Friday, January 31, 2014

Corinth's Communion (part 16)

A symposium would be overseen by a “symposiarch,” or a “master of the feast.”  Among the many duties of this person would be making a decision as to the strength of the wine for the evening, and this would depend on whether serious discussions were going to be taking place, or whether sensual indulgences were all that were on tap for the gathering.  The wine would be drawn from a large jar that was designed to be carried by two men, with the wine then served to the guests from pitchers. 

Continuing to learn about this social institution, Paul’s words of the sixth chapter are kept in mind as information is gathered about customary central features of the symposium.  Though free women of status were not allowed to attend such events, female prostitutes were often hired to accentuate the festivities.  This brings Paul’s mention of sexual immorality and prostitutes (1 Corinthians 6:13,15) into play, as Paul’s critique of this church is considered in the light of meal practice and the symposium.  Together with the prostitutes, slaves and boys would also be employed for entertainment and used to provide service, thus drawing attention to Paul’s mention of being “bought at a price” (6:20), which is the language of slavery. 

In effect then, the symposium or convivium was a male-oriented drinking session that would traditionally be held at the end of a meal.  Greek pottery of ancient times, including the time of Jesus and Paul, frequently includes decorations depicting symposium, showing that the range of activities would include drinking, music, singing, dancing, games, and sexual intercourse. 

As one imagines what might very well be the raucous nature of the symposium, and as one holds in mind the vital nature and importance of meal gatherings as demonstrated by Jesus and therefore embraced by the early church, can Paul not be understood to be writing into the context of this type of event (rather than in as a general approbation) when he delivers words such as “Do not be deceived!  The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, passive homosexual partners, practicing homosexuals, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, the verbally abusive, and swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God” (6:9b-10)?  This makes a great deal of sense if Paul is addressing a church that is engaging in this practice, while they presumptuously and falsely refer to it as their celebration of the messianic feast, which is the very thing that was suppose to signal the in-breaking of the kingdom of the Creator God.   

So not only is one forced to begin considering having “a careful regard for the body” in the mode of the body of believers (rather than the personal body or the body of Christ in terms of the bread of the communion table), but there is also a requirement to deal with the idea that Paul’s delineation of the parameters of the Lord’s Supper, or the communion table, are offered within the context of a grave concern over what is being put on display, or conversely, what is not being put on display by the meal practice of the Corinthian church. 

Paul appears to be quite concerned with the fact that love---true love as demonstrated by compassion and mercy, which should be reflected by image-bearers that are supposedly claiming Jesus as their Lord and living by the precepts on offer by Him in both word and deed and which are part and parcel of the celebration of the communion, is being left off the table.  This is in the wake of understanding the communion as a microcosm of the messianic feast by which it is confessed that Jesus is Lord, and in which the in-breaking of the Creator God’s compassion and mercy for this world is looked to and celebrated, with this having taken place by and through the Christ-event. 

Corinth's Communion (part 15)

The institution in view, which fits within the meal practice of the ancient world and which seems to demand consideration because of the context provided by Paul’s words in the sixth chapter of first Corinthians, is what is known as the “symposium” (Greek) or the “convivium” (Latin/Roman).  In ancient Greece, the symposium was a drinking party.  The word “symposium” derives from the Greek word “sympotein,” which means “to drink together.” 

The symposium was a key social institution in the Greco-Roman world, and would be especially so in a well-known and popular Greek city such as Corinth.  Among other things, it served as a forum for men to debate philosophy or the issues of the day, to devise grand schemes, to boast about achievements (note Paul’s mention of boasting in the fifth chapter), or quite simply to engage in festivities with friends, family, neighbors, and business associates. 

Symposiums were also frequently held to celebrate the introduction of young men into aristocratic society, for the purpose of celebrating special occasions, athletic victories (which would be key in Corinth which was the home of the Isthmian games), or other contests such as those held for the creation and recitation of poetry.  Most assuredly, an aura of nobility (according to the honor and shame culture and the societal honor competition) surrounded the symposium. 

The events would typically be held in the men’s quarters of the household; and of course, early church meetings took place in private homes, thus lending opportunities for such engagements.  Relatively quickly, it becomes rather simple to identify a slippery slope, especially when the idea of the messianic feast, which was of tremendous importance in the early church, was introduced into the wider Greco-Roman culture. 

Those that participated would recline on couches that would be arrayed against three walls of the room, away from the door or entryway.  Obviously, space limitations would limit the number of couches, therefore limiting the number of participants, even if one were to take standing room into consideration.  The events were limited to men, and only those of a certain status were allowed to recline.  If any young men were present, they would not recline, but would be obliged to sit up or to stand.  Naturally, food and wine would be served, and one does well to remember the social stratifications that would most assuredly be at work in conjunction with this service.  In addition, entertainment would be provided.  Depending on the occasion, this entertainment could include games, songs, flute-girls or boys, slaves performing various acts, or even entertainers hired specifically for the occasions. 

Moving forward then, it is necessary to consider how much of Greek culture, carried forward by Rome, had infiltrated the social life of first century Judea.  The meals that Jesus attended, and the meals to which He would make reference in His parables, could very well have taken up the cultural dynamic of the wider world.  Most assuredly, even if the communal meals did not take the form of the Greco-Roman meal, the culture of the eastern world, as it operated on and was dominated by considerations of honor and shame, would have included social stratifications.  

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Corinth's Communion (part 14)

Continuing in this stream of thought, Paul goes on to write “Or do you not know that anyone who is united with a prostitute is one body with her?  For it is said ‘The two will become one flesh.’” (1 Corinthians 6:16)  Paul then hammers home the communal aspect of his use of “body,” thus enabling us to read “But the one united with the Lord is one spirit with Him” (6:17).  To this is then added “Flee sexual immorality!” (6:18a)  Having made this statement, Paul goes on to quote what must have been a portion of what has been reported to him about this church, writing “Every sin a person commits is outside of the body” (6:18b). 

This seems to have unavoidable communal implications, as if Paul was being informed that practices in which some were engaging, which it could be argued did not rightly bear out the image of the Creator God as was intended for ambassadors of the kingdom of that God that had been established upon the earth, should not have a negative effect on the way that Paul views this church or the way that the church is viewed by the community in which it is present---especially if the practices would not necessarily have been considered scandalous to the observing community or if it might have been proposed that such practices were a means of outreach and inclusion of all and sundry in the mold of Jesus’ inclusion, at His tables, of those outside the boundaries of the covenant people. 

To this, Paul replies “but the immoral person sins against his own body” (6:18c).  The use of “immoral” is clearly linked with the previously referenced sexual immorality and the mention of prostitutes, while the use of “body,” taking into consideration the union and uniting aspects that Paul has already mentioned, should be taken as a reference to the church.  Therefore, Paul’s critique asks to be understood as a critique of practices that are allowed to take place within the church (and not necessarily personal practices of individuals in their “private lives”), with these practices causing the church as a body to fall short of its responsibility to bear the image of the Creator God, which it can only do as it imitates Jesus---seeing the Father in Him and in the deeds and practices of His ministry. 

Naturally, Paul is not buying their argument, so the dissertation closes with Paul writing “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?  For you were bought at a price.  Therefore glorify God with your body” (6:19-20).  With this, there are obvious and unmistakably individual and corporate applications and implications.  Clearly, if all of this is considered within the responsibility of the church and its members to be the representatives of a kingdom (a community), one is not to be separated from the other.  

Returning to the thirteenth verse then, it is most interesting to note that talk of prostitutes and sin and the body follows immediately after “Food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food, but God will do away with both” (6:13a), which in turn follows Paul’s rejoinders of “but not everything is beneficial” and “but I will not be controlled by anything” (6:12b,d), which are his apparent responses to the statement that has come to him (again, presumably from this church) that “All things are lawful for me” (6:12a,c).  The juxtaposition of an elaboration on what is lawful, beneficial, controlling, and food, against a statement about sexual immorality and the body, cannot help but cause one to consider yet another common and accepted aspect of ancient meal practice upon which this study has yet to elaborate.  This situating of content concerning sexual morality (or immorality) in the context of food considerations and meal practice may be quite telling for an understanding of the issues at hand in the church at Corinth.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Corinth's Communion (part 13)

It is extremely valuable to remember and to reiterate that Paul’s letters, though thoroughly dissected and broken into smaller pieces, with theological, ecclesiastical, soteriological, and Christological premises drawn from fragments that are really not meant to be fragments at all, are intended to be viewed as a whole.  Things written and dealt with early in the letters will tend to have a bearing on what comes later, and ideas and issues presented later in the letters will generally spring from a foundation laid earlier in the letter. 

