Robinson College, Apr 2015
This term we are looking at meals in the Gospel of Luke. One scholar has argued that the whole of Luke’s Gospel is structured around seven meals that take place – and whilst he’s probably wrong, it does offer a genuinely thought-provoking perspective on Jesus of Nazaareth.
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the Kingdom of God is all about food. The foundational image for the kingdom of God is being invited to a huge feast where there is lots of food and very nice wine. Food and wine is not simply some metaphor for a happy life – it is a fundamental dimension of what it means to be part of the Kingdom. Eating is serious business.
In fact, it is so widely recognised that eating together is basic to human wellbeing, that there is very little serious academic work published on the subject. You only have to look around you though – eating together is a serious part of college life, where students regularly are invited to eat dine in hall with excellent food and exceptionally adequate wine. The same is true of course, on Sunday evenings where everyone is invited to a sumptuous feast of Doritos, Monster Munch or Wotsits combined with Fine Wine and Fresh Juice in the Auditorium Lounge.
Coming from a family where cooking was not regarded as a serious life skill, my taste buds remain haunted by vomit-inducing memories of suet pudding that tasted like wax, cheese cake that had a little too much of a cheese component, and – on the one occasion my parents made a gastronomic effort - charred remains of god-knows-what organs from god-knows-what creature – presented with an exotic French name. People from my background simply regard food as fuel. So why is the God of Israel apparently so obsessed with food and what has it god to do with the Kingdom of God?
It’s a difficult question to answer when you come from a culture where obesity is more of a problem than hunger, where gaining weight is more of a worry than losing weight. Why is food important to humanity, beyond being mere fuel? Well, according to the self-esteem expert, Gok Wan. (Yes, ‘self-esteem expert’ – I’d love to know what qualifications you need for that title- beyond telling women who are self-conscious about their bodies to remove their clothes on national television.) According to Gok Wan, if you eat the right yoghurt, it aids your intestinal transit – and you should eat the right yoghurt, because ‘feeling good, starts from within.’ I don’t think the God of Israel was overly concerned about the intestinal transit of the Israelites.
Jesus lived in Lower Galilee, a region that was teeming with natural resources – but those who worked the land did not get to benefit from it. As the first century progressed, it looks as though economic hardship was the norm – and the extent to which the region was taxed by temple, by Jewish leaders and by Roman overlords, eventually brought the economy to its knees. Poverty was marked in the first instance not by your individual lack of economic resources, by social exclusion in various forms. Being outcast, being a sinner, being a leper, being disabled or orphaned or widowed or poor, meant that you tasted not only the physical but the social dimension of social exclusion. That was poverty – so when Jesus pitches up and speaks about the Kingdom of God in terms of a massive feast, there are two things going on.
Firstly – inviting people to a meal is an excellent means of social inclusion. A companion, is literally someone with whom you break bread. For any pious Jew – eating food is not a merely physical process. You couldn’t eat a biscuit without praying a special Jewish prayer. Not ‘please don’t let this biscuit go straight onto my hips’, but a prayer of gratitude. The Jewish precursor of saying grace – a thank you for a meal – was not said before a meal but after it, that way you know what you’re saying thank you for. But meals are not an individual event. In first century Galilee and Judea, it’s not that You Are What You Eat, but You Are Who You Eat With. And throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is eating with all kinds of different people: he eats with Pharisees, with his disciples, with Women, With Zaccheaus (a Roman collaborator) and with Sinners. Inviting them to a meal is a deeply inclusive practice, for many of those whose daily experience was one of exclusion.
Secondly, yes the second dimension of the great feast of the Kingdom – is the straightforward attempt to meat physical, bodily needs. This is something that a leader in any society had to do. In any empire, the leader’s role is to provide his people with food security. In ancient Greece, bakers were granted senior political positions in Athens, in Anglo Saxon English – the Lord was straightforwardly and literally a Loaf-giver – and in Rome, the emperor faced a constant struggle to make sure citizens were provided with bread. By speaking about the Kingdom of God as a great Feast – Jesus subverts the authority of the Empire.
Anyone telling angry peasants about a new Kingdom, is asking for trouble. In the Roman empire, to seek the Kingdom of God is to seek regime change. Not just any regime change – but Jesus seems to be promising a kingdom in which no one will go hungry. A kingdom of radical social inclusion, where the King sits at the table with everyone else. This automatically displaces the Roman’s treasured form of hierarchical government – where there are graded levels of inclusion towards the centre, and disposable nobodies like Galileans out there on the periphery. Jesus offers a radical alternative: Everyone is invited to feast in the Kingdom of God.
In today’s reading, that ‘everyone’ includes a sinful woman. Jesus has been invited to the home of a religiously respectable Pharisee, and Katie Price turns up and starts giving Jesus what looks like an erotic display of affection. And Jesus just seems to ignore it and get on with the meal. Not surprisingly, the Pharisee is offended by Jesus’s tolerance and so Jesus responds by telling a parable. The parable is about forgiveness – and whatever Christians have done with the concept of forgiveness, in this context it had little to do with clearing your moral slate before a mind-reading, judgemental psychotic divinity. Being a sinner meant being excluded from the benefits of Israel – and being forgiven meant being included as part of Israel.
She is forgiven, says Jesus, because of her faith. Again, faith is not the socially sub-normal ability to perform the mental gymnastics necessary to make yourself believe in the ridiculous. Faith means faithfulness, better translated Loyalty – loyalty to Israel’s God, and loyalty to what Israel’s God is doing here and now. And this sinful woman shows loyalty to God by showering affection upon Jesus. At this meal, Jesus forgives her – he radically includes her in the kingdom of God.
A meal is the most natural setting for this – but others present at the meal don’t like it. Probably the best way to appreciate their reaction to what Jesus has done is to go on Youtube and see how Fox news reacted to news that Dan Price, a CEO from Seattle, gave himself a 90 percent wage cut in order to increase the salaries of his employees. A single criticism was simply not enough. No, a panel of sun-tanned, well-groomed, white-teethed experts berated this action with all the venom it’s possible to squeeze through an artificial smile, poured scorn on this CEO – criticizing the morality of his attempt to be fair. This is precisely the reaction that Jesus faces time and time again through the Gospel of Luke.
In this story, the sinful woman is dismissed in peace, not because Jesus has helped her intestinal transit, not because she has enjoyed some yoghurt, not because feeling good comes from within. If anything, feeling good came from outside. From being accepted, included, welcomed, affirmed. The CEO who showed generosity to his employees, equally, did it to make himself happier – which always and invariably is rooted in the way we relate to others, the way we treat and are treated by others.
This is a theme we will see this dynamic repeated over and over again as the term progresses.