THE FOLLOWING, by the Very Revd Andrew McGowan, dean and president of Berkeley Divinity School, touches on the favored ecclesiastical trope of our time: Jesus the banquet host who welcomed all to the table. The primacy of this idea in our theological imagination is at the root of a great deal of contemporary church politics, whether in disagreements over the nature of Christian welcome, or more serious debates over administering Communion in advance of (or instead of) Baptism. Sometimes, you hear it as a sneering remark from some self-righteous church person: Jesus welcomed everyone, so who are you to tell me anything I don’t want to hear?
Dean McGowan addresses the history and theology of our assumptions with balance and grace, and his piece (reposted from his blog) is well worth reading.
The Hungry JesusACROSS the spectrum of theological and historical opinion, one thing most pictures of the historical Jesus share is that he was a good eater, participating in meals with diverse company and a lack of ascetic restraint. But the same variety of portraits, from N. T. Wright to John Dominic Crossan, tend to share a more specific and curious claim, namely that Jesus was somehow a radical and inclusive host. One of the above-named authorities may suffice as a representative, as well as confirmation of the consensus:
“The tradition of festive meals at which Jesus welcomed all and sundry is one of the most securely established features of almost all recent scholarly portraits.”1
There is really just one, quite large problem: such meals are a fantasy, not (or not only) for those who are sceptical about the historicity of much of the Gospel meal material, but even at the canonical, literary level. Jesus is simply not depicted as welcoming diverse guests to festive meals.
Since I may seem to have just uttered nonsense or heresy or both, let me explain. Jesus is indeed depicted, at least in reports attributed to his enemies, as an indiscriminate eater, both with regard to company and to quantity, and perhaps also as playing fast and loose regarding different kinds of foods. None of these however amounts to “Jesus welcoming all and sundry to festive meals.”
Jesus was accused of eating with tax collectors and sinners (Mark 2:16 etc; Matt 10:3, 11:19/Luke 7:34, Matt 21:31-2, Luke 15:1-2). This single repeated accusation of guilt by association has its simplest narrative form in Mark 2, and its most elaborate in Luke 19 (the story of Zacchaeus), although the identification of one of the twelve as a tax collector may be a separate and solid tradition. Historical critics generally, if not universally, acknowledge a core of likely fact underneath these narratives, although the stories (especially in Luke) are artful compositions that reflect the literary genre of the symposium rather than mere historical reminiscence. Note however that Jesus is always the guest in these stories, not the host. He is welcomed, not welcomer.
Jesus is also accused of being a “glutton and a drunkard” in a Q saying (11:19/Luke 7:34) linked there with the first accusation, and which serves to contrast Jesus and John. This reads like a stock piece of abuse, echoing Deut 21:20, but the slur is itself unlikely to have been invented by later Christians, just because it is so awkward. How much it tells us about Jesus’ real eating and drinking habits practice is another question; but there is no reason to think Jesus emulated John’s asceticism.
The question of just what he ate can also be difficult, with Mark 7:23 as a sort of crux: “in saying this, he declared all foods clean.” This is however an explicitly editorial interpretive comment, and does not allow even the most conservative or credulous commentator to think Jesus himself rejected Jewish dietary laws in his teaching, let alone that he ate in disregard of them.
So we can still accept that Jesus was neither discriminating about company nor ascetic about food choices. But all this material has to do with his acceptance of invitations, not his welcoming anyone. This is a hungry Jesus, not a hospitable one.
Whence the welcoming Jesus then? From at least four other sorts of meal story or tradition, also interesting but more problematic as evidence of a historical Jesus who could be agreed upon by the usual standards of critical scholarship.
First, Jesus could be read into the role of host in parabolic or eschatological banquets attributed to him as teacher – not as literal eater. Is he the King and/or host of Matt 22 or Luke 14? If so, he is not a very inclusive host – but in any case he is a literary or imagined one.
More promising for the welcoming Jesus, but problematic for historians, are the miraculous feeding stories found in all four Gospels (Mark 6:34-44 etc.). Here Jesus does take the role of a host, blessing and feeding the multitudes. But these are not presented as typical or characteristic events, whatever we make of them historically. They point to an eschatological reality more than a present one; and while the size of the crowds suggests some sort of inclusiveness, bread and fish are not really festive (where’s the wine?), and these stories are not connected with Jesus’ problematic associations with sinners. They depict Jesus as an impressive caterer, not as inclusive host.
