Friday, July 08, 2005

Healing Through Meal-Sharing

From "A Glimpse of Jesus, Stranger to Self-Hatred"

By Brennan Manning

Chapter 3

Healing Through Meal-Sharing

In the year 1925, if a wealthy plantation owner in Atlanta, Georgia, had extended a formal invitation to four colored cotton-pickers to come to his mansion for Sunday dinner, preceded by cocktails and followed by several hours of brandy and conversation, the Georgia aristocracy would have been outraged, neighboring Alabama infuriated, and the KKK apoplectic. The caste system was inviolable, social and racial discrimination inflexible, and indiscretion made the loss of reputation inevitable.

The scandal that Jesus caused in first-century Palestinian Judaism can scarcely be appreciated by the Christian world today. The class system was enforced de rigueur. It was legally forbidden to mingle with sinners who were outside the law; the prohibition on table-fellowship with beggars, prostitutes, and tax-collectors was a religious, social, and cultural taboo.

Theologian Marcus Borg notes that "one of the most striking features of Jesus' ministry [was] the meals he shared with 'sinners'---that is, outcasts. Pharisees (and others) would not eat with somebody who was impure, and no decent person would share a meal with an outcast." When Jesus ate with tax-collectors as well, the religious satraps were infuriated, because "tax collectors were among the worst of the untouchables."

Unfortunately, the meaning of meal-sharing is largely lost on Western society today. In the East, to share a meal with someone is a symbol of peace, trust, brotherhood, and forgiveness; the shared table is a shared life. To say to an Orthodox Jew, "I would like to have dinner with you," is understood as "I would like to enter into friendship with you."

Even today, members of Orthodox Jewry will share a donut and a cup of coffee with you, but when they extend a dinner invitation, they are saying, "Come to my mikdash me-at, my miniature sanctuary, my dining-room table, and we will celebrate the most beautiful experience that life affords---friendship." That is what Zacchaeus heard when Jesus called him down from the sycamore tree, and that is why Jesus' practice of table-fellowship caused hostile comment from the outset of his ministry.

It did not escape the Pharisees' attention that Jesus meant to befriend the rabble. He was not only breaking the law; he was destroying the very structure of Jewish society! "They all complained when they saw what was happening. He has gone to stay at a sinner's house, they said" (Luke 19:7). But Zacchaeus, not too hung up on respectability, was overwhelmed with joy.

It would be impossible to overestimate the impact these meals must have had upon the poor and the sinners. By accepting them as friends and equals Jesus had taken away their shame, humiliation and guilt. By showing them that they mattered to him as people he gave them a sense of dignity and released them from their old captivity. The physical contact which he must have had with them at table (John 13:25) and which he obviously never dreamed of disallowing (Luke 7:38-39) must have made them feel clean and acceptable. Moreover because Jesus was looked upon as a man of God and a prophet, they would have interpreted his gesture of friendship as God's approval of them. They were now acceptable to God. Their sinfulness, ignorance and uncleanness had been overlooked and were no longer being held against them.

Through table-fellowship Jesus ritually acted out his insight into the Father's indiscriminate love---a love that causes his sun to rise on bad people as well as good, and his rain to fall on the honest and the dishonest alike (Matt. 5:45). The inclusion of sinners in the community of salvation, achieved in table-fellowship, is the most dramatic expression of the message of the redeeming love of the merciful God.

Several years ago German theologian Karl Rahner was giving a lecture in Rome on salvation and remarked that salvation "is a bottle of coke." All over Europe there are signs: things go better with coke. Rahner described the experience,
The Day is hot and the streets of Rome are dusty and filled with exhaust from the buses; you walk along with your friend, you see the sign, sit down and enjoy the comfort and ease of a bottle of coke with your friend. Salvation is a bottle of coke.

