Outcasts at the Table
“It would surely be much more rational if conversation rather than dancing were the order of the day,” notes Miss Bingley in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.
“Much more rational, I dare say,” replies her brother, “but not near so much like a ball.”(1)
Mr. Bingly’s quip came to mind as I walked to the altar to receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. “Come to the table,” we hear each Sunday at Christ’s invitation. “Everything is ready.” Eating was no doubt for Jesus a theological declaration; declaration that could perhaps have been more rationally given. But this would certainly be much less like a feast.
The insistence of Jesus at the inclusion of the unwanted of society was a hallmark of his ministry. This, along with his enjoyment of eating with others, brought upon him labels of unsavory repute. In two different gospels Jesus remarks on his reputation at the table: “[T]he Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!’”(2) The theologian Joachim Jeremias describes the massive social and spiritual implications that an invitation to a meal held in the minds of this culture—namely, a declaration of worth, the offer of acceptance, and the assurance of divine forgiveness. “Hence the passionate objections of the Pharisees who held that the pious could have table fellowship only with the righteous,” notes Jeremias. “They understood the intention of Jesus as being to accord the outcasts’ worth before God by eating with them, and they objected to his placing of the sinner on the same level as the righteous.”(3)
Jesus mixed food with scandal—allowing sinful women near him at the table, breaking bread with crooked tax collectors, telling stories about dredging the hedges and the streets for the lowly to join the heavenly banquet. Food in his culture was a foreshadowing of heaven, where the righteous join God at the great feast. So it is scandalous that at his table, it is the outcast who seems to be most decidedly welcomed. Or, if we are to take the meal at Emmaus as evidence one step further, Christ is the outcast welcoming the least and the lost. "The encounter with the risen Jesus [in the breaking of the bread] began as an encounter with a stranger," writes Rowan Williams.(4)
Such implications are certainly at play at the eucharistic table and the invitation Jesus leaves us with to eat and drink in remembrance of him. In his invitation, the politics of status are replaced by the Spirit of hospitality, with a side of disruption and offense. For at Christ's table, he continues to confer worth, to offer communion, and to fed the hungry with the bread of rescue. Yet in a world where meals are still given to the “deserving,” the bread of stratification is often yet preferred.
In fact, historical and contemporary instances abound where the communion table itself is used to draw division, or where the invitation to consume is not an invitation to consume the bread of life but the bread of social order or privilege. Medieval women were once given less of the elements or excluded at the table altogether. In sixteenth century England, eucharistic ceremonies at times served to illustrate social arrangements and the distribution of power. As Eamon Duffy writes:
“Where laity stood in the processional, who kissed the paxbread first, and who provided the eucharistic bread for the celebration were all matters that produced social harmony as well as division. In some places the bread itself was cut into varying sizes dependent upon one's social rank. In 1518 John ‘Kareless’ was accused of the deadly vice of pride for ‘taking too large a piece of the holy loaf.’”(5)
To be sure, the church at times more accurately describes a glaring reversal of the parable of the great banquet, where outcasts are welcomed at the table and the distinguished guests left outside. But such lesser feasts are not always the case and there are times when Christ’s table continues to disrupt with a radical hospitality that challenges social order.
In his book Torture and Eucharist, William Cavanaugh describes the Chilean church under the military regime of Pinochet and his reign of fear upon anyone deemed an enemy of the state. Three days after a coup, two young leftists appeared on the door of a church in Santiago seeking asylum. They were received, but they were not permitted to stay. “That evening,” writes Cavanaugh, “as the community prepared for Mass, a seminarian spoke up and objected to the celebration of the Eucharist under the circumstances. He said Christ had already been turned away at the door of the residence. Communion in the body of Christ had already been denied in the denial of the two seeking asylum.”(6)
Where there is a vigorous understanding of the scandal Christ truly sets forth in giving his flesh and blood as food for those who need it most, lesser feasts are far less manageable. The Eucharist makes real the presence of Christ both at the table and in the body of the guests surrounding it. We are invited to consume Christ’s body in order to become Christ’s body. Thus, as the seminarian helped the church see, in the turning away of the two outcasts in fear of the fate that might befall them, Christ himself was turned away. This eucharistic encounter became a turning point whereby the Chilean church learned to stand against the crippling imagination of fear leveled by the state and to radically live into the body of Christ with Christ, the outcast, himself.
At the table where Christ both hosts and is scandalously served, we are called out of a familiar kingdom ordered by status or fear or hegemony and into a kingdom that invites sinners to the table of forgiveness and to a new space—with Christ beside us and within us—on earth as it is in heaven. Far from presenting himself as a body that stratifies, Jesus invites us to consume the scandal of a body that resisted the social powers that fought against him. At the table, we hold in our hands the one who overturned the stratification of souls and gives us his body and blood that we might participate in this mission. These are bold theological declarations that Jesus gives in the form of a feast: his body as the food of life and rescue at a table where the politics of status are replaced by the Spirit of hospitality. Taste and see! For there is no stratification in his presence.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (Mineola, New York, Dover Publications: 2009), 37.
(2) Luke 7:34, Matthew 11:19.
(3) Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, as quoted by Edward Foley, From Age to Age: How Christians Have Celebrated the Eucharist (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2008), 33.
(4) Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 2002), 183.
(5) As quoted by D. Stephen Long and Tripp York in "Remembering: Offering Our Gifts," Eds. Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells, The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 332.
(6) William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 205.