Third there is the most famous meal story, the last supper. Here again we can acknowledge Jesus as host. Is this an inclusive meal? While assumptions about the exclusion of women from the meal can be challenged, the makeup of the twelve – including the tax collector and the zealot – is the clearest form of inclusivity here, but amounts to a representative rather than an “all and sundry” selection. There are of course many scholars who doubt the historicity of the supper at least in the familiar terms, although some of us think that the existence of quite distinct versions of the so-called “institution narrative” in Paul (and Luke) as well as Mark (and Matthew) makes a case for its authenticity.
Last, there are resurrection meal scenes where Jesus is host (and cook – John 21). Despite formal blessings in one case (Luke 24:13-35), these are not really festive, and not at all inclusive. And it must go without saying that whatever their force for readers with eyes to see, they will not serve to establish the practice of the historical Jesus.
So the welcoming, inclusive, festive Jesus may well be a common feature of many scholarly portraits, but is not, despite that, a strongly-based historical one. Jesus appears as host in quite different material from that where he is depicted as keeping bad company and being a wine-bibber. The “host” material tends to be the product of later reflection rather than the best-attested traditions that scholars would attribute to the historical Jesus.
So the inclusive welcoming Jesus is the product of creative theological reflection, some in the Gospels and the ancient Church to be sure, but a remarkable amount of it simply modern fantasy. It is yet another instance of how picturing Jesus, we seem to picture ourselves or our wishful thinking. Theologizing is not, I hasten to add, a bad thing – but it is bad to confuse history and theology precisely when one is supposedly in the act of distinguishing them to assess their relative roles and functions.
Why so many scholars believe or assume this inclusive, festive, welcoming, historical Jesus suggests a problem of the social psychology of knowledge as much as of historical criticism, but there have been other similar cases where the obvious has turned out to be false, in NT studies and elsewhere. What was thought obvious about Paul’s attitude to Judaism, or about Jesus and Jewish purity, have had to be deconstructed and rebuilt in recent times; this may be another case.
What, if anything, does the historical Jesus really offer for further reflection on food and meals? Jesus was apparently an itinerant without direct means of support, and his willingness or even desire to be included indiscriminately is not really so surprising in itself. He will have been hungry from time to time, and hunger makes for interesting and diverse table fellowship. So his willingness (or need) to be included, rather than to include others, is the most striking and most overlooked aspect of Jesus’ life as an eater.
Perhaps the Christian rush to do good in Jesus’ name, taking him as a supposed moral example, has fueled a stampede past this simple and I think fairly solid historical reality. Perhaps it is too hard for some Christians to think of a hungry Jesus making himself dependent on others, when we would rather use him as a model for acts of “radical welcome” that assume we are privileged host and not the needy guest. But this hungry Jesus also has his more explicitly theological and eschatological place in the tradition too: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40).
1. N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was & Is (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 45.
ONCE AGAIN, Frederick Schmidt has hit the nail on the head:
… our failure to draw people into the life of the church has nothing to do with the way that we worship. What keeps the Episcopal Church from connecting with the world is self-satisfied classism; ice cold, clubby parishes; and an absence of deep, spiritually engaging preaching. Those are the problems that we need to tackle.
LET’S FACE IT. Lent is in trouble.
Let me explain. Most of us have favorite holiday seasons. For some it’s Christmas, with the family get-togethers and presents. For others it’s the Fourth of July and summer, filled by a sense of national pride and beach vacations to boot. But each year at just about this time, it strikes me that very few of us would pick Lent, a season that seems to most of us as grim as the weather that usually attends it.
Think about it: crossing off days on the calendar until Ash Wednesday; leaving work just a little early, saying “I’ve got to get my Lenten shopping done;” advertisements on billboards and television reading “only 12 more days ’til the day of Ashes;” or little kids going to bed, asking their parents, “How much longer ’till Lent is here?” It just doesn’t happen.
The trouble with Lent, I think, is fairly clear. It’s buried right in the heart of the primary reading for Ash Wednesday, from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6: “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Sigh) Actually, you don’t have to read the whole verse, as the brunt of the problem of Lent is in the first four words, “And when you fast….” And when you fast?! C’mon. Except for the occasional crash diet before summer vacation, who fasts anymore?
And there it is in a nutshell, you see, the trouble with Lent: it feels like this strange,weirdly anachronistic holiday that celebrates things we don’t value and encourages attitudes we don’t share. No wonder that each year fewer and fewer churches observe this age-old (fourth century!) tradition — it’s too old-fashioned, too “Roman,” too medieval for many contemporary Christians to handle.