O'Grady writes,
Whatever contributes to the well-being of mankind, whatever is good and noble and lovely and true is the experience of salvation. Salvation is not reserved for the future alone. It is present when a family sits down at a family celebration in thanksgiving for the goodness they have received and the goodness they contribute to each other and enjoy fine food and good wine and great company.
The ordinary meal-sharing of Jesus at home and on the road was Eucharist, and so should be the thousand meals that a family shares each year. the early eucharistic meals were grateful celebrations of God's gift of life, celebrated in shared food and joyful fellowship. It seems to have been Jesus' favorite form of recreation. Dinner parties were such a prominent aspect of his routine that, more than once, he was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton (e.g., Luke 7:34).
The thorough research of biblical scholar Albert Nolan indicates that Jesus had his own home in Capernaum, or at least a communal home, shared with Peter, Andrew, and their families. Undoubtedly, in his ministry of itinerant evangelism, Jesus often slept on the side of the road or stayed with friends. "The Son of man has nowhere to lay his head" (Mark 8:20). But upon returning from his missionary journeys, he had some kind of quasi-permanent domicile. The phrase "he entertained sinners" (Luke 15:2) suggests that Jesus was often the host and may have rented a hall more than once (as he did at the Last Supper). The guest list would include a ragtag parade of donkey peddlers, prostitutes, herdsmen, slumlords, and gamblers. A social climber Jesus was not!
Status-seekers in today's society are selective about their dinner guests and make elaborate preparations for people they want to stand well with. They wait anxiously to see if they will be invited in return. Consciously or unconsciously, the power brokers and social gadflies of our day do not underestimate the ritual power of meal-sharing. Jesus' sinner-guests were well aware that table-fellowship entailed more than mere politeness and courtesy; it meant peace, acceptance, reconciliation, fraternity. As Hans Kung notes, "For Jesus this fellowship at table with those whom the devout had written off was not merely the expression of liberal tolerance and humanitarian sentiment. It was the expression of his mission and message: peace and reconciliation for all, without exception, even for the moral failures."

I once met a pastor in the hills of Colorado who invites a family to his rectory every Sunday afternoon for a homecooked meal. Frequently the guests are unchurched or exchurched. During my visit the fare was simple, but the company and conversation stimulating. This family shared the deep hurt inflicted on them by a previous pastor and why they consequently had discontinued churchgoing. But that afternoon they received consideration instead of expected condemnation, a merciful acquittal rather than an anticipated verdict of guilty. They returned to the worshipping community the following week. They had been healed by an ordinary Sunday meal! Tablesharing with the pastor had brought them into fellowship with God.

How do we justify the exclusion of divorced Christians from the Lord's Supper, when Jesus hosted sinners and set the table for moral failures? How long is this really to go on? Within the Roman Catholic discipline, the conditions and requirements for obtaining an annulment have been widened and broadened. "Although this procedure has been a source of some relief, it is clearly a legal makeshift, open to serious abuses, and basic problems in this area remain difficult and urgent."

A sixty-eight year-old man from Florida came to me for counseling; in fact, he fell into my arms in tears. He had been deprived of table-fellowship and the taking of communion for forty-six years! Even the incestuous man in Corinth was permitted to return to the faith community lest he fall into despair. Wounded at Anzio Beach in World War II, he had been honorably discharged and had returned to the States. In desperate loneliness he had married a girl he barely knew in a Christian ceremony. Within three weeks she had committed adultery with several other men, and thus the marriage had ended in divorce. This man had remarried outside the church, and, as so often happens, the second, successful marriage had healed a failed human situation. Yet he had been "disfellowshiped" (ecclesiastical foofaraw meaning he was kicked out of his church).

Even if the first marriage was a typically heedless blunder of youth, must this man pay a lifelong penalty for failing to see what no one in either family had seen? The prohibition preventing his return to the Christian community makes it impossible for the church to show compassion. "One finds it difficult to believe that the refusal of compassion reflects the image of Jesus," says biblical scholar John McKenzie. "It seems to put things before people." As the soft heads and hard hearts of the religious moguls prevail, the guest list for the banquet shrinks, and the number of empty chairs at the Lord's table grows. Jesus told us to go out to the highways and byways and drag in the beggars, the cripples, and the brokenhearted, instead, we tell those already seated at the supper table to get up and leave, and we shut the door after them!