One must take all necessary precautions to avoid isolating passages and interpreting passages in isolation, without taking great pains to provide a contextual construct before doing so, especially if doing so fails to take into account the necessary historical considerations (social, political, cultural, economic, linguistic, religious, etc…).  So in proposing what appears to be a rather novel idea (to the modern observer---not so much to the original audience) of considering “the body” of verse twenty-nine of chapter eleven as a reference to the church rather than to the bread, it is possible to recognize what Paul has done earlier in the letter.     

In the sixth chapter, Paul offers a glimpse of what it is that he just might be getting at in the eleventh chapter.  There, in the midst of exhortations that are focused on the way the community of the church should ideally function (6:1-8), reflections on a primary focus of Jesus’ ministry by some always important mentions of the kingdom of God (6:8,10), and then a short digression on food, Paul writes about “the body.”  With a stunning demonstration of linguistic creativity and dexterity, Paul weaves an elaborate web of individualism and community, doing so in the context of the proper behavior of believers functioning as part of the church, as its members live and act within the world as representatives of the kingdom of Creator God. 

He writes: “The body is not for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.  Now God indeed raise the Lord and He will raise us by His power” (6:13b-14).  Here, though there is a tendency to make a merely personal application of the words concerning the body and sexual immorality, and though there is, without a doubt, a personal ethical and moral dimension to the statement, one should not dwell on the individual application to the exclusion of the corporate vision, as Paul goes on to speak about the Lord raising “us.”  With that mindset created, it is not at all difficult (though one may not yet understand how or why) to hear a reference to the body of believers in that thirteenth verse.  Continuing on in that stream of thought, Paul writes “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” (6:15)  Here, some translations of the passage will complete what appears to be implied in the statement, reading “members of Christ’s body,” thus continuing to intertwine the personal with the communal, as this intertwining hangs upon the ever-present thread of the presence of the kingdom of Creator God. 

Building on the question that begins the fifteenth verse, Paul goes on to ask “Should I take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute?  Never!” (6:15b)  In all honesty, this seems like a strange turn, unless, that is, the larger movement of Paul’s letter is kept in mind, along with the fact that this letter from Paul was designed to be read to the gathered community, who may have been able to look around at each other and at themselves in such a way as to cause the full and stinging weight of the Apostle’s words to come crashing down upon them.  Presumably, this is what Paul may have expected. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Corinth's Communion (part 12)

Paul first writes concerning the bread, reporting the words of Jesus that “This is My body, which is for you” (11:24).  He does this after first mentioning that Jesus had taken bread, given thanks, and broke the bread (11:24).  Then he goes on to indicate that “every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (11:26).  Continuing on to what would eventually be designed as the twenty-seventh verse of the chapter (it’s worth pointing out every once in a while that there were no chapter and verse divisions in the original letter, which serves as a reminder that the letter asks to be read as a letter, in a sing sitting), Paul again speaks of bread, with the verse closing out with “the body and blood of the Lord” (11:28b).  This calls attention to and reaffirms the symbolic nature of the bread, as it stands in for the body of Jesus.  In the twenty-ninth verse, Paul writes “the one who eats and drinks,” omitting but clearly implying the bread and the cup, “without careful regard for the body eats and drinks (the bread and the cup again implied though omitted) judgment against himself” (11:29). 

Changing gears a bit, the insistence that follows, in which Paul reasons “that is why many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few are dead” (11:30), along with “if we examined ourselves, we would not be judged” (11:31), “but when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned with the world” (11:32), the address to “my brothers and sisters” (11:33a), and the final addition of “when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (11:33b), seems to indicate a change of focus.  Paul is, it would appear, speaking to the group again. 

Taking that into consideration, a re-reading of the twenty-ninth verse, in which Paul makes two implicit references to the bread and the cup while also mentioning “the body,” should arouse some curiosity.  To which body is Paul referring?  Is he here using “body” in the same way that he used it in the twenty-fourth and twenty-eighth verses?  If so, why the multiple implied references to the bread and the cup in verse twenty-nine, with a sudden shift to the body, if “body” here is to be taken as yet another reference to the bread? 

The Greek word that is in usage has a minor variation, sharing the same root, so it is incumbent upon the hearer to tease out the subtle shift that has taken place in this verse.  It is unlikely that the original audience, immersed in the situation that is being addressed, would have missed out on this shift.  Paul’s use of “body” here has been shifted away from a reference to the bread of the communion table, and has been re-directed and used in reference to the body of believers---the church to which Paul writes.  This causes the usage to fit well with the words that began to be directed to the group, as Paul confers his attention upon the congregational body. 

At first glance, this seems like a strange conclusion, but when the larger context (the whole of the letter) into which the treatment of the subject fits is reconsidered, and when one listens to the letter in a single sitting, with those problems within the church as a whole top of mind, then what seems like a strange conclusion becomes not so strange at all.  When considering the genius in what he is doing, never forget that Paul is a thoroughly trained and gifted rhetorician.  He is highly skilled in argumentation.  He is quite capable of building a case for his teachings through a sustained narrative in which pieces function as essential building blocks.  His letter to the Romans is probably the finest example of these studiously acquired skills.  Just as Israel identified itself according to its own historical narrative, and just as Jesus saw and fit Himself within that narrative of the Creator God’s redemptive plan for the restoration of His good creation, Paul goes to great lengths to provide the recipients of his letters with a narrative structure that will aid in their coming to terms with that which he is attempting to communicate. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

Corinth's Communion (part 11)

Though Paul does write that “A person should examine himself first, and in this way let him eat the bread and drink of the cup” (11:28), the thrust of the letter, when considered within a diligently teased out knowledge about the context of meal practice and what it communicated about the church and the presentation of the kingdom of heaven that is the responsibility of the church, forces one to consider the “person” in the context of the community in an attempt to fully and rightly discern what it is that is taking place and what has the Apostle so exercised at this congregation. 

This is hardly a nonsensical deduction, as Paul began this section of the letter with a general address to the whole of the church that he would have intended to hear his words together as a community at the same time and same place.  He wrote “I do not praise you” (11:17).  This is clearly directed to the group.  When he writes “you come together not for the better but for the worse” (11:17), and then reinforces this with “when you come together as a church” (11:18), this is clearly group-speak and should be heard as such.  Hearing it in this way serves as a reminder that it is the actions of the believing community, composed of individual actors (but not necessarily the actions of individuals in isolation) that are the concern of the Apostle.  

The addition of “I hear there are divisions among you” (11:18) reveals Paul’s desire for unity as a group, while also serving as a lament that there are divisions.  Such a lament would militate against any type of practice that served to elevate the individual aspect when concerning oneself with the meal which identified one as a loyalist to Jesus and as a willing participant in the kingdom program of the Creator God for the world that was being enacted through the actions of the church.  It would seem that, owing to the attention that he is providing to this issue, the ongoing actions of the church of the Christ will be reflected in the meal table and then, as an outgrowth of their meal practice, enacted by the church community 

This is not to say that the Creator God does not work through individuals, but such a thought does serve as a reminder that no man (or woman) is an island unto himself.  So there is no need to devalue the importance of individual pursuit within the kingdom.  However, maintaining consideration of the context, which is that of a meal that is communal through and through, individualistic concerns, especially as Paul addresses this church, fall by the wayside.  Realizing this makes it possible to get at the root of the problem.   

