Brian Gleeson has written this introduction to today's commentary: "The mission of Jesus the Messiah was to proclaim the coming of the kingdom (reign and rule) of God on earth and make it happen. He was both its agent and servant. His ministry consisted of all the means he used to accomplish his mission. They all expressed his pastoral care of people as their Good Shepherd, the one who lays down his life for his sheep (Jn 10:11). One principal ministry was his preaching and teaching. Another was his healings of one kind or another. Yet another was his passion, death, and resurrection. Still another was his ministry of meals, of table fellowship. Too often, though, his ministry of meals has been somewhat overlooked or neglected. The following investigation and presentation is all about it..." Today's commentary might be read as an extension of the discussion started by Kevin Murphy in his commentary last Saturday.
MEALS MEAN SHARING LIFE AND VALUES...
Sharing a meal is not simply eating the same food together. That's what happens on an aeroplane. At the time of Jesus and still today, food is a source of life, and sharing of food with family, friends and associates is a sharing of life. Meal-time is a time for reconnecting with others. It is a sharing of one's real presence, a sharing of thoughts and feelings, news and views. It expresses such values as welcome, hospitality, self-giving, inter-dependence, solidarity, loyalty, love, compassion, community, and outreach to the hungry, needy and lonely. The chief aim of a family or community meal is to bring people together. In particular situations a shared table may communicate forgiveness and reconciliation.
In numerous instances in the bible, the offering of a sacrifice is followed by a meal celebrating the union with God brought about by the sacrifice. For Jews, their Passover Feast in particular has celebrated both their deliverance from slavery in Egypt and their new-found shared relationship with God. For Christians, the celebration of the Eucharist ('the Lord's Supper' [1 Cor 11:20]) is their joyful celebration of their fellowship and togetherness made possible by the sacrifice of Jesus. A shared table, then, may also represent the celebration of a covenant relationship with God. So, in short, a shared table represents relationships of peace, union, fellowship, friendship and reconciliation among human beings, and sometimes with God as well.
MEANINGS AND VALUES JESUS SHARED...
In the course of his public life Jesus is invited to share meals with friends, officials, and poor people. To a Jewish person, a friend is 'one who breaks bread with me', and a feast is as obvious a celebration of the joys and successes of life as fasting is a symbol of sorrow. He does not decline these invitations under the pretext of fasting or asceticism. He willingly takes his place at table. To be invited to break bread with someone is no mere polite hospitality, but implies being invited to enter into a relationship of trust with that person. To be given a piece of the bread blessed by the master of the house is to be offered a share in those blessings, to be drawn into a bond of kinship, and to be accepted as 'part of the family'. Eating with others is a much more radical social statement than simply being with them.
In the gospels Jesus eats with friends and disciples (Lk 10:38-42; Jn 2:1-11; 12:1-2). He feeds the crowds with more bread than they can eat (Mk 6:30-44 par.; Mk 8:1-10 par.). Throughout Luke's gospel Jesus seems to be either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal. Wherever he went, there seemed to be a celebration. The tradition of festive meals at which he welcomed all and sundry is one of the most securely established features of almost all recent scholarly portraits. In Luke especially he gives much of his teaching at meals (Lk 5:31-39; 7:36-50; 10:38-42; 11:37-52; 14:1-24; 22:14-38; 24:20-49).
After his resurrection he eats with his inner circle of disciples, the ones who abandoned him during his passion. His gesture of sharing meals with them says that he has forgiven them for their cowardice, failures, and infidelity.
HIS MEALS ENACT AND ANTICIPATE THE COMING OF THE KINGDOM...
