Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Jesus: transforming the table

I used to think the Pharisees were just a bunch of meanies. Why else would they say such nasty things to Jesus? Always trying to trip him up and get him into trouble. In truth, the Pharisees were trying to conscientiously keep the Torah. They saw Israel going to hell in the proverbial hand basket and thought the solution was a return to their version of traditional values.

One of the most colorful insults the Pharisee party hurled at Jesus was that he was a "glutton and a drunkard" because he sat down at table with folks who were unclean (Matt. 11:19, Luke 7:34). They were unclean because they didn't observe the Torah, and a scrupulous keeper of the law would never share a table with such a person. Calling Jesus a glutton and drunkard wasn't merely an off-the-cuff insult. It was a legal charge taken from the Mosaic Law. You can read it in Deuteronomy 21:18-21. What the Pharisees were saying was that if they were in charge of Israel then Jesus would be treated like a rebellious son and taken out and stoned to death. As it turned out the Pharisees and other religious elites betrayed their own principles by collaborating with the pagan Romans to get Jesus out of the way.

Scot McKnight explains in his wonderful book The Jesus Creed how the Pharisees used the table as a litmus test to divide law-keepers from law-breakers. By sharing meals with Matthew and his tax collector friends (who were as non-kosher as one could get) Jesus transformed the table into an open door instead of the dividing wall that the Pharisees had made it. In so doing he demonstrated what the new society, the new Israel, would look like. Here are a couple of snippets from the chapter "The Jesus Creed as a Table". . .

The observant person's table story: You can eat with me if you are clean. If you are unclean, take a bath and come back tomorrow evening. Jesus' table story: clean or unclean, you can eat with me, and I will make you clean. Instead of his table requiring purity, his table creates purity. Jesus chooses the table to be a place of grace.

For Jesus, the table envisions a new society, and that means that the table is a boundary breaker and a grace giver--a place where we can see what God can do when people are restored to fellowship with Abba. The table envisions because it is a door that opens and invites and includes. As such, the table creates a society.

Jesus uses a physical object (a table) to communicate a spiritual reality and to offer a foretaste of the kingdom of God. Since the church is meant to be the visible manifestation of the kingdom of God, McKnight invites us to ask "what, at the physical level, our churches are saying." Does the physical geography of your church (and mine) communicate the grace of Jesus to sinners, or does it communicate the self-righteousness of the Pharisees? Are the unclean welcome at our table?

Quotes from McKnight, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2004) pp. 36, 39

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