It has become clear that an approach to that which serves to identify the church of the Christ, that being the communion table, that puts a premium on the individual heart or soul condition of the one that comes to the table, is almost counter-intuitive to what Paul believes is necessary and appropriate (and has no place in a reading of the first Corinthian letter).  Indeed, if the example provided by Jesus is considered again, as the meals of the Jesus tradition have come to devolve upon the communion table, one could, if hung up on individualism and anachronistic determinations of worthiness and examination, say that Jesus was Himself prompting violations that would bring judgments of weakness, sickness, and death, as He was consistently coming to the table and welcoming to the table (and thus breaking bread with) those identified as tax collectors and sinners, who were therefore most certainly examined and considered to be individuals of the unworthy variety.  This is quite the conundrum, and one is only forced to it if one continues to miss the main concern of the Apostle as he addressed what he had learned was happening in this church.        

Corinth's Communion (part 10)

It should continue to be borne in mind that the communion table was approached within a culture with a ready understanding of the social significance of meals and meal practice, as well as by a church that looked upon the Passover celebration (that had been transformed by Jesus) through the lens and light of the messianic banquet and all that such implied.  In many ways, though there is a need to avoid painting with too broad of a brush, one can discern that the communion table---that simple ceremony that Jesus delivered “after supper”---had effectively become symbolic of the messianic banquet, and therefore symbolic of the establishment of the kingdom of heaven. 

This symbolism carries a significant amount of weight in the areas of theology and practice.  Theology because the communion table, in carrying the heavy weight of so much meaning, tells its participants a great deal about the God that Jesus intended to reveal and to be revealed through His church that was intended to reveal the appearance that would be taken by the advent of the Creator God’s kingdom.  Practice because in looking back to the example of Jesus (through His own meal practice), the participants at the communion table are able to learn a very basic premise of what it would look like when they were living and acting like those who truly believed that Jesus had been enthroned, and that the Creator God had indeed begun to rule this world through Him. 

Much like the covenant markers of Judaism (primarily circumcision, dietary prescriptions, and the keeping of the Sabbaths) had become the indicators of those that intended to participate in the kingdom of the Creator God, so too did participation in the communion, performed with an ear and an eye towards the inclusive, socially flattening and barrier eliminating model that was said to have been presented by Jesus and which was being shared through oral communication at the point that this letter to the Corinthians was written (as evidenced by the fact that Paul feels compelled to confirm the tradition that had been presented to him), indicate one’s intention to participate in the kingdom of God on earth, doing so through confirming the Lordship of Jesus by both word and deed. 

This would include living out the implications of the model that was to be found in what would have been the well-known practices of table fellowship of the one that was being looked to as King, and acknowledging the ministerial and missional prominence of the readily communicated stories (as evidenced by the fact that they take up a sizable amount of the Gospel accounts) that served to demonstrate the way that Jesus approached and spoke about the meal table, along with His handling of questions and concerns about the same.  

This would also have to be borne in mind alongside the oft-repeated fact that His positioning Himself as Messiah, whether implicitly or explicitly, meant that the meal tables of Jesus and therefore the table that the early church looked upon as the one table of singular importance, had undeniable messianic banquet sensibilities and would have to be considered within that terribly important context.  For these reasons (among other), it would seem to be incumbent upon believers, observers, participants, and expositors to move past a pre-occupation with individualistic concerns, and about whether one is able to approach the communion table in a particular condition of heart or soul that becomes determinative of the way that the Creator God is going to view a sincere actor as they take the elements and participate in the Lord’s Supper. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Corinth's Communion (part 9)

If personal concerns are at the fore when one participates in the communion table, then attempts taken to determine what it would mean to take the elements in an unworthy manner, along with an examination of self, juxtaposed with the irrelevant notion of examining oneself to see if one is in the faith, then this would most likely devolve into an idea that sins must be confessed before taking communion so that the participant will then be worthy to receive the symbols of the body and blood. 

Conversely, some would declare that this type of self-examination is precisely not what is to take place, as it puts the focus on one’s own self rather than on Jesus, and that Paul is indicating that the focus must be on Jesus, with the bread and the cup acting as useful symbols that allow such a focus to be maintained.  Therefore, in a strange twist, it is declared that confession of personal sins in order to become worthy is that which makes one unworthy, as doing so is nothing more than part and parcel of an attempt to work towards one’s salvation and is therefore a denial of grace, which is ultimately taken to be a denial of Jesus. 

Beyond that, semantics and grammar are brought into play, and it is declared that proper understanding is had when one sees that “unworthy” is not the word that is used, but rather “unworthily,” which is then what makes all the difference in the world, with a determination as to whether the word in question is meant to be taken as modifying the noun or the verb.  Now, this is not the place to delve into whether or not the proper word is the adjective unworthy or the adverb unworthily, and basing an entire communion methodology upon what is implied by the differences between the two. 

Getting focused on such a thing would seem to miss the point either way, as determining if one is supposed to be focusing on self and sins as opposed to Jesus and His sacrifice, may be an unwarranted flight into a disconnected and individualized spiritualization in the realm of personal concern and the final destination of one’s eternal soul.  This would be another instance of losing focus on the larger movement of the letter itself and the kingdom community, of forgetting the environment into which Paul writes and the concerns that he is raising and addressing within this entire section that runs as one unit from at least the seventeenth verse through the thirty-fourth verse, while also failing to consider the fact that there is a very real and known situation that would be readily identified by Paul’s intended hearers. 

Quite frankly, though the thoughts and actions of individual persons are in view here, it seems clear, at least based on the way that Paul has introduced the specific topic of communion as well as what follows (verses twenty-seven through thirty-four), that it is the actions of this church as a group---as a body---when they are coming together for what they are erroneously referring to as the Lord’s Supper (their actions making it an erroneous application) that is the concern, and the demand is placed upon the reader to see, hear, and understand the situation in this way.  

Friday, January 24, 2014

Corinth's Communion (part 8)

Looking at Paul’s discourse concerning the communion in this way---in the larger context of what precedes it in the eleventh chapter and in consideration of the general tone of the letter (Paul’s constant focus on the church body/body of believers) while also holding on to the reality of a general and public reading to the group rather than an individual and private reading, prompts an observer toward a better way of coming to terms with what follows.  The twenty-seventh verse reads “For this reason, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27). 

When isolated from what prompted Paul to write about that which he is said to have received from the Lord, this verse prompts all types of interesting thoughts concerning what it means to take in an unworthy manner.  When one goes on to hear “A person should examine himself first, and in this way let him eat the bread and drink of the cup” (11:28), an even larger range of potential interpretations come into view. 

In fact and unfortunately, it is proof-texting that almost immediately comes into view.  Accordingly, and rather than considering the statement from its own context, a separate statement from what is presented as Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, that of “Put yourselves to the test to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!” (13:5a) is brought into service, so as to aid the unsure reader of the first letter in their comprehension.  That won’t do at all, of course, as ideas communicated in the second letter would have little to zero bearing on the way the hearers of the first letter are meant to understand Paul’s directions.  As a matter of logic, the recipients of letter one would not have letter two in order to provide an interpretive matrix when they first hear letter one.  This would seem to be rather obvious, but is sometimes lost to view in an effort to create a coherent systematic theological system that would not be of any help to this particular church body.  

Nevertheless, herein lies much controversy, as rightly introspective Christians grapple with what it means to take the bread or cup in an unworthy manner, or with what it means to examine oneself in light of the fact that Paul continues on to write “For the one who eats and drinks without careful regard for the body eats and drinks judgment against himself.  That is why many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few are dead” (11:29-30). 

Naturally, judgment, weakness, sickness, and death are ends to be avoided.  Unfortunately, large numbers of Christians, down through the centuries, have not only looked at the words of these verses and attempted to understand them in isolation from the larger picture into which they are painted, they have also looked at them from within the overarching idea that the goal of the Christian life is simply to achieve heaven and avoid hell. 

Therefore, words such as “guilty” and “judgment” are associated with the proverbial and everlasting fires of hell.  In addition, individualistic concerns and notions of personal salvation, and the corollaries of heaven and hell (as the ideals of salvation and judgment) have further colored the interpretation in a way that simply would not have been in the minds of Paul’s original hearers, especially if they had already been well-instructed by him in the fundamentals of all that was implied by the kingdom of heaven, and by concepts such as justification (the means by which one enters into the kingdom of heaven). 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Corinth's Communion (part 7)

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 community in the city of Corinth was apparently guilty of not being a unique and shining light to the world.  It seems that they were indeed calling what they were doing the Lord’s Supper, and that they were speaking of it in terms of the messianic banquet, but with what was happening there, which is precisely the opposite of reversing and flattening out the social order, but rather operating with it and reinforcing it, Paul tells them “you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper” (1 Corinthians 11:20b). 

