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.”