Jesus speaks of the coming of the kingdom of God in the imagery of a meal (Lk 12:35-37; 14:7-24). He also 'welcomes sinners and eats with them' (Lk 15:2; cf. Lk 19:1-10; Mk 2:15-17; etc.), e.g. with extortionists and prostitutes. Extortionist tax collectors were definitely on the outer in Jewish society. They were defiled by their practice of collecting taxes for the hated occupying Romans and for collecting excessive amounts for their own profit. As quislings who had sold out to Rome they lost the right to be still considered as Jews. And yet Jesus specifically calls one to be his follower, and immediately after is described as dining with many of them in Levi's house (Mt 9:9-10; Mk 2:14-15; Lk 5:27-29).
Sinners were not just those known to lead immoral lives, such as criminals and prostitutes. The term also included those unable to meet the Jewish purity laws because of the nature of their business or the demands of daily life, those whose grinding poverty prevented them from paying the temple tithes, and those afflicted with diseases or disabilities. In a society where there was no division between social and religious values such people were regarded as clearly 'sinful' and therefore despised by God. As sinners they were without honour and definitely on the outer with those who mattered — the socially successful, acceptable and respectable.
But Jesus 'enjoys table fellowship with the very people whom Jewish law banned as "unclean"' and immoral. He is taunted by his opponents, as he puts it himself, for being 'a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners' (Mt 11:18-19). His meals with outcasts are, in fact, acted-out parables of God's loving care and concern for outcasts, for those 'regarded as apostates by the standards of the religious leaders', leaders whom Jesus rebuked for going after the first places at feasts, the places of honour (Lk 14:7; 20:46). Moreover, 'because he ate with apostates from true religion', they regarded Jesus himself as an apostate, and ultimately for that, 'Jesus got himself crucified'.  They 'could not tolerate this prophet of good news to the poor who not only in word, but especially at meals criticized their way of life.'
He justifies his behaviour with the words: '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' (Mk 2:16-17). When Jesus dines with outcasts he is expressing not just his unusual humanity and social generosity. By this down-to-earth gesture he is assuring them that God respects them, and that they are near and dear to God. He is also assuring them that they belong to the kingdom of God, and that God wants to share life with them, to welcome and forgive, heal and reconcile them, and bring them home to the community of Israel.
The impact of his dining with sinners is powerfully illustrated in his dealings with that most famous of extortionists, Zacchaeus (Lk 19:1-10). Zacchaeus promises to make restitution to those he has robbed. So, as Jesus says, 'salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham' (v.9). Eating with Jesus is what makes Zacchaeus change. It also brings about a change in the community affected by his crimes. In short, table fellowship and communion with Jesus lead to conversion and transformation. Ben Meyer expresses it this way: 'Contact prompted repentance; conversion flowed from communion.'
The experience of universal forgiveness is presented in Isaiah 25:6 (cf. Amos 9:13) in the form of a great banquet which, far from being reserved to Jews, is open to all peoples. In welcoming sinners to his table, Jesus is, in fact, giving a pre-view of the forgiveness that will be offered to all when the kingdom of God is fully established on earth. In his parable of the great feast (Lk 14:15-24 par) he depicts the final consummation of the coming kingdom. 'I tell you,' he says in Matthew 8:11 par, 'many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven…' His meals, then, are eschatological (end-time) meals, which celebrate in anticipation the feast in the end-time of the universal redeeming love of God (Lk 13:28f; Mt 8:11-12).
His meals, in fact, express symbolically the whole mission and message of Jesus. 'Put simply, Jesus' eating habits are a central feature of his enactment of the kingdom of God. They represent a radical and powerful expression of God's generous reign.' A foretaste of the joy of the kingdom of God in all its fullness is savoured at these joyful meals, where Jesus is either guest of honour or host. They communicate his message: 'The reign of God is near, Jesus is its mediator, and as you get into his circle, the joy breaks out.'
CONCLUSION: JESUS CONTINUES TO FEED HIS HUNGRY PEOPLE...
