In the early second century Pliny the Younger, the Roman governor of Bithynia et Pontus (now in modern Turkey) wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan and asked for counsel on dealing with followers of Jesus. He’d captured for interrogation two members of this movement. Both were women and both were slaves. He tells us what they were not doing – namely not participating in the public rites of sacrifice.
Public sacrifice in the ancient world was a very communal affair, a celebration of oneness. The whole community gathered: aristocrats served as priests, men gathered in close; women, children, and slaves stood on the periphery. Each in his or her turn received a portion of the killed and cooked meat – the priests and aristocrats the finer cuts, lesser cuts to lesser families, all very hierarchically ordered. By the end of the feast everyone knew his or her place in the greater scheme of things. And all gave thanks.
Why did those female slaves abstain? In their newly forming community, writes Stephen Patterson in his book titled “The Forgotten Creed”, they were not female slaves, standing on the periphery waiting for their portion. They were leaders. They knew their place in the community sacrifice rite and they had rejected it. In their new community (the Jesus one) they had discovered like-minded people who would recognize their decision to do that.
Pliny’s problem was that this idea was catching on. Too many people no longer knew their place. The sacrifices – the glue that held the ancient world together - were languishing. This chaos, he correctly saw, would ultimately undermine his authority.
“There is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male and female…we are ‘all one in the spirit’” was an early creed, inserted by Paul into his Letter to the Galatians, about overcoming the distinctions that commonly underwrite the human tendency to denigrate the other, to disempower, disenfranchise, and dehumanise. The creed was about denying a caste system. This creed was composed on the basis of a cliché: “I thank God I was born a native not a foreigner, a Roman not a barbarian, a Jew not a Greek. I thank God I was born a man not a woman, free not a slave.” Why were you thankful? Because in the caste system of the Roman Empire, native, freeborn men had all the advantages, all the power. This creed was about imagining a world in which that was no longer so.
The earliest reference to Communion is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians written in the ‘50s. Communion in this Pauline community was served in conjunction with a meal, in the context of what Hal Taussig calls a ‘supper club’ – gatherings where people [about 20 in total] met for a meal, for fellowship, for the sharing of hope, for the strengthening of their spirits for the week ahead. Many of those attending were on the margins of society.
The context for Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians is that the social stratification of Greco-Roman society required, ‘necessitated’, that rich and poor be treated differently. Even in Jesus supper clubs. Rich people required more and better food, and to serve such food to the poor would be offensive. This was ‘how the world worked’.
But for Paul the Jesus movement was aspiring to be counter-cultural. The Communion, in his view, was to embody the ethic found in that Galatians’ creed: an ethic of egalitarian unity. Each person received the same food because each person was equally loved and honoured – had the same status, the same honour - in the Empire of God.
So, the first time the Communion was referred to in the Bible it is to hold up an alternative vision, and to invite us – Paul’s hearers - into living out that vision.
At the blessing of the bread, Paul says Jesus referred to the loaf as ‘my body’ and then went on to indicate that he will be killed as a subversive threat to the Empire of Rome. But his ‘body’, the loaf of bread, will live on because his followers in sharing bread share in his life and mission. So eating and drinking is an act of commitment to the Jesus vision.
Paul goes on in chapter 12 to expand the body metaphor. Corporately, now after his death, the followers of Jesus together make up his body. So, it’s like we are all pieces of bread, crumbs, that when put together become the ongoing life of Jesus. We are Jesus. (He’s not some invisible man we pray to).
This morning we will hear read two parables. One is a non-biblical parable about the Messiah being among us. Which I suggest is another way of saying that individually and corporately we are the ongoing life and ministry of Jesus. The other parable is Luke’s version of the parable of the banquet. Those who come to banquet are the people of the street and alleys, the poor, the lame, the crippled, and the blind, whom (and this is the first main point) society considered dishonourable and shamed (they were the losers), and (this is the second main point) contagious. So, any who joined in, shared bread with the shamed, were contaminated by association. All became losers.
To recap: - the Galatians’ creed was a statement of imagining a different world
the communion at Corinth was an enactment of that different world
to participate in the communion was an act of commitment to bringing that different world into being.
By dining with losers we became losers. We no longer believed in the division of the world into winners and losers.
By participating in his communion and vision we become Jesus to each other and the world; we become and are ‘the body of Christ Jesus’.
So this morning we will serve communion to each other. We won’t serve ourselves. You’ll be invited to come and take some bread, and a cup, to one or more people. Some of us, maybe those us less stable on our feet, maybe those who feel like just staying seated in our pew, will have communion brought to us. Those serving will need to keep an eye out for anyone who has missed out. It will be a little different, and a little shambolic. Yet by doing it this way we will symbolise that it is not only the Minister and Elders who serve but each of us are called to be bearers of Christ (symbolically the bread and juice), each of us are called to serve, each of us are responsible for caring, and each of us are responsible for furthering the radical vision of Jesus. For this is what the Jesus Table is about.