John McKenzie, whose writings have exerted a decisive influence on my pastoral ministry, also wrote, "If the church had applied to the texts on divorce the same kind of exegesis it had applied to the more numerous texts on non-violence and the acquisition of wealth, divorce in the Christian community would be no more common than war and riches."

After an exhaustive treatment of the sayings of Jesus prohibiting divorce, Richard B. Hays, professor of New Testament studies at Duke University Divinity School, comments, "Indeed, if one purpose of marriage is to serve as a sign of God's love in the world (by symbolizing the relationship between Christ and the church), how can we reject the possibility that a second marriage after a divorce could serve as a sign of grace and redemption from the sin and brokenness of the past?
He adds, "No New Testament writer entertains such a suggestion, but I offer it here as a constructive theological proposal. One dares to make such a suggestion precisely because the New Testament itself---especially 1 Corinthians 7---invites its readers into a process of constructive reflection and discernment about the issues of divorce and remarriage."

I'm often asked by Gen-Xers, baby boomers, and senior citizens to name the most important book I've read outside the Bible. My answer has been consistent and unequivocal over the years: On Being a Christian, by Hans Kung. The German theologian's portrait of the real Jesus (as opposed to the dreamed-up Jesus) has revolutionized my understanding of Christ and the meaning of Christian discipleship. In passionate and beautifully written prose, he states,
The church of Jesus Christ is a home not only for the morally upright but for the moral failures and for those who for a variety of reasons have not been able to honor denominational teaching. The Church is a healing community proclaiming the Father's indiscriminate love and unconditional grace, offering pardon, reconciliation and salvation to the down-trodden and leaving the judgment to God.

A Church that will not accept the fact that it consists of sinful men and exists for sinful men becomes hard-hearted, self-righteous, inhuman. It deserves neither God's mercy nor men's trust. But if a Church with a history of fidelity and infidelity, of knowledge and error, takes seriously the fact that it is only in God's Kingdom that the wheat is separated from the tares, good fish from bad, sheep from goats, a holiness will be acknowledged in it by grace which it cannot created for itself. Such a Church is then aware that it has no need to present a spectacle of higher morality to society , as if everything in it were ordered to the best. It is aware that its faith is weak, its knowledge dim, its profession of faith halting, that there is not a single sin or failing which it has not in one way or another been guilty of. And though it is true that the Church must always dissociate itself from sin, it can never have any excuse for keeping any sinners at a distance. If the Church self-righteously remains aloof from failures, irreligious and immoral people, it cannot enter justified into God's kingdom. But if it is constantly aware of its guilt and sin, it can live in joyous awareness of forgiveness. The promise has been given to it that anyone who humbles himself will be exalted.

What to do? Allow me to make a bold biblical suggestion.
Let the church declare a jubilee year in the spirit of the Book of Leviticus and host a homecoming celebration for all disenfranchised Christians! In ancient Israel, every seventh, or "sabbatical," year all debts had to be canceled; every fiftieth , or "jubilee," year everything that had been lost was restored to its original owner and everyone was called to return to his own home." In this year of jubilee each of you is to return to his ancestral home: (Lev. 25:13). In the sabbatical year" you must permit the land to be redeemed...but if he does not acquire sufficient means to buy back his land, what he has sold shall remain in the possession of the purchaser until the jubilee, when it must be released and returned to its original owner" (Lev. 25:24, 28).

In a year of jubilation that echoes with the joy of the gospel, let the leaders of our churches proclaim amnesty---unconditional, gratuitous pardon for those outside the law; let Jesus' ministry of setting ragamuffins free from shame, humiliation, rejection, and self-hatred be continued; in a magnificent gesture of mercy, let the face of a compassionate God be revealed.

As we have seen, Jesus vindicates his table-companionship with sinners and justifies his revolutionary conduct to his critics by claiming that God's love to the returning sinner knows no bounds. "What I do in word and deed," he says, "represents God's nature and will....Jesus thus claims that in his actions the love of God to the repentant sinner is made effectual." Jesus, by taking sinners into fellowship with him, takes them into fellowship with God. The awareness that God is love continues to be the ultimate reality for Jesus, and it is the basis for his unprecedented socializing with ragamuffins. This has important implications for the worshipping life of the Christian community.

