That said, we move to the twenty-first verse, where the facts of the matter become more glaring. Paul writes, “For when it is time to eat, everyone proceeds with his own supper. One is hungry and another becomes drunk” (11:21). With this, when considered along with what we know about the banqueting tables of the ancient world, it becomes quite evident that Paul is taking issue with the meal practice of the Corinthian church. This reminds us of the common and accepted situation of banquets, in that the honored guests would eat first, and that they would also eat the best food while receiving the best wine, while the guests towards the other end of the social spectrum would have to wait to be served. Here, we reflect on the story of Jesus turning the water into wine, and in the context of what Paul writes to this church, consider that the best wine was then going to be reserved for those that would be receiving their food and drink at the very end of the meal, contrary to all custom.
As previously mentioned, in some cases, invited guests would receive nothing at all. It appears that this altogether unfortunate situation was occurring within the church, at common meals. Rather than demonstrating that they truly believed that all were one in Christ, and there was neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, and neither Jew nor Greek, there were divisions being put on display at the very meal that was supposed to be demonstrative of the messianic banquet, and to which they were apparently making reference as being the “Lord’s Supper.” By countermanding the example that had been provided by Jesus, in the context of His announcement of the presence of the kingdom of heaven in which He reversed and flattened out the social order, this church was not being a unique and shining light to the world. It seems that they were calling what they were doing the Lord’s Supper, and speaking of it in terms of the messianic banquet; but with what is going on there, we are made to understand why Paul tells them “you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper” (11:20b). If one is going hungry while another becomes drunk and presumably satiated while all are sitting at the same table, how could this possibly be looked upon as the Lord’s Supper? Where is compassion and love and preference on display in such a situation? Most decidedly, it is not.
Paul does not deny that the members of this church come from different segments of society. He does not deny that there are individuals from all socio-economic levels coming together, nor does he level his critique in this direction. He writes “Do you not have houses so that you can eat and drink?” (11:22a) The Apostle was not concerning himself with the eating and the drinking itself. This was not the thing with which he took issue. What concerned him was the fact that the entrenched forces of the world, backed up from time immemorial by the kingdoms of the world and by the way that they went about gaining and maintaining power, were infiltrating that which was supposed to represent the kingdom of God---which was to model, based on Jesus’ example and insistence, an entirely different way of establishing and growing a kingdom.
Following up on his rhetorical inquiry about private houses in which the people could eat and drink to their heart’s content, Paul asks “Or are you trying to show contempt for the church of God by shaming those who have nothing?” (11:22b) How horrible that this had crept into the church of Christ! By bringing the banqueting table and festal meal practices of the world into the church, and by attempting to erect and maintain, within the church, the same social divisions and boundaries that existed outside the church, they were extending the shame (in an honor and shame society) felt by those that they supposedly referred to as brothers and sisters in Christ, while referring to it as the Lord’s Supper. It is no wonder that Paul writes “Should I praise you? I will not praise you for this!” (11:22c), before going on to talk about the Lord’s Supper as it is meant to be.
In the recounting of what he had received from the Lord and passed on to this church (11:23), Paul makes it clear that Jesus gave bread and the cup to all, and that none were left out. That was not the first time that Jesus had done this, as we can see the same thing happening at the feedings of the multitudes over which Jesus presided. With this in mind, can we even imagine engaging in a celebration, calling it the Lord’s Supper, and not allowing all to participate? Of course not! It seems that we do engage in such a practice in our churches, on a regular basis, actively excluding people from participation at the Lord’s Supper, and doing so based on what might very well appear to be, upon a closer, far more informed, and contextualized reading of the words of Paul regarding examination of self and judgment, a seriously flawed practice. The exclusion of some from participation in the meal due to social custom, however, appears to be precisely what was taking place. Standard meal practice, in which inequality was rampant, was in effect, and it was being referred to as the Lord’s Supper. This could not possibly be that for which Jesus had gone to the cross as part of the inauguration of the kingdom of God on earth, so it is little wonder that Paul was angry with this church.