There are four versions of the banquet parable – Luke’s, Matthew’s, Q’s (the common source to Luke and Matthew) and Thomas’ – and each reveal the bias and context of the editors. I won’t go through each of them. Regardless of the differences between them it is possible to detect the outline of the original. Brandon Scott suggests it would have been something like this:
A man was giving a big dinner and invited many guests. At the dinner hour the host sent his slave to tell the guests: “Come, its ready now.” But one by one they all began to make excuses. The first said to him. “I just bought a farm, and I have to go and inspect it; please excuse me.” And another said, “I just bought five pairs of oxen, and I’m on my way to check them out; please excuse me.” And another said, “I just got married, and so I cannot attend.” So the slave came back and reported these (excuses) to his master. The master said to the slave, “Go out on the streets and bring back whomever you find to have dinner.”[i]
There are two invitations here. The first invitation is to the invited guests, whom Luke sees as the righteous Jewish elite. This would make the host a member of those elite. But it could be to any friends or business colleagues of a wealthy patron. The second invitation is to those on the streets. Luke sees this as a reference to Gentiles. But it is more likely in its first century Palestinian Jewish context to be all the unclean: those who live on the streets, the physically impaired, the impoverished, the racially ‘other’ (like Gentiles), the nobodies, the losers, and the nuisances. Those not unlike folk we would call ‘street people’ today.
One of the primary purposes of a banquet was to bring honour to the host. For that to happen, guests must turn up. Thus part of the set form of a banquet was an invitation issued days before, normally delivered by a slave.
But something went wrong with this banquet. Every one invited had an excuse. It couldn’t be coincidental. The host was being snubbed. Instead of bringing honour this banquet would bring great shame.
The excuses are lame indeed. Who would buy a farm before inspecting it? Who would buy oxen without checking them out? Who would accept an invitation to a banquet and forget they were getting married that day? Surely the host of this banquet is being snubbed.
The host’s options aren’t good. He could quietly cancel it. Or he could publicly blame those who turned him down for cancelling. Either way he loses face.
His decision for his slave to go out to the street and find whoever he could to join the banquet is also a weak response. His former friends are more than likely just to laugh at him.
Whatever the host’s strategy, the banquet he ends up with is very different from the one planned: it is a banquet of the dishonourable and shamed [of whom the host is now one!].
Behind a number of parables there are allusions to cultural stories and sayings in the Hebrew Scriptures and apocryphal writings. In this parable the word ‘banquet’ conjures up the messianic banquet – alluded to in Isaiah 25:6, 2 Esdras 2:37-41, and 1 Enoch 62:13-15. Although the idea of a messianic banquet was not well-developed in first century Judaism, it held out the notion of God inviting “the chosen” to a feast. This feast would be for the righteous and elect.
So, this Jesus parable of the banquet of the shamed contrasts with the messianic banquet of the elect. And whereas the banquet of the elect was something in future to look forward to, the banquet of the shamed is here and now. The banquet of the dishonoured is not in the after-life for the elites. Rather it is here and now for those on the streets. It is here and now among the poor and the damned. It’s God’s street party for streeties and all others who want to come.
This parable in its original form was bad news for those who think that God will invite them on their merits to a great feast in the afterlife. And this parable was good news for those with no or dubious merits who need food and hope right now.
Politically, and it is like most of Jesus’ parables political, it undercuts the controlling class who use heaven as a reward for good behaviour, and who use their meal tables to delineate between the privileged and un-privileged. This parable undercuts their theology and their power.
I said earlier that it is a banquet of the dishonourable and shamed, of whom the host is now one. He is shamed by means of his loss of face with his friends. But we also know from studies into the Jewish purity code of the first century that he is shamed by touching, being beside, and physically eating with people deemed unclean. And the unclean, or as they were referred to in the texts ‘sinners’, were anyone unable to follow the strict rituals associated with staying ritually clean. In the ‘unclean’ class were therefore many women, most sick or disabled, most poor, most foreigners... Street people by definition were unclean. Without delineating at a meal between clean and unclean, all became unclean. The unclean by their presence contaminate the clean!
Jesus, as we know, regularly ate with unclean people, and touched unclean people, which in turn contaminated him. But, and this is what infuriated some of his religious contemporaries, he didn’t seem to care.
The Galatian’s creed, ‘there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male and female’, is a continuation of this lack of delineation, this lack of boundaries, this lack of respect for the right ordering of society (and the God/gods that ordered it so). Which brings us to the obvious conclusion: those who followed Jesus, like Jesus himself, had an unclean God. God by definition was holy. So how do you have an unholy holy God? Maybe god was simply the undiscriminating spirit of compassion, hospitality, and inclusion (not that it would have articulated like that back then).
I began the service talking about the Galatians’ creed as a statement of imagining a different world, and the communion at Corinth (like the point of this banquet parable) being an act of commitment to bringing that different world into being. By dining with losers we become losers. We no longer believe in the division of the world into winners and losers, and we live as if it is so. By dining at the Jesus Table we become Jesus to each other and the world; we become and are ‘the body of Christ’.
If the walls/boundaries of gender, race, and class are removed; if we are all ‘one in Christ’; if indeed we are all collectively Christ’s body (including Christ’s head – the Corinthians version not the Ephesians version!); then we are all collectively responsible for the proclamation, promulgation, and maintenance of the Jesus vision.
The advantage of a class, race, and gender hierarchy is that there are those who are the ‘leadership class’ (often also the financial benefactors class), which lets the rest of us off the hook. They can do the leading, funds gathering, responsibility, etc. However ‘we are all one in Christ’ means that the buck stops with each one of us. Radical egalitarianism means that together we are responsible for what we can control of the future. We are each, as Paul would say, ambassadors of Christ. Not when we grow up, or when we believe the right things, or when we have proven our worth, or when the community asks us to take responsibility for something or be an elder, but right here, right now, in eating and sharing, and going from here to eat and share, we are ambassadors of the Jesus vision.
This is what it means to dine at the Jesus Table.
[i] Brandon Scott Re-Imagining the World, p.114.