Saturday, December 17, 2011

Luke & Jesus' Kingdom Banquet (part 1 of 3)

The Gospel of Luke, while it does many things in relation to Jesus ministry, provides us with a firmly rooted understanding of the significance of meals, not only within the communities, but also within Jesus’ ministry.  Because of what they demonstrate, and because of what they allow to be demonstrated, Jesus consistently seizes upon these occasions to teach and to make points about the nature of the kingdom of heaven.  We can also see that they become the source of ongoing controversies concerning Jesus. 

Engaging with Luke, we find a perfect example of that in the seventh chapter, as Jesus is following up on inquiries made of Him by disciples of John the Baptist, and speaking about him to the assembled crowds, doing so in the context of the kingdom of God (7:28).  At the close of this dissertation about John, Jesus references the controversial nature of His meal practice (and even that of John in a roundabout way), by saying “For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon!’  The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at Him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (7:33-34)  We cannot take lightly the importance that Jesus and the Gospel authors attribute to meals.  We must allow our hermeneutic to be fundamentally influenced by this meal dynamic.

Both Luke and Matthew have Jesus closing out His discourse on John the Baptist by adding, “But wisdom is vindicated by all her children” (7:35).  Though there is an implied break in the narrative following these words from Jesus, with the words of the thirty-sixth verse of Luke seeming to present a new situation, it is noteworthy that Luke immediately moves to inform the reader that “one of the Pharisees asked Jesus to have dinner with him” (7:36a).  With this, the author appears to be communicating the importance of meals, as even though there is a break in the action, so to speak, the theological narrative continues, with Jesus being moved directly from His statement about wisdom and her children (which follows a statement about eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners), to the acceptance of an invitation to dine at the house of a Pharisee. 

If we keep ourselves within a mental framework that does not have Jesus or Luke diverging from speaking from a context of meals and their importance, then it is quite possible to hear Jesus speaking in that context when He says that “wisdom is vindicated by her children.”  This, then, is not a disconnected aphorism recorded by Luke and randomly placed within the text, but rather, a transition that maintains the meal-related motif.  Of course, this cannot be asserted without addressing the fact that Matthew places Jesus’ speech about John within a different sequence of events, and does not move from the wisdom and children statement to Jesus’ meal in the house of the Pharisee.  Without attempting to rectify or harmonize the chronological conflicts, the difference can be explained by noting Luke’s greater emphasis on Jesus’ meals.  Though Matthew certainly holds Jesus’ participation at various meals in high regard, rightly signifying their importance for understanding Jesus and their significance for the communication of His mission, it is Luke that has Jesus spending more time at meals, while also sharing some of His most impactful parables (the parable of the prodigal chief among these as one of Jesus’ most important, elaborate, and impactful parables) while at a banqueting table. 

One may wonder why this is so.  However, our wondering is blunted when we consider the joint-authorship of both Luke and Acts, with Acts forming the second half of what is effectively a single discourse.  As Acts is a record of the earliest activities of the apostles of Jesus, and because table fellowship was an important and unfortunately contentious issue in some of the earliest church communities (witness the confrontation between Peter and Paul in Antioch over the subject of table fellowship, as recorded in Paul’s letter to the Galatian church), it is understandable to find Luke more inclined to share more table stories, and to create a narratival construct that will make the record of meals and Jesus’ participation and teaching at these meals, a more prominent feature of his biographical and theological presentation of Jesus.  

If taken within the context of meals---a context which has been arranged by Jesus’ reference to the eating and drinking in which both He and John are said to engage, then we can hear Jesus speaking of Himself within the long-standing wisdom tradition within Israel that is associated with the Messiah.  Though it is the Gospel of John that makes a more prevalent use of the highly-developed wisdom tradition, there is no reason to preclude Luke from making use of it as well, as he makes his report on Jesus’ words and deeds.  If the messiah-associated wisdom tradition is in play here, then it is conceivable that there are messianic banquet considerations to be taken from the words of Jesus. 

Is this a bit of a stretch to hear Jesus making messiah and messianic banquet references in this short little statement?  Probably not, especially in light of His making mention of eating and drinking, and then Luke’s transition to Jesus’ presence at the dinner at the house of a Pharisee.  The use of “wisdom” as a clearly self-referential statement at this point in the narrative, when both Jesus’ hearers and Luke’s readers have been thrust into a meal-related mindset, clearly ushers us into a messianic context.  With thoughts of both messiah and meal at play, along with talk of vindication (an incredibly important concept for Israel especially in relation to messiah), it would not be difficult to find Jesus’ hearers associating words such as “all her children,” when used in this context, entertaining thoughts of the great messianic banquet. 

What we get here is a glimpse into Jesus’ mindset as it relates to this banquet in Matthew, when we hear Him say “I tell you, many will come from the east and west to share the banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, but the sons of the kingdom will be thrown out into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (8:11-12).  Clearly, if we ever find ourselves thinking that any of the Gospel authors are offering up anything less than complex theological constructs in narrative and biographical form based upon the fact of a resurrected Christ that demanded their full allegiance, then we do them a tremendous disservice.  

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