Luke 14.1, 7–14
The Good News of the gospel of grace cries out: We are all, equally, privileged but unentitled beggars at the door of God’s mercy! — Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel
Beggars know how to open their hands, trusting that the crumb of grace will fall.…living not with clenched fists but with palms open, ready to receive. — Sue Monk Kidd, When the Heart waits
Tonight, some of us will be going to the Beggars Banquet here in West End. A section of Boundary Street will be blocked to traffic, and tables will be set up. You bring the meal for your table, and leave a seat free for anyone who needs a place so they can join you. Sounds wonderful!
I like going out for a meal. Do you? I enjoy sitting with people and getting to know them more over a good meal. Eating with other people isn’t just about the food; in an overused word, it’s about fellowship too. It’s about deepening relationships.
When I was single, I learnt to go to restaurants and eat alone. It took me a while to feel comfortable with it; I did it though, and in the end it was fine. After all, I am a certified introvert. I like my own company, and I’d bring a book to read. But something was missing. Sharing. Conversation. Entering into the life of another, and also allowing them to enter my life.
In today’s Gospel Reading, Jesus was invited to a meal. If you read Luke’s Gospel in particular, you’ll see that Jesus ate out a lot. For example, he eats at Levi and Zacchaeus’ houses—both of them were tax collectors. He has dinner with several pharisees, he feeds 5000 in the wilderness, and eats at Mary and Martha’s house; he eats with the twelve at the Last Supper, and with two disciples in Emmaus on the first Easter Day.
Today’s story concerns a dinner at a pharisee’s place. The host had invited Jesus, but not out of the goodness of his heart; he and his friends were watching Jesus, to catch him out. But Jesus was watching, too.
Of course, everyone has to eat. It’s a biological necessity, one of the great levellers of all humankind. And different cultures have different rules for eating. Slurping your noodles is polite in Japan, but not in Thailand. I was taught to empty my plate; but if I were in Cambodia and I ate up all my food, my host would understand I’m still hungry. I’d get another helping. And did you know it’s impolite to cut up your salad leaves in France? You fold them up with your knife and fork, and then place the folded leaves in your mouth. The list goes on.
Yet in the time of Jesus, Greek culture had taken root throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and people of different cultural origins ate in quite similar ways.
For example: in these meals, wine was drunk after the meal had been eaten and not during the meal. The guests also reclined to eat. At first, only the elite ate that way: you’d need a servant if you’re reclining on one elbow. But it soon spread to other levels of society. The Romans and Jewish people copied it.
These meals were very conscious of status. Often people reclined around a U-shaped set of couches, and the host sat at the middle of the centre couch. The more important people sat next to the host, the slightly-less important next to them, until you came to the ends of the U. People who were sat there were perhaps lucky to be invited. They may have been clients of the host rather than equals. Their food may not have been as good.
You had to know your place.
If you took a place too near the middle, you could be humiliated by being told to go to the end. I imagine Jesus saw this happening; you can picture someone chancing their arm by taking a couch nearer the centre than they should.
These meals formed part of the basis for the Meal we eat today, the one we call Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.
Let’s look at that.
Firstly, the earliest account of the Last Supper. In 1 Corinthians 10.23–26, Paul tells us
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread… In the same way he took the cup also, after supper…
In the form of the Lord’s Supper Paul was familiar with, the cup was taken after the supper, just as in any banquet of the time.
Paul also is concerned about how the rich treat the poor at the Lord’s Supper: (1 Corinthians 10.20–22)
When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.
What is that about? Think of how socially stratified these ancient meals were. You had to know your place, or you could be humiliated by being sent to the end of the table. When Paul is writing, Holy Communion was still part of a full meal. In Corinth, the well-off were able to get there early. They ate their fill while the poor or the slaves, who had to finish their work, got only the leftovers. Paul’s response was
What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!
(Of course, Paul’s response was in line with Jesus’ wry response. Just a tiny bit testier!)
So, the meals of the ancient Middle East formed part of the basis for our Meal of Thanksgiving, but the Jesus Tradition changed the meal in a number of ways.
Firstly, you can see from Paul’s grumpy reaction to the Corinthians that the Lord’s Supper was meant to be an egalitarian meal. It didn’t matter who you were, and you didn’t have to know your place. All were equally children of God and equally bearers of the Spirit of Jesus. No one was more important than anyone else. The only host is the risen Christ. We are all equally invited.
Secondly, at the Last Supper Jesus gave new meaning to the meal. This is the earliest account, from Paul, about twenty five years after the Last Supper took place:
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’
Jesus is present with us in this meal. As we gather in thanksgiving prayer, as we break bread, Jesus feeds us with his very self. This is how the Basis of Union puts it:
…the continuing presence of Christ with his people is signified and sealed by Christ in the Lord’s Supper or the Holy Communion, constantly repeated in the life of the Church. In this sacrament of his broken body and outpoured blood the risen Lord feeds his baptised people on their way to the final inheritance of the Kingdom.
The risen crucified Jesus Christ is here with us, feeding us in communion with his very self.
Some of you may be wondering, Wasn’t the Last Supper a Passover meal?
I don’t believe we can say if it was or not, historically.
Look at the evidence:
- Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians, the earliest one, doesn’t say it was a Passover meal.
- Mark is the earliest gospel, probably written around the year 65. Mark paints the Last Supper as a Passover meal. Matthew and Luke follow Mark’s example.
- In John’s Gospel, there is a meal but it takes place before the Passover. In John, Jesus dies at the same time that the Passover lambs are sacrificed.
But the thing is, the meaning of the Last Supper has a whole lot to do with Passover: it is our deliverance from spiritual death, it is our salvation to life in God forever.
The historical Last Supper may or may not have been a Passover meal. Yet it was held at Passover time, and it has the Passover meanings of salvation and deliverance. And it proclaims that this salvation, this deliverance, is in Jesus Christ.
Let’s try to sum up:
This Meal before us, this Holy Communion, is a meal in the Jesus tradition. Therefore, it is a meal in which all are equal. No one will say, ‘Friend, come up higher’; there is no higher or lower here.
This is a meal in which the risen Jesus feeds us with his very self. It unites us with Christ and with one another. To further quote the Basis of Union:
Thus the people of God, through faith and the gift and power of the Holy Spirit, have communion with their Saviour, make their sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, proclaim the Lord’s death, grow together into Christ, are strengthened for their participation in the mission of Christ in the world, and rejoice in the foretaste of the Kingdom which Christ will bring to consummation.
There’s a whole sermon series there, I think.
Now, anyone may share in this meal here today. You may have noticed that the Basis of Union says ‘the risen Lord feeds his baptised people on their way to the final inheritance of the Kingdom’. We’re not going to turn anyone away who is seeking to know more of Jesus. But if you do give your life to Jesus, the normal thing would be to get yourself baptised if you aren’t already. So if you’d like to talk with me about that, please, feel free.
Jesus ate with sinners, with pharisees, and with confused disciples. He shared the Last Supper at Passover time with Peter who denied him, and with Judas who betrayed him. The Lord’s Supper really is a beggars’ banquet, and there’s always room for one more. So, come to the Lord’s Table, feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.
West End Uniting Church, 1 September 2019