From the Shepherd’s Nook: John Frye

Jesus at the Margins- Meals as Maps

When Jesus broke bread, he broke Israel. With his meal-time habits, Jesus was boldly speaking a new language and scandalously introducing a new world.

USAmerican culture has gutted the social significance of daily meals. With innovative TV dinners and ubiquitous fast food chains, we eat like we live: with a sound and fury signifying nothing. Occasionally we are seated at a table with 3 forks, 3 glasses, two spoons and two knives and we freeze up. This is no ordinary meal. Which fork do we use first? A china plate with 3 long green beans with a “glaze” on them and a piece of meat the size of a postage stamp with a purple flower next to it shows up. We mutter, “Who needs 3 forks for this?” We begin to fantasize about a happy meal.

In Jesus’ day a meal was a controlling cultural map. Who was eating with whom? Where? What? And who was in charge? All this said something significant about social relationships. An iron-clad social code was telegraphed. It was what anthropologists call “the language of meals.”

Are you one of us or one of them? Every meal in Jesus’ day was an answer to that question. Meals portrayed legitimate and illegitimate social relationships. “This man (read “scum bag”) welcomes ‘sinners’ and eats with them” (Luke 15:1-2). Who was clean and unclean? Who was pure and who was polluted? Meals answered these questions.

Add to this Israel’s history with God around meals—complaining about water and quails—eating and drinking at the golden calf—picking manna up daily—the periodic holy feast days—staying pure in Babylon (Daniel and his friends)—you get the picture. In Israel your meal-time habits showed whether you were close to or far from God. The “Lord’s Table” was every meal you ate…or it was not His table.

Meals kept tribes together, clans united, families bonded, a nation identified. Meals were expressions of law-keeping or law-breaking. Right “eatingness” was really close to godliness.

Enter radical pastor Jesus and his new code. There’s a startling new table in town and with it came Jesus’ meal-time, good news message. He was subversively, non-violently redrawing Israel’s cultural-spiritual map. He offered new, happy redefinitions of who is pure and who is polluted. He did not have to say a lot. All he had to do was host a meal and break the bread and pour the wine. By these actions Jesus literally broke Jewish society apart, even family members had to chose (or not) to be in the new social structure Jesus was creating (see Matthew 10:34-39).

Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”

Jesus said, “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west (i. e., despised Gentiles), and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Jesus said, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners.’”

Jesus, then, by his meal-time associations reconfigured the kingdom of God for all to see. He was amazingly courageous and intensely controversial. I wonder if most of his followers developed ulcers. “Can you believe what he is doing?” I hear Peter saying to John. “We are all going to die.”

Every meal Jesus ate in his ministry was a transformative expression, a here and now enactment of the presence of the kingdom of God. Grace: amazing, gutsy, pass-the-potatoes grace.

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  • JohnC

    Just out of interest, I might be wrong but where in Scripture did Jesus act as host for a regular meal with sinners? All I can think of is the last supper and the feeding of the crowds, which seem a bit like special moments and don’t fit. What I am getting at is, is there a difference (for the point of this post) between Jesus “merely” accepting invitations to eat with sinners (bad enough in Jewish society) and him actually hosting a dinner party for them? I think there is.

  • John W. Frye

    The charge brought against Jesus in Luke 15 “this man welcomes (cultural act of host) sinners and eats with them” should help answer your question.