Eating with people means something. Maybe not as much as it used to but somehow we still recognize from a very young age that when we get the chance to choose where we sit and who we eat with, that decision says something important. It’s a way we show who our friends are. And who we don’t sit with is a quick way to show who we are uncomfortable with or maybe even dislike.
This was especially true in Jesus’ day. In first century Israel and the wider Greco-Roman world meals were a big deal. There were daily meals at home which were mostly about eating and maybe spending time with family. But then there were the big events. Capital M Meals. Weddings, funerals, holidays, celebrations.
What did eating with someone mean?
It meant you were respecting them. Greco-Roman culture was status obsessed. The whole Roman Empire from top to bottom knew where it sat in an elaborate social and wealth hierarchy. The gods were at the top and they gave wealth and prestige to the emperor, who doled it out to the elite, they passed on shares of it to administrators and governors and they told the local people where they stood.
When you ate with someone you were acknowledging their place in the hierarchy. If someone was particularly honored they would sit at the head of the table, closest to the hosts. If someone just barely made the cut they would sit towards the back or maybe even be forced to stand while others sat. You would eat with people fairly close to your status and you would treat the higher ranking ones better and the lower ranking ones worse. And so they reinforced where everyone stood.
This carried over into Jewish culture in a strong way. On top of this whole respect/status thing you start to add in ideas like cleanliness and holiness. So good people were holy, Jewish, well respected, wealthy, followed Jewish law and were ritually clean. Bad people were unholy, Gentile, disreputable, poor and unclean. The problem is that when you put these together holiness and unholiness, cleanness and uncleanness are communicable. They’re like a disease or a residue, they can rub off on someone else. Holiness or God’s favor can rub off on people. Or usually they talked about the other side, being unholy or abandoned by God could infect the people around you.
So now in addition to the status obsession that the rest of the Empire is working in, the first century Jews are also worrying about holiness and ritual cleanliness and Jewish identity. These are the blocks they use to build a separated and divided world. Status and holiness and wealth all tangled up. To rub shoulders with someone would mean literally sharing your status in the community and in front of God.
We’ve not changed that much since then. We still tend to show our perceptions of others through things like sharing meals and spending time together. When I sit with my group of friends at lunch over and over I solidify the perception that I approve of these people and want to be considered like them. When I have the recurring option to eat with someone else and I choose not to, again and again, I’m also making a clear statement in the other direction.
Table Fellowship still happens every day. Especially when you’re a student. Who you sit with at lunch, who you go out to eat with, who you sit with in class, who you talk to, whenever you make choices you’re building up a social world around you and telling people what you think of them.
1.) What does it mean to eat together?
2.) Who do you most often share meals with?
3.) What are other activities we do that are similar to this?
4.) What are ways we create community?
5.) What communities are you a part of? How do you know? How do you show that?
Abuses at the Lord’s Supper
17 Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. 19Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. 20When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. 21For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. 22What! 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!
The Institution of the Lord’s Supper
23 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, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ 25In 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.’ 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Partaking of the Supper Unworthily
27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. 28Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves. 30For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. 32But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. 34If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. About the other things I will give instructions when I come.
This passage brings together both patronage and table fellowship in one passage. The early churches which were supposed to be doing away with the inequality and shame of patronage were falling back into bad habits. The shared meal of the community had become another time to put others in their place and reinforce your superiority. Those who arrived early weren’t just anyone but the rich who had leisure and resources. The poorer workers would labor in the field until dark before they could join the church in worship. Only to find that the rich had started without them, shaming and devaluing them.
We need to understand the social world around us because we’re already living in it every day. Next post we’ll talk about Fellowship with God and how the image of Table Fellowship helps us understand a relationship with God in a different way.