If one is going hungry while another becomes drunk and presumably satiated with as much food as desired (with serving taking place according to socially accepted honor-related customs) while all were sitting at the same table, how could this possibly be looked upon as the Lord’s Supper?  Paul could rightly ask where compassion and love and preference are on display in such a situation?  Most decidedly, those qualities are not present.  Paul does not deny that the members of this church community 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 any part of his critique in this direction.  He accepts that this will be the case and does not rail against such things.  However, he does write “Do you not have houses so that you can eat and drink?” (11:22a)  The Apostle was not concerning himself with the facts of the eating and the drinking.  This was not the thing with which he took issue. 

Eating and drinking were fine, as long as the meal table was shared equally with all and sundry.  What appears to have concerned him was the fact that the entrenched forces of the world, backed up from time immemorial by the powers and rulers and 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 the Creator God---which was to model, based on Jesus’ example and insistence, an entirely different way of establishing and growing a kingdom---perhaps even an entirely different way of being human.   

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 situation had crept into the church of the 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 of 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 their union with the Christ, while blindly referring to their perverted (in the sense that it was completely improper) meal table 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 is said to have received from Jesus and which he had passed on to this church (11:23), Paul makes it clear that Jesus gave the bread and the cup to all, and that none were left out.  That was not the first time that Jesus had done this, as the same thing can be seen to have  happened at the feedings of the multitudes over which Jesus presided---presumably, all shared equally.  With this in mind, can one even imagine engaging in a celebration, calling it the Lord’s Supper, and not allowing all to participate?  Of course not! 

It seems that many do engage in such a practice in their churches on a regular basis, as individuals are actively and purposefully excluded from participation at the Lord’s Supper.  This exclusion is often based on what might very well appear to be, upon a closer and far more informed and contextualized reading of the words of Paul regarding examination of self and judgment, a seriously flawed practice.  Some even exclude themselves based on this type of reading.  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 His God on earth, so it is little wonder that Paul was somewhat angry with this church.

Corinth's Communion (part 6)

One must not short the understanding of what is being said by thinking of the Lord’s Supper as simply the bread and the cup of the communion.  The Lord’s Supper must here be understood in the context of the well understood tradition of the entire meal of Jesus and His disciples (and Jesus’ repeated meal practice), of what that meal and the specific and identifiable tool for remembrance and identification of kingdom participants that Jesus provided to His disciples at that meal, and of the hopes of the messianic banquet.  Thinking must be adjusted so that when the Lord’s Supper is considered, that thinking goes beyond just the bread and the cup of communion and of those few minutes of church services that are taken up by the practice.  Participants must force themselves to think of the Lord’s Supper in its larger context and against the background of the common meal practice of the ancient world.  

Moving then to the twenty-first verse, where the facts of the matter seem to 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” (1 Corinthians 11:21).  With this, when considered along with what is now known about the banqueting tables of the ancient world, in which the most honored get the best food and drink, whereas those possessive of less honor get lesser food and drink, whereas some in attendance may get nothing at all, with service taking place in order of most honorable to least honorable.  Thus it becomes quite evident that Paul is taking issue with the meal practice of the Corinthian church. 

Reiterating then because this is important, this serves as a reminder 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, and perhaps may not be served at all.  In practice, some guests could be full and drunk before other guests receive a single morsel of food. 

Here then, it is appropriate to reflect on the story of Jesus turning the water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana, 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.  This would have been contrary to all custom, and serves as a reminder that Jesus regularly flouts societal customs that He believes to be out of step with the ideals of the presence of the kingdom of heaven (heaven, the realm of the Creator God’s existence, coming to earth and appearing where Jesus is and where those that believe in Him act according to what they believe to be His ideals).

Returning to consideration of Paul’s statement about one being hungry while another is drunk, it is important to remember that in some cases when it came to the meals of that time, invited guests would receive nothing at all.  In that time, such a situation would not necessarily have been thought to be a problem, especially if the honored guests (those possessive of more honor in the court of public opinion) had received their food and drink. 

It would appear that this altogether unfortunate situation was occurring within this church at their common meals.  Rather than demonstrating that they truly believed that all were one because of their belief in Jesus as the Christ, and that 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.”  

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Corinth's Communion (part 5)

It is of interest to note that on one hand, this Corinthian church is remembering Paul and maintaining the traditions that he had passed on to them, but on the other hand and in many ways, they had become completely dismissive of that which Paul passed on to them as coming from Jesus Himself.  Thus, no praise from Paul when it comes to their practice of the early church tradition of the table of the Lord.

Continuing to move forward, and considering what is happening within this church, it is paramount to keep in mind that the culture possessed strong, dividing, separating, stratifying societal forces that were in existence and readily demonstrated at the meal tables of the ancient world.  Because of the language that is in use, when great pains are taken to understand and reflect upon the importance of meals in that time, it becomes possible to identify the fact that Paul is communicating in the context of problems centered on meal practice.  It is with this in mind that Paul can be heard saying “I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse.  For in the first place, when you come together as a church I hear there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it” (1 Corinthians 11:17b-18). 

Paul is not speaking into a vacuum.  This body of believers that meets regularly around the meal table as a central feature of their gathering is going to know about their own divisions, and they are going to know where those divisions are most clearly able to be seen.  This letter, which would have been read out loud to the congregation in one sitting, has already made mention of “jealousy and dissension” (3:3), and beyond the eleventh chapter---quite noticeably in chapter twelve---Paul is going to address further divisions that have sprung up in connection with the ongoing honor competition.  Because those divisions come on the heels of what he is communicating in the eleventh chapter that is going to be clearly situated within church meal practice, and because the congregation is going to hear these words in short order (with no private reading and no artificial chapter and verse divisions), they actually play into the divisions that Paul is referencing in the eleventh chapter.

Returning to the nineteenth verse, Paul is found to have written: “For there must in fact be divisions among you, so that those of you who are approved may be evident” (11:19).  This is a rhetorical exercise (part of the basic education process of the Greco-Roman world), and the use of rhetoric is commonly employed by Paul.  He is not saying “there must be divisions so that we can know, and know correctly, who among you is truly saved and approved by our God.”  Such a thought would move the analysis in the wrong direction.  Rather, he is being critical of their divisions and of the steps that are taken to highlight or to make quite evident who it is that can be identified as those who are “approved.” 

Because he goes on to write “Now when you come together at the same place, you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper” (11:20a), it can be noted that Paul is indeed addressing divisions and those who are “approved” in the context of the church’s meal table (their celebration of the Lord’s Supper/communion).  This talk of the “approved,” which is directed to a people steeped in the honor and shame culture and the social stratification associated with it, seems to be a clear reference to the honored guests and the chief seats of the world’s banqueting tables.  Realizing this opens up a whole new world of understanding. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Corinth's Communion (part 4)

Obviously, Paul has more than what is generally thought of as the communion in mind.  Most believers, for better or for worse, only experience the communion as a part of a church service.  Rarely, if ever, is the communion experienced as a component of a community meal, which was the common experience of the early church.  This, of course, kept the meal practice traditions of Jesus at the forefront, while also serving as a reminder that said meal practice was firmly ensconced within the Isaianic messianic banquet and its associated expectations and demands of the people of the Creator God.  Naturally, this more accurate duplication of the “Lord’s Supper,” as it took place within a world that had very certain and defined parameters and social constructs around its meals, while standing against those same constructs, would have created a dynamic that is all too unfamiliar for most western world believers. 

So yes, there is a tendency to forget, or perhaps never even truly realize that Jesus and His disciples did not simply go through a communion celebration in the way with which so many believers today are familiar.  It must be reiterated that the Last Supper/Lord’s Supper was a meal.  Paul provides this reminder, writing “In the same way, He also took the cup after supper” (1 Corinthians 11:25a).  So right here in this text is a reminder that the basis for Christian communion sprung from an event that took place at a meal. 

