Who Are We Inviting To Our Table?, Part 2

The lynchpin of Unclean, in many ways, is Beck's analysis of Matthew 9:9-13.  Here it is:

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him "Follow me."  And he got up and followed him.

And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples.  When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"  But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  Go learn what this means 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'  For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."

In a podcast I was listening to, Beck and Rob Bell make the observation that Jesus spends a lot of time eating dinner in the Gospels.  There are a number incidents of the same type.  Peter's encounter with Cornelius the centurion is basically the same story.  And the common thread running through all of these stories is one of inclusion at table.  Jesus, and all those following Jesus in the New Testament (with one exception that I will get to in a moment), always errs on the side of eating with everyone and anyone, including the "tax collectors and sinners" of whatever type.

One might be tempted to see these stories as unimportant--who cares who Jesus has dinner with?  But, seen through the lens of disgust psychology, who you do or do not eat with matters very much.  Recall that disgust is primarily about maintaining bodily integrity and bodily boundaries.  If you look at the various prohibitions of Mosaic Law, you can see underneath them all sorts of sensible, pragmatic protections.  Eating unrefrigerated shellfish prepared by people who no sense of the germ theory of disease is actually disgusting, and having rules that forbid the practice is adaptive.

The problem, as disclosed by the reaction of the Pharisees, is that core disgust almost always morphs into sociomoral disgust.  Keeping Kosher was no longer simply about not eating shellfish, but about maintaining a cultural purity at the table.  Eating with notorious sinners was just as bad, and more importantly basically the same thing, as eating prohibited foods.  In a world of cultural and political domination by an oppressive imperial Rome, the desire to police these boundaries was at its highest.  But Jesus has no interest in keeping up the divisions.

Notice that Jesus doesn't try to defend the people that He eats with.
He doesn't say "these people have gotten a bad rap, they don't deserve your condemnation."  Nor does He say "it doesn't matter who you eat dinner with, stop being so uptight."  Instead, He confronts these divisions and exclusions head on--"it does matter who you eat dinner with, and it matters that you eat with the people that are excluded and marginalized by systems of disgust."  Eating with the oppressed and the marginalized is medicine for what ails them, because it brings them back into the circle of fellowship.  Jesus spends lots of time eating dinner because He is trying to make a point about table fellowship and exclusion, and He wants to make sure no one misses the message.

Paul deals with a similar issue in the First Letter to the Corinthians.  In the Gentile world of the Corinthian church, the disgust was not so much over Kosher and its extensions, but over wealth and privilege.  It would not do for a prominent person to be seen eating with his lessers, eating the food the lessers ate.  It would be a sign that the privileged and the lessers were at the same level, and we can't have that.  Paul has little patience for this kind of thinking:

Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!

(1 Cor. 11:17-23).  Immediately after this passage, Paul describes (for the first time in written form) what has become known as the words of institution--the words Jesus said to the disciples at the Last Supper, and the words that a significant percentage of Christians heard yesterday right before they went up to take communion. By linking these two concepts, Paul makes clear that Jesus's challenge to these systems of table exclusion is carried over into the foundation of the Christian ritual of the Eucharist.  To the extent the Eucharist becomes a vehicle for the exclusion of the marginalized, You Are Doing It Wrong.

But there is a counter-argument in First Corinthians.  In Chapter 5, Paul mentions that the Corinthian community contains a person who is living with his father's wife.  Paul is unambiguous in his solution--that person needs to be excluded from the community.  Moreover, his language is pretty broad: "But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one." (1 Cor. 5:11).

That would seem to be a warrant for using morality as the basis for exclusion, including table exclusion.  How can that be squared with Jesus's actions in Matthew 9?  I'm not sure, but I think we should recognize that a son sleeping with his stepmother (I presume it's the stepmother--if it was his biological mother, I suspect Paul would have said so) is pretty far out there on the sin scale.  I'm not sure even Maury Povich would touch that one.  Extreme transgressions might call for extreme actions that would not otherwise be justifiable in run-of-the-mill situations.

Moreover, it is a sin that has a profoundly disruptive effect on the community, both on the micro level of this particular family (yeesh!) and on the macro level of the Christian community as a whole.  Keep in mind that we are likely talking about very small communities at this time and place--maybe a hundred people.  If the mere presence of a particular person is disruptive to the Christian community, then one has to balance the needs of the community as a whole against the needs of this one person.  In other words, there is such a thing as legitimately toxic, disruptive people, and an absolute and unqualified ethic of inclusiveness puts a community at the mercy of these folks.

Having said that, I think 1 Cor. 5 is in tension with Matthew 9 and 1 Cor. 11.  Moreover, this is a tension that is particularly present in Christian communities with regard to the Eucharist.  Beck has some ways of thinking about how to manage that tension, and that discussion will make up the third and final post.


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