of Jesus’s interactions with the radically sectarian Pharisee sect. This is the context into which the gospel narratives portray the ‘Son of Man’ who came ‘eating and drinking’ (Matt 11:19). It would appear that part of Jesus’s messianic claim includes the prevalent backdrop of hosting a great and inclusive feast. Sanders’ important contribution to this discussion argues for “[Jesus’s] eating with tax collectors and sinners . . . as a proleptic indication that they would be included in the kingdom: the meal looks forward to the ‘messianic banquet’.”[2] However, Sanders confuses the matter when proposing, on the one hand, that Jesus’s inclusion of sinners necessarily excludes reformation and repentance, and holding simultaneously “that he promised inclusion in the coming kingdom to those who followed him.”[3] Jesus’ own statements in the context of table fellowship include images like ‘a physician’ for the sick and the declaration, “I have come to call the sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32).[4]

The promised messianic banquet sheds light on the prominent role of meals in Jesus’s ministry. His miraculous provision of wine at the Cana wedding (John 2:11), his glorious feeding of the multitudes with loaves and fish (Mark 6:41, 8:6-7), and his defense of the disciples’ lack of fasting (Luke 5:34), all point to his message of the eschatological intervention of the kingdom. The sectarian religious leaders found this behavior quite unacceptable, for their zeal to remain uncontaminated has led them to extend the purity required of the priesthood to all faithful Jewish citizens. In his conflict with the Pharisees’ dining rituals, Jesus points past the external cleanliness to internal purity, thereby lifting the restrictions of the Mosaic dietary code and ‘declaring all foods clean’ (Mark 7:19). Jesus’s willingness to associate with people as socially taboo as a Samaritan woman (John 4:1-22) can best be understood as fulfilling the radical inclusion expected of the eschatological Messiah. Rather than fearing contamination, Blomberg suggests, Jesus believes “his purity can rub off on them,” and “cleanliness . . . is more ‘catching’ than cleanness.”[5]

The climactic table fellowship in the gospels is the last supper on the night of Jesus’s betrayal. This Passover meal celebrated with his twelve disciples becomes paradigmatic for the church’s continuation of Jesus’s practice of eating and drinking with sinners. Blomberg’s otherwise masterful study of Jesus’s practice of table fellowship intentionally omits extended discussion of the Eucharistic tradition, because of the vast quantity of literature devoted to the subject already.[6] While this is a reasonable decision, it seems to omit the telos of the trajectory established in Jesus’s earthly ministry regarding his dining practice. The teleological trajectory of this meal, in particular, is highlighted in the synoptic tradition as Jesus explains he will ‘not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom’ (Matt 26:29, cf. Mark 14:25, Luke 22:18). If the purpose of eating and drinking in the ministry of Jesus to this point has been to proclaim the inauguration of the kingdom banquet, then the cup in the upper room belongs with the great eschatological feast. This is made explicit by the language ἄρτι/οὐκέτι. . . ἕως (translated, “again . . . until”) makes this meal the preeminent table fellowship with sinners.[7]

It is at the upper room table that the tension between exclusivity and inclusivity finally reaches is harmonious zenith: Jesus can extend his welcome to sinful rebels because of his substitutionary provision for them in the symbolic declaration ‘this is my body’ and ‘this cup is the new covenant in my blood.’ The followers of Jesus can sit at the King’s table and receive the cup of blessing rather than the cup of wrath, because Jesus will ‘drain to the dregs’ (Ps 75:8) the cup that he pleads with the Father to pass from him (Matt 26:29). The disciples can eat and drink with the incarnate Lord and not be destroyed (cf. Exod 24:11) because of the propitiation emblematic in the elements. Here at the Lord’s table the phyiscal, spiritual, and fellowship threads of the biblical presentation of eating and drinking collide in the person and cross-work of Jesus.

Acts, Epistles and Revelation

Luke portray the apostolic church in the book of Acts as a hospitable people. The followers of Jesus meet regularly to break bread in homes (Acts 2:46), and their ‘glad and generous hearts’ concerning their food seems to lead to ‘favor with all the people’ (2:46) such that many are being added to their fellowship. David Pao reads Acts 6:1-7 in light of the Lukan motif of table fellowship and argues that “the act of waiting on tables is precisely the means through which the Word of God can be proclaimed,”[8] especially in light of the slowness of Peter to recognize the central role of table fellowship (see Acts 10:9-33, Gal 2:11). Whether or not Pao should be followed in reading Luke’s narrative as condemning the Twelve in favor of the Seven, Luke certainly affirms the decision to set aside men for the task of table service. The subsequent fruitfulness seems to indicate the Lord’s approval also (Acts 6:7).

In Paul, it is hard to escape the centrality of table fellowship as it pertains to the discipline and the Lord’s Supper, especially in 1 Corinthians. Paul commands the Corinthians to ‘purge the evil person from among you’ when that person ‘bears the name of brother.’ But how is this purging to be expressed? Paul warns the Corinthians ‘not even to eat with such a one’ (1 Cor 5:11-13). To discipline a person by withholding fellowship at the table implies that prior to the offense, eating together was a regular occurrence. Later in the letter, Paul asserts that he would rather ‘never eat meat,’ rather than cause a brother to stumble due to a weak conscience regarding its pagan sacrificial origins (1 Cor 8:13). Again, the implicit logic is that Paul would rather lose his liberty than break table fellowship over a food predilection. As Paul moves to discuss the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, he denounces practices that obscure the lateral camaraderie of the participants (1 Cor 11:17-34).

John includes the most overt NT references outside the gospels to table fellowship in Revelation. Jesus promises to provide ‘some of the hidden manna’ to the one who conquers (Rev 2:17). Likewise Jesus promises, “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him” (3:20). Jesus’s association at the table is open to ‘anyone,’ but does require that the person ‘hear’ and ‘open.’ Like in the OT, the exclusivity of this intimate communion does require someone to become a kind of insider. However, Jesus’s requirement is not ethnic or cultic, but simply to respond to his ‘knock.’ Later, John’s food imagery climaxes with two rival suppers, hearkening back to the competing fares of Lady Wisdom and Woman Folly. In John’s apocalypse, all humanity either participates by invitation in the ‘marriage supper of the Lamb,’ or they will join the fare offered to the birds in the ‘great supper of God’ (Rev. 19:6-21). The canon concludes much like it began. The question, “with whom do you eat?” becomes a dominant theme from Genesis to Revelation. Those who forsake the Giver of Life to dine with the Dragon will be destroyed with him. But those who hear the respond to Jesus’s invitation will join in the great eschatological banquet forever.

Notes:

[1] Craig Blomberg, “Jesus, Sinners, and Table Fellowship,” BBR 19.1 (2009):, 41

[2] E. P. Sanders, “Jesus and the Sinners,” JSNT 6.19 (1983): 27.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sanders is able to hold this position concluding that summary statements like Luke 5:32 were the creation of the early church, not original to the historical Jesus. (Sanders, “Jesus and the Sinners,” 6).

[5] Blomberg, Contagious Holiness, 128.

[6] Ibid., 31.

[7] Blomberg seems to delineate between “ordinary meals” and the ceremonial meal as part of his justification for distinguishing the last supper discussion from the table fellowship with sinners, but this seems somewhat artificial until the institutionalization of the Lord’s Supper as a ceremonial practice by the early church and the apostle Paul.   See Blomberg, Contagious Holiness, 30.

[8] David Pao, “Waiters or Preachers: Acts 6:1-7 and the Lukan Table Fellowship Motif,” JBL 130 (2011): 143.

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