Not only that, but it becomes quite clear from Paul’s writing that what is thought of as the specific practice of communion in the early church (sharing of the bread and the cup) was also taking place at a meal.  However, because the communion itself (the bread and the cup) is so often referred to as the “Lord’s Supper,” the meal aspect (and therefore the messianic banquet aspect) is unfortunately screened from view.  This represents a massive loss of understanding.  What is lost is an extraordinary depth for conceptions concerning church practice and the kingdom of heaven, and this deserves to be recovered.

If Paul provides “instructions,” “warnings,” and “correctives” during the course of his treatment of communion, common sense would communicate that he did so in the context of dealing with a significant problem in the congregation to which he was writing.  This is a legitimate conclusion to reach, and it is reinforced by what comes before Paul delves into his “passing along” of what he had “received from the Lord” (11:23a).  It is what precedes this that is so incredibly instructive for understanding why it is that Paul takes this route, for understanding the meal practice of the early church, for understanding the role of the communion in particular within that meal practice, and for understanding the kingdom implications and the way in which the church of Jesus was charged to represent that kingdom through meal practice and communion. 

Something was taking place in Corinth that, for Paul, was apparently odious in the extreme.  Whatever it was that was taking place ran contrary to all that was represented by the example that had been provided by Jesus.  If one considers the tone that Paul is clearly taking throughout this letter, and then hear words such as “Now in giving the following instruction I do not praise you” (11:17a), this should be heard as the sharp rebuke that it is.  When Paul writes, “I do not praise you,” he is providing a contrast with an earlier statement in which he writes “I praise you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I passed them on to you” (11:2).  In viewing the letter as a whole, and not isolating different sections from each other, this becomes quite the stark and glaring contrast to Paul saying “I do not praise you,” and then going on to add “Should I praise you?  I will not praise you for this” (11:22b) before launching into “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you” (11:23a). 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Corinth's Communion (part 3)

Now, it must be said that what comes after the “instruction” portion of Paul’s rehearsal of the Lord’s Supper is regularly incorporated into the practice of communion.  The “words of warning,” as they are generally viewed, are usually included so as to induce introspection among potential participants at the table.  Paul writes “For this reason, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.  A person should examine himself first, and in this way let him eat the bread and drink of the cup.  For the one who eats and drinks without careful regard for the body eats and drinks judgment against himself.  That is why many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few are dead.  But if we examined ourselves, we would not be judged.  But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned with the world” (1 Corinthians11:27-32). 

These “words of warning” have been appended to the “instructions” for good reason.  However, the way in which they are presented and in which they are urged to be taken, removes them from their practical and objective context, as participants are usually asked to apply this warning individually, as somehow related to their personal salvation or personal spiritual status, with considerations of personal and individual judgment falling if one does not have the right mindset or status of holiness in one’s taking of the elements or the absolutely correct understanding of what the bread and the cup represent.  

Pretending that Paul has such things in mind is unsatisfactory, and it ignores the corrective action that Paul is taking, first and foremost with this church, as this body of Jesus-followers fails to follow the example of Jesus and fails to understand that Paul is criticizing this church for their failure to embody the kingdom of heaven.  In addition, the encouragement to come to these words individually and personally, as if the recipients of this letter were silently reading their Bible for themselves in their studies, rather than hearing the letter read out loud to the entire congregation, has had a hand in creating an unreasonable and Scripturally unsupportable expectation of some type of Christian perfectionism and a need for confession of personal “sins” after a personal examination of the condition of one’s heart before taking communion.

Continuing on from the “words of warning” that Paul has delivered, corrective language from Paul is encountered.  He goes on to write “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.  If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that when you assemble it does not lead to judgment” (11:33-34a).  If one is allowed to jump right in to the communion at the twenty-third verse, not taking into consideration that which comes before in the same chapter, nor the building message and movement of the entire letter, then the addition of these words from Paul do not make a great deal of sense. 

Along with that, if there is a failure to take common first century meal practice into consideration when these words are read, then they are not going to make sense.  Finally, if one does not bear in mind the vision of the messianic banquet and the personal example of Jesus participating in communion in a way that goes beyond the “Last Supper” and takes in the whole of the tradition of His meal practice that has the vision of the messianic banquet standing in its background and informs the understanding of the early church as to why they are even engaging in this practice in this way, then there will be a high degree of difficulty encountered in the process of making sense of what Paul is getting at it with these final corrective instructions.  Thus it is more than likely that the reader or the exegete is going to approach and utilize the words of Paul incorrectly, missing out on the depth of the serious problem that is being addressed.

Corinth's Communion (part 2)

As Jesus invited tax collectors and sinners and those that would have been rightly identified by observers as being outside of the covenant to join Him at His tables, and as He did so with thoughts of the long-hoped-for messianic banquet clearly in the background, and as believers today (along with the early church) view the communion table in that light, it would seem ridiculous to raise such onerous limitations and boundaries that are productive of fearfulness and ultimately exclusion, around that which allows us for the mimicking of Jesus’ table practice and its associated and seeming inherent power to show forth the kingdom of heaven. 

When these words from the Apostle Paul are read, and as the communion table is considered, the thoughts that must be dancing at the forefront of the mind cannot be consumed by a concern for a personal salvation.  Rather, those deterministic thoughts must be the kingdom of heaven and its manifestation and advancement.  If the communion table is going to be correctly approached, the focus cannot be on the self, but on what the table and what happens there communicates about the kingdom of heaven. 

Based on what has been said to this point, it seems that this approach may be the right one, and that it is in approaching the table in this way that a better interpretation and understanding of Paul’s treatment of the subject is to be found.  Not only that, but bearing in mind the kingdom of heaven, and doing so in the context of the meal practice of the early church rather than one’s personal salvation, allows an observer to understand why it is that Paul even brings up the subject in the first place.

Most unfortunately, context is quite often neglected when it comes to Paul’s treatment of the communion in his first letter to Corinth.  So often, when the passage is referenced or quoted, the reference picks up at the twenty-third verse of chapter eleven.  There, Paul writes “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which He was betrayed took bread, and after He had given thanks He broke it and said, ‘This is My body, which is for you.  Do this in remembrance of Me.’  In the same way, He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’  For every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (11:23-26).  These are the words that are regularly shared for the purpose of creating the familiar setting in which one partakes of the elements of the table. 

When this happens, the words of the Apostle are treated as if they were some type of instruction manual on how to engage in the church’s meal practice.  In a sense that is true, but that is only a part of the story.  In the regular time of communion, is it the case that the opportunity is taken to look at what precedes the “instructions”?  Sadly, no.  As is the case in so many other exegetical situations, there is a tendency to simply pull things out of context and use them for the purpose that is immediately at hand---reading into the text that which one desires to see. 

Making reference to the “instruction” portion of chapter eleven without making reference to what comes before or after, forces an analysis or exegesis into the unfortunate situations of being ahistorical and subjective, thereby causing the hearers of the exegesis to miss out on the aspects of the kingdom of heaven and on the reference to Jesus’ meal practice that was so instructive and important for the early community of believers.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Corinth's Communion (part 1)

Now when you come together at the same place, you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper. – 1 Corinthians 11:20  (NET)

When one grasps the importance of meals and the meal table in the first century world and for the early church that sprung up into that world, as they were an effective means by which to communicate concepts concerning the kingdom of heaven, any mention of meals can be vested with a significant amount of weight and meaning.  This can be done even if there does not appear to be any overt controversy or angst in the situation. 

However, one such place in which there does appear to be much controversy concerning the meal table is the church at Corinth.  This angst is expressed by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, which is the place where one is able to discover the most detailed treatment of the communion table, outside of the Gospels, in the whole of the New Testament.  The words used in Paul’s presentation of the communion in the eleventh chapter has been, for centuries, the basis for the celebration of communion, shedding clear light on the practice of the early church, as Paul helpfully elaborates on the goings-on that we see in the “Last Supper” of Jesus and His disciples. 

At the same time, while extraordinarily helpful, those same words have been the source of much controversy, as words like “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.  A person should examine himself first, and in this way let him eat the bread and drink of the cup.  For the one who eats and drinks without careful regard for the body eats and drinks judgment against himself.  That is why many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few are dead.  But if we examined ourselves, we would not be judged” (11:27-31), have been applied in a number of not always altogether helpful or appropriate ways. 

