Border Protection and the Lord’s Supper: 2 – Jesus’ table manners

Posted: February 11, 2014 by J in Bible, Church, Discipleship, Mission, Theology

There can be no possible justification for Jesus’ disgusting and treacherous behaviour at the meal table. He does what no Jew could in good conscience do.

At least, that’s how it appeared to the religious authorities in Israel.

What was it Jesus did that so upset them?

Mark and especially Luke present Jesus as not only welcoming but also eating with outcasts. Jesus extends table fellowship to these people. In doing so, he busts through and busts up the borders that protected Israel and the table of Yahweh at which Israel sat. He admits the unclean to the holy meal. You can see why the scribes etc were so incensed. This must have seemed like a gross betrayal of Israel and a pollution of the purity of her worship.

For the ‘sinners’ themselves, inclusion in the meal implies much more than just social contact: it speaks of restored participation in the community of salvation. In breaking through the borders around Israel’s table, Jesus ‘re-enfranchises’ these outcasts, drawing them back to belong once again to Israel – and to Israel’s God.

Jesus’ behaviour is all the more reprehensible because of his status as a famous Rabbi. The religious significance of his practice could not be hidden. In fact we can go further: when Jesus extends table fellowship to sinners, he does so not just as a member of Israel, but as Messiah, as the leader of the nation which he himself is regathering. These outcasts are welcomed into direct fellowship with the king, invited in to take part in renewed Israel – an Israel from which many well-respected people remain excluded.

And it is important to notice what Jesus does not do as part of this table fellowship. He does not lay down conditions: ‘you may join in but you’ll need to…’

For the Jewish authorities, it must have seemed like their worst nightmare: Jesus seems determined to trample on everything sacred and create mayhem wherever he goes. He appears to be set on a program to break down the very identity of God’s people Israel: an identity up till now preserved by rigorous border protection. If Jesus destroys the borders how will Israel hang together any longer? It’s as though he is turning the nation inside out: the unclean are welcomed at the table of Jesus, while the authorities and the well-respected are kept at arm’s length.

Messy, confusing, careless, dangerous, reckless, blasphemous, polluting, treacherous: these words would have sprung to mind for traditional Jews seeing Jesus’ table practices.

Jesus is not interested to defend his table-fellowship practice nor all the messiness and confusion it must have caused. But he is interested to explain what sort of table he was sharing.  The end-times wedding day has arrived, when feasting and not fasting is in order (cf. Luke 5:34). The table is a banquet table.  Jesus himself plays the role of the bridegroom, at the centre of festivities. And he is re-organising the whole table. From now on membership of Israel will be defined solely by connection to him (cf. 6:46-49; 8:21).  It will be a new identity dependent on the centre, not on the borders.

Thus there is a call inherent in Jesus’ table-fellowship: a call with a decisively eschatological edge to it. Outcasts are not merely invited back to something they once had. The reason they are now welcome is because something new is happening. The day of restoration has arrived, and Jesus through table fellowship calls sinners to participate in the end-times banquet that his kingdom is bringing. Though they may not release this at first, the outcasts are being welcomed in to join in celebrating Jesus’ glorious reign.

Is Jesus not worried about protecting the purity of the table? Not at all, it seems. What happens at Jesus’ table is far more powerful than that. Rather than the table becoming polluted, the holiness of the table seems likely to infect those who come to it. Think 0f Zacchaeus.

One exception to this tendency is Judas Iscariot. He took part in all the meals, including the last one which had such overt sacrificial significance. And yet Judas’s heart was never won for Jesus. Jesus knew this, yet still did not feel it was a problem to eat the meal with Judas. There was still no need to protect the table or its holiness: it just doesn’t seem to have been the sort of thing that needed protection.

Tomorrow: how the Lord’s table explodes across the world.

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