What has this to do with Paul? Paul does not necessarily set forth a principled kingdom agenda in the way that we see Jesus doing via Matthew. However, we do see a recurring theme in Paul, which is that of the his being concerned with the meal gatherings of the believing communities. If we look at Paul’s letters sequentially, we’ll see this play out. Beginning with Romans, we find him concerned with the meal table in chapter fourteen. It takes up the bulk of the chapter. We won’t here recount all of the meal-related words found in the chapter, but will say that within the wider context of Romans, we find that Paul is very much concerned with creating unity in the church body, specifically between Jewish believers and Gentile believers. Due to social custom, this unity, or disunity if unity is not achieved, will be best seen at the meal table of the assembled congregation of believers. Paul insists that none be excluded or made to feel marginalized at the church’s meal, for if they do, then the church’s visible manifestation, which was the meal (as meals were the most important social occasion), would look no different than any other gathering of people around a table. Thus, the church’s witness is damaged and the Gospel proclamation of a new King and kingdom is robbed of its power.
We can carry that theme into the eleventh chapter of Paul’s first Corinthian letter, which also has Paul addressing the church’s meal table. Before he offers up what would become the popular passage which many associate strictly with the act of taking communion, as Paul recounts the “Lord’s Supper” that took place “on the night in which He was betrayed” (11:23b), he is very much concerned with how the believers are treating the meal table. He writes “when you come together as a church I hear there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. For there must in fact be divisions among you, so that those of you who are approved may be evident. Now when you come together at the same place, you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper. For when it is time to eat, everyone proceeds with his own supper. One is hungry and another becomes drunk. Do you not have houses so that you can eat and drink? Or are you trying to show contempt for the church of God by shaming those who have nothing?” (11:18b-22a) Here again, Paul is concerned with the unity of the church and the picture of the kingdom of God that is presented to the world by the church’s meal table. Paul desires that there be no division or social stratification at the meal table, encouraging the church, based on his understanding of the meal tables of Jesus according to the Jesus traditions that he would have learned, to cast off the standard and divisive meal practices of their world. Later in this letter, Paul, much like we see him doing in the letter to the congregation at Rome, deals even further with activity around the meal table.
Speaking of the traditions of Jesus’ meal table practices, what is it on which Paul might have based his understanding? As we utilized Matthew in recounting Jesus’ kingdom agenda, demonstrating its presentation in chapter five and its fulfillment in the course of chapters twenty-six and twenty-seven, for sake of consistency we will stay with Matthew as we ascertain Jesus’ meal practice. Now Matthew, as it has come down to us, is not something that Paul would have known or to which he would have access, as it is generally accepted that it was composed in the latter third of the first century, after Paul’s period of ministerial activity had been brought to an end. However, even though Matthew has a theological construct that guides his narrative, which causes him to arrange his presentation of Jesus in a certain way and to highlight certain aspects of Jesus’ ministry, some of the traditions and stories about Jesus that Matthew weaves into a purposeful narrative would have been known by Paul.
In the ninth chapter of Matthew, we learn that “Jesus was having a meal in Matthew’s house,” and that this meal was attended by “many tax collectors and sinners” that “came and ate with Jesus and His disciples” (9:10). This type of behavior is puzzling to some observers, especially when it comes from someone who is presenting Himself in a messianic way, so “When the Pharisees saw this they said to His disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” (9:11) Jesus’ ultimate response to this was “I did not come to call the righteous,” meaning those that are already in right covenant standing with the God of Israel, “but sinners” (9:13b). This points to a pattern of Jesus’ meal practice, which will lead to a standard accusation, recounted by Jesus when challenged, as He says “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at Him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (11:18-19a).
In chapter fourteen, we read about the feeding of the five thousand, in which all ate, all ate the same food, and all were filled with food to spare. This would have run counter to standard public meal gatherings, in which the most honored ate first, ate better, and ate to their fill, while the less honorable guests in attendance (along with the women, children, servants, etc…), received less food, of poorer quality, and would most likely not be able to eat their fill. The same could be said of the feeding of the four thousand, which is recounted in chapter fifteen. In chapter twenty-two, we encounter a parable about a wedding banquet. In the parable, invitations were given to a specific group of people, all of which offered up flimsy excuses for their failure to fulfill their obligation to what would have been a previously accepted invitation. In response, the host of the banquet “said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but the ones who had been invited were not worthy. So go into the main streets and invite everyone who find to the wedding banquet.’ And those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all the found, both bad and good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests” (22:8-10). If we were to rely on Luke’s telling of this parable, along with its placement in his Gospel and the possibility that Paul was also aware of the traditions from which Luke draws, then it would be made quite clear that this is the type of banquet and meal table that Jesus envisions as demonstrative of His kingdom.