Quite often, there is an encouragement to apply these words in an individual and personal manner, which fits well within a notion of salvation that is predominantly individualistic and focused on an other-worldly escapism.  However, this type of application presents us a bit of a problem, as it is unlikely that such notions would have been the thrust of Paul’s understanding, nor that of the early church.  It is a near certainty that such would not reflect the worldview in which Jesus Himself was ensconced, which was also the world in which He would re-orient the Passover celebration and its meaning towards Himself. 

While there is certainly a sense of individual salvation to be found, as the collective salvation of the covenant people would naturally include the salvation of individuals, Jewish thoughts of salvation, especially as connected with the Passover celebration, as would come to be the case for the church’s communion table, were oriented towards the deliverance of the people of the Creator God from exile and oppression, with the deliverance from out of Egypt as the functional model.  So while there is indeed an individualistic component here, that individual benefit cannot be disconnected from the community. 

Also, the escapism that is prevalent in so many popular interpretations of the communion passages of chapter eleven would not have been a part of Paul’s worldview.  The guilt and judgment reference in the passage previously quoted would not at all be connected with the eternal destination of one’s soul, and would certainly not have been used as a means of limiting participation at the communion table or of generating fear and trepidation at partaking of the elements.  

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Problems For James (part 4 of 4)

It must be remembered that these were highly charged times in a number of ways.  Much like Jesus, who expected His listeners to have ears to hear, James did not offer direct criticism.  Such a thing would have been unwise, especially when attempting to build a nascent, revolutionary movement that acts in ways that are increasingly contrary to the prevailing cultural ethos.  Presumably then, the “rich” demands to be understood not in a general sense as those with money, but primarily as the rulers of the people, and those who have gained their wealth by oppression (and possibly corruption in connection with the Temple).  The same type of language can be observed with writers such as Paul and John, as they cloaked their subversive words, whether those words were subversive of the authorities of Israel or Rome, in what might be considered to be obscure or relatively innocuous language. 

However, what might be obscure to the modern reader would likely be readily understandable to those that comprised the community to whom the words were initially directed.  Indeed, to this end, Paul can be regularly heard taking up much of the language of the Caesar cult in his letters---a language and relatively well-known liturgy that would have been quite familiar to those that received his letters (a prime example of this is the “from faith to faith” statement of Romans 1:17), but which would be heard quite differently by those that live at a tremendous time and distance from the Apostle and his world.

These early believers and Jesus-confessors, living in altogether different times with a message that challenged the power structures of their entire world (both Jewish and Greco-Roman), were required to speak and write in a way that forced the recipients of their words, whether they be spoken or written, to make the necessary connections and extrapolations that would convey right understanding.  It is incumbent upon all those who approach Scripture so as to join in its story, if there is a sincere desire to rightly hear and understand even the smallest portion of what is being communicated, to make the attempt to become immersed in that same world.  

This requires those that are not denizens of the first century, to engage in a serious, sustained, and strenuous mental effort to put aside cultural conditions and geographically and chronologically defined worldviews that cannot be foisted upon the world of the New Testament.  This most definitely must be done, quite obviously, to understand Jesus’ words, and indeed all of the words of Scripture, lest one shortchange the words and intentions of the one called Lord and God, and so go about one’s merry way of ignorant and prideful spirituality. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Problems For James (part 3)

As should be expected from those that are operating with a proper, first century Jewish mindset, it is the earthly manifestation of the kingdom of the Creator God and its demonstration through the meal (the prominent social event of the day in that time---this has gone effectively unchanged) that is the foremost consideration, rather than an ambiguous concept of “salvation” that relied on relatively foreign, Greek concepts of an ethereal escape into a good-creation-denying-and-therefore-supposedly-blissful disembodied condition, with an eternal residence in some nether-regions beyond the clouds. 

This concept, though familiar to Jews of the first century, was largely rejected as antithetical to their worldview and the way that they understood their God.  It would also come to be rejected by Gentiles that came into contact with the Gospel claim of the Lordship of Jesus.  Contrary to the denial of the inherent goodness (though corrupted) of the creation, by submitting to the Lordship of Jesus via the Spirit’s mysterious though effectual application of the power of the Resurrection, those that called Jesus Lord came to be concerned with the manifestation of the Creator God’s kingdom on earth, along with what they understood to be the intended end of the renewal and restoration of the creation and its gathering together of a people into a body that was called to live out, in advance, that soon-to-be consummated kingdom as they celebrated the re-creation that was to come.  The Resurrection of Jesus into this world (that had been changed and was constantly being changed by the power of the Resurrection) with a new and transformed physical body, served as the model for their expectation.

So moving forward here in James, one does well to keep in mind the words of Jesus (from Luke 14---which would likely have composed part of the oral traditions of Jesus being shared by the church community at large) concerning exaltation and humiliation, about the first being last and the last being first, about the filling of the empty seats in the parable of the great banquet, and about the prevailing mindset (that Jesus sought to change) in His day about the messianic banquet (that it was the Creator God’s judgment on non-covenant people, represented by the deaf, blind, and lame), in order to rightly hear the contextual critique that is being offered. 

Doing this allows for the avoidance of anachronistic and improper application of terms when reading statement such as “But you have dishonored the poor!  Are not the rich oppressing you and dragging you into the courts?” (2:6)  James, presumably with the messianic banquet as exampled by Jesus (as Messiah) in mind, and with Jesus’ criticisms of the rich (Sanhedrin, High priest, Temple authorities, scribes, etc…) that were in circulation amongst believers at that time, is expressing incredulity that these same rich ones to whom they are offering the chief seats in their assemblies are the same ones that are dragging them before courts and councils, demanding that they disavow their claims that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.  This seems to be made clear when he writes “Do they not blaspheme the good name of the one you belong to?” (2:7)  With this, believers are reminded of what Jesus said to His disciples, which was that “they will seize you and persecute you, handing you over to the synagogues and prisons.  You will be brought before kings and governors because of My name” (Luke 21:12b).    

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Problems For James (part 2)

There, immediately after elevating orphans and widows (1:27), who were among the most overlooked and ostracized groups in all of society, James goes on to write “My brothers and sisters, do not show prejudice if you possess faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (2:1).  James is here addressing those that confess Jesus as Lord, and therefore identify themselves as participants in His kingdom movement. 

Bearing in mind the honor and shame culture and the social stratification that would be on display in public gatherings (especially community meals), and keying in on the idea that prejudice should not be shown, James writes “For if someone comes into your assembly” (2:2a), which is an assembly that is most likely going to include a common meal as was standard practice for those that sought to follow the model that Jesus had adopted, “wearing a gold ring and fine clothing, and a poor person enters in filthy clothes, do you pay attention to the one who is finely dressed and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ and to the poor person, ‘You stand over there,’ or ‘Sit on the floor’?” (2:2b-3) 

Though the words are not used, this mention of one person being seated in a good place, with another person relegated to standing or sitting on the floor is a reference to table/meal practice.  Because Greek culture had infiltrated Jewish culture to a point, it is here possible to hear the language of protoklisian (chief seat) and eschaton (lowest place).  Those in receipt of this letter, along with those who would read it apart from the original audience, who would have been imbued with the cultural understanding that made this language commonplace and understandable, would have quickly and easily imagined the banqueting constructs that are being referenced. 

Common cultural practice dictated that the most noble and esteemed would have been given the best seats at a banquet, whereas the least would have been left standing or taken their places on the floor.  The honored guests (in the eyes of those in attendance) would have received the best food and wine, and the less honorable guests (in the eyes of the attendees and the court of public opinion) within that honor and shame society, would have received items of much lower quality if anything at all.  What does James say about this situation that is taking place in the church community to which his communication is addressed?  He says, “If so, have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives?” (2:4)  Clearly, the harsh language indicates that this type of behavior had no place within the church.   