The transcendence of God is the underlying presupposition of Jesus' preaching and the natural overflowing of his own interior life. The classic definition of preaching remains: aliis contemplata tradere---to hand on to others the fruits of one's own contemplation. Pere Sertillanges hints at this when he writes,
Let us try to analyze as well as we can the prayer of the Master. To what do his sentiments correspond? What outbursts of soul do they excite? Undoubtedly the first is adoration....[T]o adore is to recognize the whole of the object and the nothingness of the adorer....Adoration is nonentity swooning away and gladly expiring in the presence of Infinity. And that is what Jesus does. He acknowledges that the creature is nothing, nothing but a breath from the divine mouth. He recognizes that He Himself is nothing from the standpoint of that humanity which He animates, marvelous as it is. "Why do you call me good?" He said one day to a young man who had addressed Him as good master. "Only one is good: God." One alone is also great; and the human Christ, with all His glory, is but a ray broken loose from God. By adoration then, He reascended humbly toward His source.

This consciousness of the Father's awesome holiness, total otherness, and mysterious greatness fires Jesus' diatribes against the Pharisees who had presumed to box God in Torah and figure him out in Talmud. However, Jesus' dominant awareness of God is not in terms of power, knowledge, beauty, or otherness; it is in terms of love. Naming God reveals what is new in Jesus' understanding of God: God is close to humankind in love. Hence, the privileged path for gaining access to God is love.

Sunday worship is a public, communal expression of the love of God and neighbor; any cultic action that stands in the way of love stands in the way of God himself. Every celebration of praise and thanksgiving is meant to achieve what Jesus effected in table-fellowship---thanksgiving, praise, mutual acceptance, reconciliation, fraternity. When worshipping communities continue to harbor grudges and nurture resentments against one another, when cool cordiality and polite indifference flourish, when cliques and splinter groups abound and the lines of social, religious, and ethnic divisions are reinforced, their worship services shore up rather than tear down the barriers that divide people and diminish the quality of life. Communion is celebrated unworthily.
"Worship, cult and religion in general have no absolute autonomy of their own for Jesus," writes Latin American theologian Jon Sobrino. "His God is not an egocentric being. He is a being for others, not a being for himself alone. Cultic worship is not only hypocritical but absolutely meaningless if it is not accompanied by love for other people; for in such a case it cannot possibly be a way of corresponding to God."

At a cocktail party in the Midwest, six couples were standing in a circle sipping martinis. One husband turned to his wife and said, "You're getting so fat that I'm embarrassed to take you out anymore." What she heard was "I don't love you anymore." The husband is an elder in his parish and was emulated as a model Christian. But by whose standards? According to Jesus' reply to the lawyer in Matthew 22, the only norm for a good and faithful disciple is that he be a professional lover of God and people. Nothing at all can be set in opposition to right relationships between human beings.

Jesus cuts to the chase: "So then, if you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave our offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first, and then come back and present your offering" (Matt. 5:23-24). What a terrifying reversal of religious priorities! The worship of God and the time of cult are subordinated to reconciliation with one's brother; the value of community worship in the sight of God---independent of the caliber of the music, the effectiveness of the preaching, and the imaginative design of the banners---is measured by the quality of life and love in the community of faith. This Word of God could be as scandalous to the devout Christian as was Jesus' table-fellowship with sinners to the devout Jew.

What enormous potential for healing lies within the worshipping community! If what was said earlier is true---that we can experience the compassion and unconditional acceptance of Jesus Christ only when we feel valued and cherished by others---then it is the church family itself than effects the healing of self-hatred for divorced folks, drunks, scalawags, and social misfits burdened with emotional and mental disorders. The quality of a Christian's presence in the assembly---his relationship not only to God but to his brothers and sisters---is what Paul meant by "recognizing the Body." The Christian's warmth and congeniality, nonjudgmental attitude, and welcoming love may well be the catalyst allowing the healing power of Jesus to become operative in the life of an alienated, forlorn brother or sister. This winsome wedding of worship and life ritualizes Jesus' table-fellowship with sinners and brings healing and wholeness to the entire community.


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