Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Jesus in the Margins: Part 4-- Meals as Maps

When Jesus broke bread, he broke Israel.

With his meal-time habits, Jesus was speaking a new language and introducing a new world.

USAmerican culture has gutted the social significance of daily meals. With the TV dinner and the fast food chains, we eat like we live...with a sound and fury signifying nothing. Once in a while we arrive at a table with 3 forks, 3 glasses, two spoons and two knives and we freeze up. This is no ordinary meal. Which fork do we use first? A china plate with 3 long green beans with a "glaze" on them and a piece of meat the size of a postage stamp with a purple flower next to it shows up. "Who needs 3 forks for this?" We begin to fantasize about a "Big Mac."

In Jesus' day a meal was a controlling cultural map. Who was eating with whom? Where? and What? And who was in charge? --all said something significant about social relationships. Powerful social code was telegraphed. It was what anthropologists call "the language of meals."

Are you one of us or one of them? Every meal in Jesus' day was an answer to that question. Meals portrayed legitimate and illegitimate social relationships. "This man (read "scum bag") welcomes 'sinners' and eats with them" (Luke 15:1-2). Who was clean and unclean? Who was pure and who was polluted? Meals answered these questions.

Add to this Israel's history with God around meals---complaining about water and quails---eating and drinking at the golden calf---picking manna up daily---the periodic holy feast days---staying pure in Babylon (Daniel and his friends)---you get the picture. In Israel your meal-time habits showed whether you were close to or far from God. The "Lord's Table" was every meal you ate...or it was not His table.

Meals kept tribes together, clans united, families close, a nation identified. Meals were an expression of law-keeping or law-breaking. Eatingness was close to godliness.

Enter radical pastor Jesus and his new code. His meal-time good news message. He was subversively, non-violently redrawing Israel's cultural-spiritual map. He offered new, happy redefinitions of who's pure and who's polluted. He didn't have to say a lot. All he had to do was host a meal and break the bread and pour the wine. By these actions Jesus literally broke Jewish society apart, even family members had to chose (or not) to be in the new social structure Jesus was creating (see Matthew 10:34-39).

Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him."

Jesus said, "I say to you that many will come from the east and the west [despised Gentiles], and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Jesus said, "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners." '

Jesus, then, by his meal-time associations reconfigured the kingdom of God for all to see. He was amazingly courageous and intensely controversial. I wonder if most of his followers developed ulcers. "Can you believe what he is doing?" I hear Peter saying to John. "We are all going to die."

Every meal Jesus ate in his ministry was a transformative expression, a here and now enactment of the presence of the kingdom of God.

Grace...amazing, gutsy, pass-the-potatoes grace.


At 8/02/2006 7:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

Just wanted you to know I'm really getting heaps out of this series John. I'm blogging a few of my thoughts in reference to it myself. It's amazing how relevant all this is for me right now. Thanks!

At 8/02/2006 7:56 AM, Blogger John Frye said...

Your kind affirmations are an encouragment to me. Feel free to use the blogs however you want. How are they particularly relevant to you right now? And, how's things down under, mate?

At 8/02/2006 7:08 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Well my wife and I have just planted a church (or more correctly a congregation of an existing church) in Melbourne. The area is a bit of a mix but there are lots of people 'on the margins' in our area. For instance, yesterday I met an Iraqi guy who came to Australia as a refugee 10 years ago, his wife died 2 years ago and he's trying to be a single parent to 5 kids between the ages of 6 - 14 on the very meager amount given to him each fortnight by the government. He's not connected with any other adults, hasn't managed to connect in with local welfare services very well and sometimes can't send his kids to school because he doesn't have any lunch for them. It's a pretty desperate situation and he lives around the corner from my house!

These posts have been relevant to me because I'm trying to think through what it means to follow Jesus in this new context. I've been white middle class comfortable for all my life and I'm only beginning to grasp God's care and concern for justice and therefore the oppressed.

I need to get my head around this picture of the kingdom of God which is good news for those on the margins so I can serve God faithfully.

If you haven't read it I've just finished and reviewd on my blog a fantastic book which I think you'd like. It's written by a guy called Ash Barker and is called Surrender All and is well worth a read.

Thanks again.

At 8/03/2006 5:32 AM, Blogger John Frye said...

Thanks for the peek into your life and ministry. May God bless this new Jesus-like direction you and your wife have taken. I'll check out Barker's book.

At 8/03/2006 6:38 AM, Blogger Tim said...

Ahh sure thing John. I always enjoy reading your posts too, so thanks. And if you ever come to Australia you'll have to visit. I'd love to show you around our little pocket of the world. Let me know what you think of the book.

At 8/06/2006 5:08 PM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...

Really good, vivid portrayal here of the power of meals in Jesus' culture. And the message he gave during them. I need to pay closer heed to this.

We don't have that same dynamic here, to be sure, but it seems to me that perhaps a most intimate time to get to know others is just to eat with them, having them over, than relaxing conversation afterwards. With no strings attached kind of attitude (like no, we've got to get this or that done during this time and visit with them). Of course our identities come through in all of this. But grace as well, for all of us. And the Lord present with us since he is with his people always.

Meals would say alot, I think, here in the suburbia in which we live, neighbors huddled together, rarely knowing each other, it seems.

At 8/07/2006 1:26 PM, Blogger julie said...

Thanks for this call to get intentional about having people at my table. I want to practice "grace ...amazing, gutsy, pass-the-potatoes grace.

At 8/07/2006 2:18 PM, Blogger John Frye said...

Blessings on you, Julie, for your active faith!!

At 8/10/2006 11:19 AM, Blogger Doug Floyd said...


My first time on your blog. Enjoyed this series immensely. I appreciate how you focused on embracing those in the margins. Keeping writing!

This topic of this post makes me think of something I've been studying in relation to prayer. I've been working on a project related to Patrick's Breastplate and began to note something about an early Medieval understanding of prayer that I think links with the Hebrews. Prayer was not primarily a mental act where people tried to make sure they were somehow feeling the words they were speaking (this is very modern). Prayer was often embodied in actions. Thus there were prayers recited for virtually every action: walking, cleaning, urinating, and even milking a cow.

While prayer and worship can be personal and emotional encounters, they should be the norm for acting and living in this world. When I shake someone's hand or embrace, there is a prayer and a blessing (verbal or not) in the encounter.

At 8/13/2006 7:07 PM, Anonymous Melody vdL said...

Thanks so much for this series. It was very thought-provoking and I will be returning to read your posts in the future.

For another book that is along the same lines of Surrender All. It's called Theirs Is The Kingdom by Robert Lupton.

At 9/05/2006 11:30 PM, Anonymous Johnny Brooks said...

I just wanted to say “Great post on Meals as Maps”. I have been trying to teach the people in our community that a great way to reach out to people in need would be to eat with them. Just invite your neighbor over for dinner. Just bring some tea out to the guys who scavenge through the garbage, and so on. So far it is proving difficult to convince people that this is what Jesus would want. They are having a hard time seeing Jesus as the one who ate with sinners and tax collectors, but I know God is leading us in the right direction. Someday we will report the good news of our community reaching out.

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