In a way that continues to echo the example and the teachings of Jesus, when heard from within a construct which has James envisioning the character of the meal practice of the church, James goes on to say “Listen, my dear brothers and sisters!  Did God not choose the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that He promised to those who love Him?” (2:5)  If a banqueting table is in mind, this mention of the kingdom, along with the use of “heirs” (which provides the Abrahamic covenant context that the author, due to his mentioning of Abraham that is soon to follow) that accompanies the contrast between rich and poor, places James squarely within the Jesus tradition that served as a constant reminder of the messianic banquet and of the unexpected way in which the Creator God was going about the business of establishing His kingdom, as reflected in the unexpected way in which Jesus was said to have gone about His daily ministry. 

Problems For James (part 1)

My brothers and sisters, do not show prejudice if you possess faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. – James 2:1  (NET)

Social stratification and the recognition of distinctions (delineation) was so incredibly ingrained within the culture, be it Jewish or Greco-Roman culture (with concerns about dining with only people of the covenant or with maintaining proper social boundaries at the table), that it was inevitable that this societal force, if left un-restrained and unchecked, would quickly make its way into the churches, undoing and unmaking what it is that Jesus had exampled, demanded, and defended via His portrayal in the Gospels. 

The church, as a community, was marked out as peculiar by its table practices, which can be seen in the fact that many of the charges leveled against it, precipitating much persecution, had to do with accusations of cannibalism.  Such accusations, naturally, represented a lack of understanding about the celebration of the eucharist/Lord’s Supper/communion.  Regardless, it demonstrates that there was something distinctive about Christian meal practice that drew attention.  This, of course, was an excellent follow-on to Jesus’ meal practice, as it most certainly attracted all kinds of attention. 

Any type of activity within the church of Jesus that drew distinctions between one person and another, or which treated one person or type of person as a more worthy or exalted or honored member of the kingdom, when viewed through the lens of the Jesus tradition, would be problematic.  Distinctions and associated divisions could multiply quickly and become entrenched, and this would always be a risk for the church, both then and now. 

Social forces are notoriously difficult to combat, but since Jesus went to a cross and urged His disciples to take up a cross as well (and those words are to be heard within the context of the shame and horror that the cross represented), it can be reasoned that difficulties in the combat of the forces in operation within this world are not to be looked upon as a deterrent for those that confess Jesus as Lord.  Difficulties are to be expected and encountered with love and compassion, and a willingness to suffer the greatest of indignities, if need be, in the encounter. 

Though it does not initially appear to be specifically related to a meal, one must keep in mind the importance of Christian meal practice and its prominent place in the church that was seeking to embody the kingdom ethics and principles put into operation by Jesus (which were so readily seen at His table(s) that were given context by the idea of the messianic banquet that would serve to identify the Creator God’s redeeming activity on behalf of His people), while also remembering the prevailing forces of societal stratification and division, as this problem of the drawing of distinctions is encountered within the church community that is being addressed in the book of James. 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Compassionate Brother (part 18 of 18)

In the parable of the prodigal, the younger son returns home, doing so with the knowledge that he is taking a risk and potentially putting his life in jeopardy.  If he is seen and recognized by the community, he is possibly going to be subject to stoning at worst, and a very public ceremony of shaming at best.  However, Jesus says that “while he was still a long way from home his father saw him, and his heart went out to him: he ran and hugged his son and kissed him” (Luke 15:20b).  Like Esau running to Jacob, the compassionate father ran to his son, subjecting himself to loss of honor (increase in shame).  As is said of Esau, who did not take it upon himself to inflict pain and suffering on Jacob, the compassionate father, following the model of the compassionate brother, shamed and dishonored himself, rather than allowing his son to suffer. 

As Esau hugged and kissed his brother, enduring the shame and extending compassion, so too did the father and true star of the parable hug and kiss his son, in a similar demonstration of merciful compassion.  The son of the parable attempted to execute the plan that he formulated and rehearsed, but before he was able to deliver his prepared speech, the father cuts him off and restores him to the position of honor as if he had never wronged his father, his family, or his community.  Likewise, Jacob’s planning and preparations were wholly unnecessary, as Esau welcomed him with open arms, celebrating a joyous reunion with no apparent thought of retribution or a need to re-pay (thought Jacob is revealed to not be fully convinced of his brother’s compassion). 

The father in the parable exclaims that “this son of mine was dead, and is alive again---he was lost and is found!” (15:24a).  Esau, who had wished his brother dead, and to whom he was effectively dead, celebrates the return of his brother---alive again.  Here are the stories of a compassionate brother and a compassionate father, who dealt with a brother and a son whose stories shared some common features.  Both had been dishonored and both had been shamed.  Both had the right to take vengeance.  Both exercised compassion. 

Both stories, as told to and for a people of the covenant-making and providential Creator God that seeks to reconcile His image-bearers and His world to Himself, reveal a God that revels in compassion---willing to take the pain and shame and suffering that rightfully belong to others upon Himself (there was no greater shame than the curse of the cross) so as to set His world to rights, restore the beings created and set forth as His image in the world, and show forth His kingdom and His glory.           

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Compassionate Brother (part 17 of 18)

Jacob did not squander his wealth, though as has been seen, life was a bit wild for him.  Like the prodigal in his exile from his father’s house, fortune had eluded Jacob though others had gotten rich at his expense.  The son of the famed parable is said to have experienced the effects of destitution, as a terrible famine grips the land.  Seeking whatever income he could find, he attaches himself to a citizen of that country, much like Jacob was attached to Laban because of the need to pay him for all of the wives (and children until the wife debt obligation is met), and is sent to feed the citizen’s pigs. 

Naturally, as the hearers of Jesus’ parable were predominantly Jewish, and because they would naturally assume that the family in the story is Jewish, they would see this as an attempt by the man to get rid of an unwanted hanger-on, expecting that the young Jewish man would resolutely refuse to lower and defile himself in such a way.  This was viewed as a possibility in Laban’s business deal with Jacob, which, based on Laban’s actions after striking the deal, might be taken to have indicated a desire to rid himself of Jacob. 

Eventually, while feeding the pigs but while still hungry, the young man in the parable is said to have come “to his senses,” saying “How many of my father’s hired workers have food enough and to spare, but here I am dying from hunger!” (Luke 15:17), and so hatches a plan to return to the home that he had left in shame and dishonor.  Similarly, Jacob comes to his senses.  With the documented hostility that he is experiencing, he wonders why it is that he remains where he is, when he could return to his father’s house, rather than continuing to serve under a man who clearly did not want him around any longer. 

The younger son however, knows that he has shamed himself and his family, and knows that harsh consequence up to and including the possibility of death, await him if he returns to his father’s house.  Owing to that, and considering the fact that his father’s hired workers earn enough to feed themselves with money to spare, he devises a plan that will allow him to gain one of those positions, so as to be able to pay back his father over time, and in the process allow him to regain the honor that he had lost.  So he says “I will get up and go to my father and say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired workers.’” (15:18-19) 

This is the same thing that can be seen with Jacob.  He cannot simply return to the house that he left, covered in shame, having dishonored his father and his brother.  He has a brother that has previously declared his desire to kill him, and a father that he greatly dishonored.  Therefore he must devise a plan.  Clearly, because his father (though it was done unwittingly) passed the covenantal blessing on to him, his primary concern is with the wrath of his brother, thus the planning taking place with the division of the families, and then the gifts of animals, with the message passed along by the servants. 

Effectively, with the language that is heard on the lips of Jacob, bowing to the ground as he refers to himself as Esau’s servant while also referring to Esau as “my lord” and telling him that seeing his face is like seeing the face of God, it is almost as if Jacob can be heard saying something like “I have sinned against heaven and against you; treat me like one of your hired workers.” 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Compassionate Brother (part 16)

With the gifts of a substantial number of animals, the words of the messengers, the bowing before Esau, and the repeated use of “servant” and “lord,” that plan could be seen unfolding.  However, it was also seen that Esau felt these things to have been completely unnecessary, as he runs to his brother, welcoming him with open arms and demonstrating compassion in his words and actions.  Basically, though Esau will begrudgingly accept the gifts that are on offer from his brother, Jacob’s well-rehearsed plan is dismissed out of hand, as Esau counters Jacob’s attempt to attract shame to himself in order to elevate his aggrieved brother. 