So let’s face it. Lent is in trouble. I mean, even among those traditions that do honor the season, rarely is there the same kind of enthusiasm or expectancy which greets Advent. Notice we don’t sponsor Lenten Adventures for our kids; we don’t have an Adult Lenten Dinner and Party. We don’t pine to sing Lenten hymns ahead of time. Lent is in trouble.
I don’t know, maybe it’s that there are no presents at the end, and no fun and games along the way. Or maybe it’s that Lent asks us to give up things. I mean, my word, haven’t we had to sacrifice enough already to get our kids through college, to save for retirement, to put that new roof on the house, thank you very much. Why should we give up anything more for Lent?
Or maybe it’s the themes of Lent that trouble us. Penitence. Sacrifice. Contemplation. These are the words of Lent, and I, for one, have a hard time believing they were popular even with the Puritans (you remember, the folks that actually held competitions to see who could resist the greatest temptation or avoid the most pleasure) let alone now.
Lent, I’m telling ya, it’s in trouble. And so each year, as I listen to my non-Lent-observing friends knock it as “works theology” and my Lent-observing friends complain about it as a pain in the @&!, the same question inevitably demands loudly to be answered: Why Lent? I mean, who really needs it?
But you know what? Each year, whatever my feelings approaching Lent may be, the same answer comes whispering back: I do. Just maybe, I need Lent. Just maybe I need a time to focus, to get my mind off of my career, my social life, my next writing project — and a hundred other things to which I look for meaning — and center myself in Meaning itself.
Just maybe I need a time (is 40 days really enough?) to help clear my head of the distractions which any involved life in this world will necessarily bring and re-orient myself towars the Maker of all that was given for my pleasure and which I have let become merely distracting.
Maybe I need the opportunity (and perhaps deep down I crave the chance!) to clear my eyes of the glaze of indifference and apathy which comes from situation after situation where I feel nearly helpless so that I can fasten my eyes once more on the almost unbearable revelation of the God who loves God’s children enough to take the form of a man hanging on a tree.
And maybe, just maybe — and this takes the greatest amount of imagination of them all — just maybe Lent really isn’t mine to do with whatever I please. Perhaps Lent isn’t even the Church’s to insist upon or discard at will. Maybe Lent isn’t any of ours to scoff at or observe. Maybe Lent is God’s. Maybe Lent is God’s gift to a people starved for meaning, for courage, for comfort, for life.
If it is, if we can imagine that Lent is not ours at all but is wholly God’s, then maybe we’ll also begin to recall, at first vaguely but then more strongly, that we, too, are not ours at all, but are wholly God’s — God’s own possession and treasure.
Seen this way, Lent reminds us of whose we are. The “sacrifices,” the disciplines, these are not intended as good works offered by us to God; rather, they are God’s gifts to us to remind us who we are, God’s adopted daughters and sons, God’s treasure, so priceless that God was willing to go to any length — or, more appropriately, to any depth — to tell us that we are loved, that we have value, that we have purpose.
Yes. I need Lent. I need an absence of gifts so that I might acknowledge the Gift. I need a time to be quiet and still, a time to crane my neck and lift my head, straining to hear again what was promised me at Baptism: “You are mine! I love you! I am with you!”
I need Lent, finally, to remind me of who I am — God’s heir and Christ’s co-heir — so that, come Easter, I can rejoice and celebrate with all the joy, all the revelry, all the anticipation, of a true heir to the throne.
And so yes, I need Lent. And to tell you the truth, I suspect that you do, too. You see, if Lent is in trouble, it’s only because we’re in trouble, so busy trying to make or keep or save our lives that we fail to notice that God has already saved us and has already freed us to live with each other and for each other all the rest of our days. And so we have Lent, a gift of the church, the season during which God prepares us to behold his own great sacrifice for us, with the hope and prayer that, come Good Friday and Easter, we may be immersed once again into God’s mercy and perceive more fully his great love for us and all the world and in this way find the peace and hope and freedom that we so often lack.
David Lose is the author of the popular books Making Sense of Scripture, Making Sense of the Christian Faith, and Making Sense of the Cross. You can find his daily Bible devotions and articles on connecting faith and daily life at his blog “…In the Meantime.” Dr Lose is the president of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. He speaks throughout the U.S. and abroad on preaching, leadership, Christian faith in a postmodern world and biblical interpretation.