Ever noticed how many of Jesus’ meals are in the gospels? Meals feature so prominently in the gospels that scholars have commented: ‘Jesus ate his way through the Gospels.’ Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley even claim: ‘… they killed him because of the way he ate; because he ate and drank with sinners.’ Jesus revealed the Kingdom as he shared meals with others. And Jesus’ ‘fellowship meals’ are formative for the mission of the local church today.
Have you noticed how much ministry Jesus did around the dinner table? Here are some
examples. For ‘starters’, pardon the pun, two meals, the last supper and the feeding of the 5,000, are recorded in all four gospels. Also Jesus’ meal with Levi the tax collector and his shadowy friends is found in all but John’s gospel. We add the feeding of the 4,000, found in both Mark and Matthew. Total these up and we have four meals, found in thirteen passages! But there are many more. Meals are particularly prominent in Luke’s gospel. Take a look at two very uncomfortable meals at the houses of Pharisees (11:37-54 and 14:1-24), the meal with Zacchaeus (19:1-10), and the meal that followed Jesus’ resurrection appearance on the Emmaus Road (24:30). The list is still not complete. You can see why scholars have said, ‘Jesus ate his way through the Gospels.’
Jesus’ fellowship meals didn’t come from ‘out of the blue’. They are the delightful ‘second course’ to follow the feasts and celebration of the Old Testament. In the Old Testament Israel’s yearly calendar was punctuated by festivity at the sanctuary, which always included eating! Feasts of weeks and tabernacles were joyful celebrations of thanksgiving for the bountiful harvest (see for example Deuteronomy Ch 16:1-17). And tone of these meals is celebration: Israel is repeatedly exhorted to ‘rejoice!’  Jesus’ feasting and celebration then was not a new invention. Rather, in his fellowship meals, Jesus was being what Israel was always supposed to have been: a centre of joy, celebration and justice for the whole world!
The relational richness of Jesus’ ministry contrasts with the isolation of suburban life today. Skye Jethani observes how private and isolated the lives of westerners have become:
Family zones are demarcated by fences. And within the home, family members are zoned into private bedrooms – each with a television, Internet connection, and telephone. The suburb, like the consumer worldview from which it came, forms us to live fragmented and isolated lives of private consumption.
The result of individualism and isolation in western culture is pervading loneliness. Many people feel that they lack connection and meaningful relationships. I find myself regularly surprised as yet another friend expresses desire for richer relationships. My friends are capable and socially skilled but isolated by the suburban way of life. Jesus’ fellowship meals speak into our culture of individualism and isolation. They show us the shape of life and flourishing. They display the beauty, feasting and joy of the new creation – that is secured in Christ’s resurrection. There seems to be something about the bare sharing of a meal that reveals the kingdom of God. In light of Jesus’ fellowship meals, it is no surprise that the second coming of Christ is also conceived as a meal – the ‘wedding supper of the lamb’ (Rev 19).
We Christians must learn from these meals, to bring Christ’s joy to our neighbourhoods and workplaces. Tod, a city lawyer and friend of mine, demonstrates how this Biblical theme of festivity can shape the church’s mission. Every Friday Tod arranges for colleagues in his law firm to meet after work at a local cafe or bar. Colleagues gather to share life and relationship and Tod is the initiator. In this context of shared celebration, Tod takes opportunities to ‘give an answer for the hope that he has’. In this way Tod exemplifies how a Christian can bring the celebration of Christ into a work place. Jesus’ fellowship meals teach that we Christians ought to be hubs of relationship and celebration in our communities.
But dig deeper into Jesus’ fellowship meals by observing who Jesus eats with – this too is critical for the church’s mission. I will take Jesus’ meal with Levi as an example. Mark 2:15 says:
And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him (ESV).
Social boundary markers were very important in 1st century Israel and meals were the way that social boundaries were maintained and displayed. Every pious Jew knew who they could eat with, and who they couldn’t eat with. Jesus’ choice of dinner partners demonstrated an alarming disregard for purity laws and social mores. Jesus ate with ‘tax collectors’ and ‘sinners’! Tax collectors were double trouble: first, they were perceived by their fellow Jews as colluding with the Roman Empire. Second, they made their living by charging more than they passed on to the Roman overlords. ‘Sinners’ on the other hand were those people thought to be flagrantly wicked: tax collectors were included in this category, as well as prostitutes, criminals and their like. These people had no place in regular society. It is interesting to me that Levi the tax collector naturally gathered other outsiders around himself. Cut off from society, these people choose to be lonely together. And, significantly, these people are Jesus’ company of choice!
Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen’s painting, ‘The Wedding at Cana’, evokes the festivity and joy of Jesus’ meals with ‘sinners’. If you look carefully at the painting you see humour, festivity… and indignity! There is music, rich food and drink, women and men sitting scandalously close and one strange man poking the chicken with his finger! For years I have pictured these ‘sinners meals’ in my imagination. I imagine Jesus’ loving warmth toward all these ‘outsiders’. And I have always imagined that tax collectors would have made joyful and loud company. And Jesus would have laughed with these men with a laugh full hearted and loud! Now please humour me for a moment: for years I have imagined the tax collectors telling tax collector jokes (maybe a bit like lawyer jokes today). Perhaps a joke like:
Q: Why won’t sharks attack tax collectors? A: Professional courtesy.
And I imagine Jesus responding with a full belly laugh, delighted at his friends. Here is the ‘crunch’: this is Jesus’ company of choice! Jesus chooses to be with ‘the weak of this world’. And notice how ‘outsiders’ rush to be with Jesus – like moths to a flame! Mark says:
… for there were many who followed him (vs 15).
The ‘many’ here is referring to more ‘sinners’. ‘Sinners’ loved to be with Jesus. Pause to consider this for a moment: ‘sinners’ and ‘tax collectors’ loved to be with Jesus. What a compassionate God we serve! This is the God who said to a nation of ex-slaves ‘I carried you on eagle’s wings’ (Exodus 19:4). We learn from Jesus fellowship meals that our tables should be places of radical welcome, especially for those who feel lonely and on the outside. This is the shape of the Kingdom of God!