In stark contrast and as something of a reversal, Esau’s own actions bring shame upon himself, as he runs to his brother and refrains from taking action to avenge the dishonor done to him many years prior.  Whereas Jacob expected conflict, Esau appeared to be in favor of celebration.  Though Jacob had been dead to him, and though part of the plot was the thought that Esau had wanted him dead, it was now as if Jacob had returned to life.      

Though it has taken some work to get to this point, this story of the compassionate brother sounds remarkably similar to a story that would eventually be offered up by Jesus.  Though Esau generally gets a bad rap, and though there is precious little positive talk of Esau in Scriptures, perhaps the man who regularly dined with tax collectors and sinners, who offered up stories commending “unjust” stewards and good Samaritans, and generally opened up the kingdom of God to what were considered to be all the wrong people, had the story of Esau as the compassionate brother in mind when He offered up the parable of the compassionate father (often incorrectly labeled as the parable of the prodigal son). 

In that story, Jesus tells about a man with two sons.  The younger of the two demanded that his father give him the assets that would eventually come to him upon his father’s death.  This is the equivalent of wishing his father dead, which would have been well understood by those that would hear this tale from the lips of Jesus.  The father, who would be immensely dishonored by this action (the family would also suffer dishonor in the community), accedes to his son’s wishes. 

Though this is not precisely what happened with Isaac and his two sons, Isaac insisted on blessing Esau (the older son), indicating that he wanted to do so before he died.  However, rather than Esau receiving the blessing as the firstborn, the blessing fell to Jacob.  In the parable, as it is presented by Jesus, the son dishonored his father by his request, just as Jacob dishonored his father.  In both cases, the father has every right to take vengeance on his son, but he restrains himself.  There is compassion in evidence. 

In the parable, reports of the actions of the son would have quickly spread through the community, creating a growing hostility towards this presumptuous and shameful son.  It is not unreasonable to suggest that his life would have possibly been in jeopardy (as was Jacob’s), so it is quite likely that he quickly sells the assets in order to gain liquidity and leaves.  As did Jacob, with possible death looming, the son leaves on a journey to a distant country.  Jesus informs His hearers that the son “squandered his wealth with a wild lifestyle” (Luke 15:13b).  

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Compassionate Brother (part 15)

One could go on at great length in discussing the honor and shame connotations so as to be able to gain a more robust reading of Scripture, but it seems as if the point has been made.  Considerations of honor and shame are more than necessary if there is a desire to rightly understand the stories and movement of Scripture, as this cultural component looms large.  Approaching the text from this angle allows a reader to make sense of the stories on their own terms, rather than reading terms and ideas into them (however noble or uplifting those things might be) that simply are not there. 

Additionally, as was previously said, proceeding along these lines allows for the narrative to be heard as it would have been heard by the people for whom it was written, while also allowing for a better comprehension of the movement of Scripture, and therefore an enhanced ability to comprehend and serve the God that is said to be revealed in and through those Scriptures.  This then, of course, allows a divine image-bearer to better understand the words and deeds of the God that was made manifest in human form, that being Jesus of Nazareth.    

So what has been seen in the course of this study?  What is it that prompted travel down the path that has revealed that Esau, perhaps surprisingly, was the compassionate brother?  To answer that question, the story of Jacob must be reviewed in broad terms.  Jacob, as is known, was one of two sons.  He was the younger of fraternal twins.  In a deceptive and dishonorable action, he secured for himself the blessing of his (purportedly dying---a deception in its own right) father---a blessing that rightfully belonged to his brother.  This generated anger on behalf of his brother, and most likely on the part of his father as well (due to the shame that would have been generated by the deception).  It is said that his brother was determined to kill him, so rather than staying, Jacob left, putting distance between himself and those that he had dishonored, ending up in the house of his uncle Laban. 

As was seen, Jacob lived a rather interesting and tumultuous life.  In particular, the report of his wives competing for his attention and his affection, with them offering up their female servants as wives to their husband, is revealed as being rather riotous.  When one considers the lifestyle, the adjective “wild” comes to mind.  By all indications he worked very hard for his uncle.  It appears to be the case that his labor served to increase his uncle’s wealth (and honor), but when it came to his own wealth, possessions, and honor, though he had surreptitiously secured the blessing of his father (which promised the richness of the earth along with plenty of grain and new wine), it was as if his life was gripped by famine.  Seeking to rectify this situation, he struck a deal with his uncle.  Though at first it seems like a legitimate agreement, closer inspection reveals that Laban may very well have intended to cause Jacob to become discouraged and despondent over his situation, possibly hopeful that this would result in Jacob leaving (and leaving behind his wives and children that would have been the property of his uncle). 

Eventually, after realizing that there was nothing more to be gained by staying where he was, and continuing to live in what was going to be a difficult and ultimately unsatisfying situation, Jacob expresses a desire to return to his father’s house.  He shares with his wives the reasons for acting on this desire.  However, there is the problem of his dishonored and angry brother, not to mention the dishonored and angry father, whose son had brought shame on the entire family.  Jacob had no idea how Esau would respond, and he figured that it was likely that he would meet up with Esau somewhere along the journey to his father’s house.  With this in mind, he devises a plan by which he will attempt to soothe his brother, even if it means dishonor for himself. 

Monday, January 6, 2014

Compassionate Brother (part 14)

As an aside, a similar story of give and take and relent can be found in connection with Abraham, which serves as a reminder that there is a cultural component at play in this reunion exchange between Jacob and Esau, and that it is informed by the constant struggle for honor in almost every transaction.  The twenty-third chapter of Genesis opens with the report of the death of Abraham’s wife (Jacob’s grandmother) Sarah has died.  Abraham desired to obtain a burial site for Sarah, and speaks to a group of men, saying “I am a temporary settler among you.  Grant me ownership of a burial site among you so that I may bury my dead” (23:4). 

Not wanting to lose sight of Esau’s compassion, of his willingness to shame himself, and the fact that great honor accrues to him because of his extension of compassion, the encounter between Jacob and Esau is kept in mind, along with the culture of honor that even extends to routine transactions, as the exchange between Abraham and these men is observed.  Abraham receives a favorable answer as he hears: “Listen, sir, you are a mighty prince among us!  You may bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs.  None of us will refuse you his tomb to prevent you from burying your dead” (23:6).  Though this seems like the offer of a gift, in reality, with these words the negotiations have begun.  Abraham understands this.   

Abraham “got up and bowed down to the local people,” saying “If you agree that I may bury my dead, then hear me out.  As Ephron the son of Zohar if he will sell me the cave of Machpelah that belongs to him… Let him sell it to me publicly for the full price, so that I may own it as a burial site” (23:8-9).  Though this will certainly be a great honor for Ephron, the immediate acceptance of payment from Abraham would be a source of dishonor for Ephron.  Also, as every such transaction is an opportunity to elevate oneself in ongoing competition to accrue honor and eschew shame, getting Abraham to purchase more than that for which he has expressed interest will gain him some honor, as it demonstrates the shrewdness and business savvy of the seller.  Of course, this will not be unexpected by Abraham.  He’s willing to play the game, and has undoubtedly played the game throughout his life as well.  

The negotiation continues, as Ephron, couching the offer as a demonstration of magnanimity while also extending the range of purchase (a rather regular feature in transactions in the culture) says, “No, my lord!  Hear me out.  I sell you both the field and the cave that is in it.  In the presence of my people I sell it to you.  Bury your dead” (23:11).  Ephron has called attention to the fact that there are many witnesses to this negotiation, which is a tacit reminder of the honor game that is being played.  Hearing this, Abraham bows again and says “Hear me, if you will.  I pay to you the price of the field.  Take it from me so that I may bury my dead there” (23:13b). 

It should be noticed that Abraham does not yet name a price, leaving this to Ephron to propose---another feature of the game of honor.  Abraham receives the response of “Hear me, my lord.  The land is worth four hundred pieces of silver, but what is that between me and you?  So bury your dead” (23:15).  Though Ephron has been forced to name the price (and thus loses that end of the game), by his words he attempts to position the price as so low that it is practically a gift to Abraham.  Thus the game continues.  Those that have spent any amount of time in the east, whether living there or simply visiting, will be familiar with this type of exchange.