This ministry of table fellowship exercised by Jesus affirms just how much he has been a lover of life, a saver of life, and a giver of life, a 'prolife' person in the best sense of the word. A particularly wonderful and amazing thing about it all is how his ministry of meals continues in the Eucharist, called by the first Christians by those beautiful names 'the Breaking of Bread' and 'the Lord's Supper'. By the latter expression they understood that it was the Risen Lord himself who was calling them to get together to celebrate all he meant to them, and that it was he himself who led them in their celebrations from start to finish.
A rich way of understanding the Eucharist is that it is Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday wrapped up in one ritual. The post-resurrection meals of Jesus, in particular, remind us that it is the risen Christ whom we meet in the Eucharist and who leads us in its celebration. Christians can therefore say with Peter that we are among those 'who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead' (Acts 10:41). His presence among us is such, that it is not far-fetched to claim as our own actual or desired eucharistic experience what John says of the gathering in the Upper Room in Jerusalem: 'When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, ... Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." ... Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you"' with all the overtones of that Jewish greeting 'Shalom!'
 James Mackey, Jesus the Man and the Myth (London: SCM Press, 1979), 148.
 Philippe Rouillard, 'From Human Meal to Christian Eucharist,' Living Bread, Saving Cup: Readings on the Eucharist, ed. R.K. Seasoltz (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1987), 140-141.
 Hans Kung, On Being a Christian. tr. Edward Quinn (London: Collins, 1977), 273.
 Elizabeth Johnson, Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology (New York: Crossroad, 1990), 55.
 These evangelists recount the feedings in the language of their narratives of the institution of the Eucharist.
 Robert Karris, Luke: Artist and Theologian (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), 47.
 NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 45.
 William Loewe, The College Student's Introduction to Christology (Collegeville, MN: Litugical Press, 1996), 66.
 Loewe, The College Student's Introduction to Christology, 67.
 Albert Nolan, Jesus Before Christianity: The Gospel of Liberation (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1977), 22.
 Donald Senior, Jesus: A Gospel Portrait (New York/Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 1992), 63. He comments: 'This emphasis on table fellowship is notable in a semitic culture where sharing a meal was considered more a sharing of life than simply a casual association' (ibid.).
 Karris, Luke: Artist and Theologian, 58.
 Karris, ibid, 57. He remarks: 'Jesus, a glutton and a drunkard, will die for the way he eats' (60).
 Karris, ibid, 70.
 Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology: The Proclamation of Jesus (New York: Scribner's, 1971), 115-116.
 Thomas Yoder Neufeld, Recovering Jesus: The Witness of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI, Brazos Press, & London: SPCK, 2007,194.
 Ben Meyer, 'Jesus Christ,' in The Anchor Bible Dictionary Volume 3 H-J, D.N. Freedman Editor-in-Chief (New York: Doublday, 1992), 782.
 Michael Cook, The Jesus of Faith: A Study in Christology (Ramsey, NJ: Paulist Press, 1981), 59-60.
 Neufeld, Recovering Jesus, 193.
 Johnson, Consider Jesus, 55.
 Johnson, ibid, 56.
The Last Supper image used in the header and footer has been sourced from the photobucket page of knottyboy559.
This commentary by Brian Gleeson extends in many ways the observations made by Kevin Murphy in a commentary we published last Saturday: www.catholica.com.au/gc1/km/009_km_280810.php.
Dr Brian Gleeson, a Passionist priest, lectures in systematic theology at the Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne. He recently stepped down as the Head of the Department of Church History and Systematic Theology at YTU. He joined the faculty at the beginning of 2001. His previous appointments were at Catholic Theological College Adelaide (2 years); St Paul's National Seminary Sydney (13 years); Catholic Theological Union Sydney (8 years); Pius XII Regional Seminary, Brisbane (1 year); and Good Samaritan Teachers' College, Sydney (4 years). His postgraduate studies were with the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium; the Gregorian University, Rome; and the Melbourne College of Divinity. Fr Gleeson is also an active member of ACTA (Australian Catholic Theologians' Association).
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