ONE OF the functions of a religion is to facilitate access to sacred things: the sacred within ourselves, the sacred within the world around us and the sacred beyond all creating. Such a task is not without risk and for this reason has tended to be mediated by particular rituals performed by priestly representatives and by particular observances undertaken by those whom they represent.
Jewish religion in Jesus’ day was no exception (nor is contemporary Christianity), spawning a number of strategies for maintaining covenant with God. For instance, the Temple was still standing with its clergy administering the sacrificial cult to atone for sin, to perform rites of passage and to pay Yahweh his dues (Yahweh is the Jewish name for God). Local synagogues celebrated a form of covenantal fidelity based upon prayer and study of the Scriptures. The Pharisees practised a more rigorous regime through extending the teaching of Torah to embrace all aspects of life and through limiting social intercourse to those who did likewise. The Dead Sea community was committed to sanctification through separation and, again, strict observance of the Law. There were also various reform and resistance movements with programmes for gathering a faithful remnant or for re-establishing a geographical and political kingdom.
Characterizing many of these movements was a sense of urgency and imminent danger. This resulted in an understandable preoccupation with what can be described as ‘the mechanics of access’: dealing with sin, maintaining purity, becoming acceptable, demonstrating repentance, overcoming evil. All this, as well-meaning as it no doubt was, had the effect of confirming many Jews in what must have seemed an hopeless predicament as they struggled to maintain faith whilst living in God’s perceived absence and in the shadow of impending judgement. To be reminded constantly of one’s sinfulness, unworthiness, impurity and culpability does little to facilitate change or make salvation accessible; it simply reinforces the enormity of the task whilst confirming impotence and estrangement.
It is from this climate that Jesus emerges, offering a radically different approach to divine presence. As we have seen, many of those who encountered Jesus experienced forgiveness as a liberating reality, drawing them out of their exile of unbelief, oppression, disease, isolation, meaninglessness, prejudice, poverty, fearfulness, boredom, worry, shame, brokenness, greed, exploitation, self-aggrandizement, success, intellectual arrogance, wealth, religiosity, self-centredness, in truth from whatever kept God distant and remote, into an estate of freedom and self-determination. Those who inhabited the Lord’s Prayer discovered a new identity as God’s children within a community of privilege and responsibility. And those who had ears to hear acquired a wisdom capable of transporting them into a universe where the ways of Yahweh are woven within the fabric of our world and common humanity.
Yet if there is one way in which Jesus attempted to communicate this return of joyous living associated with God’s presence it was through extending hospitality in Yahweh’s name.
As Jesus sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples – for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ (Mark 2.15-17)
The Gospels record many occasions when Jesus shared a meal not only with friends and disciples, but also with vast crowds, debating-partners, opponents and, surprisingly, with those considered bad company. We need to remember that for a Jew food belonged to the currency of grace, constituting a tangible expression of divine generosity and covenantal faithfulness. God created the world to yield an abundant supply (Genesis 1.28–31; 2.15–17) and miraculously provided sustenance for Israel in the wilderness (Exodus 16), before leading them into a bountiful land of ‘milk and honey’ (Exodus 3.8). For this reason, what was eaten, how it was consumed and with whom were significant issues and, by Jesus’ time, had become a means of establishing group identity and religious exclusiveness (e.g. Pharisees, members of the Qumran community; cf. Mark 2.15-17; 7.1-8). Hence, the Pharisees’ question, ‘Why does Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ – the clear implication being that they would not!
By contrast, Jesus earns a reputation for extending hospitality in Yahweh’s name to all and sundry, whatever their spiritual condition or material need. So much of his sense of God’s presence, of the contours and content of Kingdom living, could be communicated through the simple yet profound act of eating together: welcome and acceptance, forgiveness and reconciliation, joy and celebration, sustenance and satisfaction, giving and receiving, generosity and thanksgiving, trust and companionship, sharing and consideration, equality and justice, belonging and mutual obligation. Within the context of Jesus’ ministry, meals became treasuries of divine blessing where God was encountered through the sacraments of food and friendship.
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.’ (Mark 2.18-20)
In the light of what has been said above, the reason for Jesus’ abstinence from fasting becomes clear. Fasting is about mourning and remorse – about grieving God’s remoteness and demonstrating a longing for Yahweh’s return (cf Deuteronomy 26.14; 2 Samuel 3.35; Ester 4.3; Ezra 10.6; Nehemiah 1.4). Such convictions could not be further from Jesus’ mission: God’s forgiveness reaching out to humanity with transforming effect, releasing captives, enabling Yahweh’s children to discover their true identity through becoming a people of the Prayer whose lives are guided by wisdom’s ways.
Back in the sixth century BC, out of the experience of exile in Babylon, Isaiah’s faith shapes an image of salvation that would carry the hopes of many Jews and, in due course, Christians. It is of Yahweh’s banquet of blessing characterized by reconciliation and communion, by abundance and joy, by restoring the dignity of God’s people:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 25.6–8)
Jesus believed himself to be anointed to host such banquets in Yahweh’s name and what more apt commentary on his ministry could we find than the one supplied by the prophet’s words.
The evangelists inform us that at the last meal Jesus hosted before his death, he gathered together his closest companions and entrusted to them his ministry of divine hospitality. He took bread and wine, the stuff of subsistence and celebration which had been so central to their common life, and blessed them in Yahweh’s holy name before declaring, ‘This is me’, ‘This is my life, my vocation, my faith’. Then he offered them these extraordinary ordinary things with these words, ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ (Luke 22.19; 1 Corinthians 11.24-25). Do what? What is to be the substance of remembrance? Continue the ministry that is now both yours and mine encapsulated in the practice of extending hospitality in Yahweh’s name to all God’s people.
‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ We are the beneficiaries of this inheritance. We are to celebrate the difference sharing the faith of Jesus makes to life and we are to embody the blessings associated with living life as a gift from God. And we are charged to do this not primarily for our own sake, but for the sake of the exiles: those unable to sing the Lord’s song within the constraints of their particular circumstances, who lack the will or the means or the desire and who need to be invited and shown how: those whose living is without joy and who greet each day with a heavy heart and a troubled soul; those who have become preoccupied with the busyness of existence or infatuated with the lure of acquisition and appearance; those spirited sojourners who are hungry for God, although they know God by another name.
‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ I often wonder how faithful to our master’s command we have been through the centuries. It is so easy and for all the best intentions to turn Jesus’ open-table of hospitality into a membership meal for the initiated and we can discern such protectionism setting in from the earliest stages. For instance, the following directions are supplied in the Didache, one of our most ancient Eucharistic orders coming from the end of the first century:
Let no one eat or drink of your thanksgiving [meal] save those who have been baptised in the name of the Lord, since the Lord has said concerning this, ‘Do not give what is holy to dogs’. (Didache 9.5)
This protectionist tendency is part of a greater one, namely, to privatise Jesus’ faith: to restrict it to certain aspects of life, to communicate it in technical language which is a closed book to the majority, to refocus it away from the present into the future, to starve it of joy by becoming overly preoccupied with the debilitating effects of sin rather than the transforming potential of grace.
So let us find joy through sharing in the Life of God and let us become proficient in the art of hospitality and of being generous in the name of the generous God.