The Scandalous Table

article by Rick Fabian, Dec 23, 2011

(from The Art of Tentmaking, Stephen Burns, editor, 2011 Canterbury Press)

Upon first entering St Gregory Nyssen Episcopal Church in San Francisco, you will see a church distinctively arranged. Immediately before you stands an altar table in an open space; and rising beyond it in a bright courtyard, a rocky baptismal font.  Nave seating for worshippers stretches off to the right. 

St Gregory’s altar table bears two inscriptions: one pedestal facing the entry doors reads in Greek from Luke’s gospel,

“This guy welcomes sinners and eats with them.”[1]

Not former sinners, not repentant sinners; sinners.  Despite some recent protests, gospel critics agree that such insults and scandalous charges, especially those embarrassing to the church, are our most reliable evidence about Jesus.  Mainline Christian tradition has always upheld him on this point.  The Christian Eucharist must be the world’s only religious meal where all the diners are officially declared unworthy to eat, every time they eat.  Nor does Eucharistic sharing set Christians apart as unlike others.  The altar table pedestal facing our font quotes St Isaac of Nineveh:

“Did not the Lord share the table of tax collectors and harlots?

So then—do not distinguish between the worthy and unworthy.  All must be equal in your eyes to love and to serve.”

On the other hand, our setting reverses the relation in many recent buildings that locate the font as an entry passage toward the Eucharistic banquet space.  Our architectural plan expresses our sacramental custom, and both reverse widespread Christian order: we welcome all to communion at Jesus’ table, and invite any unbaptized to baptism afterward.  Today the “Open Table” or “Open Communion” spreads amid debate, as “conservatives” lament its break with two millennia of tradition, and “liberals” plead for welcome, acceptance, and openness more congenial with our age.  But our rationale at St Gregory’s differs from both parties, and rises instead from a revised reading of Jesus’ teaching ministry and death, to which we intend the same faithfulness that ancient Christians always intended.  We express that same faithfulness in a modern way, just as all churches without exception must do today.

MODERN HISTORY AND JESUS

The sociologist Peter Berger distinguished “modern” from traditional societies. In modern societies all is done by rational choice, not taken as given: therefore every choice demands explaining.[2]  (Let me sidestep the term “post-modern,” which suggests faster intellectual change than human society can demonstrably achieve.  The modern world began at the dawn of the Renaissance, and on Berger’s terms it is still going on.)

Moderns must criticize the past, not merely purge the past.  Our western sixteenth century Reformers preached faithfully against superstition wherever they saw it; yet while attacking superstition they mistakenly destroyed much that was beautiful, truthful, and indeed primitively Christian.  Today we must allow that Christians in every age have acted in faithfulness to Jesus’ teaching and example.  The architects of our received sacramental policy built for no other purpose.  Nevertheless, our knowledge of Jesus has shifted sharply today, and faithfulness to Jesus compels us to shift our practice too.  Otherwise we launch something that would shock our forebears: an anti-Jesus counter-revolution.

Over a century ago scripture critics began distinguishing the “historical” Jesus from the “Christ of faith” our written gospels portray.  At first their goal was “Positive History,” as the German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) put it, wie es eigentlich gewesen ist: tell the past as it really was.  This project produced a remote and puzzling Jesus, variously imaged from conflicting details.  But ancient writers prove poor sources for Positive History, not only from limits to their own knowledge but also from their evangelical intention to tell what they believe matters. Then as now, each interpreter chooses preferred colors for a portrait.  Every portrait, from the “scripturally conservative” to the most hypothetical, must be viewed and weighed for the modern sculpture it is.

It seems each new publication about Jesus’ time throws fresh darkness on the subject.  Etienne Nodet & Justin Taylor’s magisterial The Origins of Christianity (1998) recreates an anciently confused mixture.  These authors conclude, for example, that Jesus and John Baptist never met; and Rabbi Akiva, martyred hero of later Judaism, would on his own terms have been counted a Christian.  That was a murky era!  As New Testament critic H. Benedict Green, CR, put it: the more we learn, the more we must admit Jesus is a man we know very little about.

Trained historians keep sight of how little we know.  The Jesus Seminar in the USA has usefully publicized historical criticism of the gospels.  Yet I recall a presentation where one member proclaimed, “I think I know who the historical Jesus was; I just don’t like him very much.”  That critic was touted as a radical, but he was merely out of date.  No trained modern historian would claim both to know and dislike Napoleon, let alone a figure 2000 years dead who left only second-hand evidence behind.  Many thousands loved Napoleon, and many thousands hated him; but whether you and Napoleon would have liked each other is unavailable information, pure conjecture.  The historical Jesus is no different.

Even more challenging, the past is a country none today can visit.  Modern history-writing began when the Dutch art historian Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) studied the 15th century brothers Van Eyck, and the more he researched them, the farther away their world seemed, and stranger.  Huizinga wrote: “We, at the present day, can hardly understand the keenness with which a fur coat, a good fire on the hearth, a soft bed, a glass of wine, were formerly enjoyed.”[3]  That means the end of Positive History.  If even sensory experience cannot build us a bridge into past peoples’ lives, a historian must rely solely on what they choose to tell us.  And past peoples have no thought of talking with us—what can they know of the future?  Instead, they talk of their connection with their own past.  Human thought and behavior change slower than journalists propose, and our continuities typically outweigh our revolutions.  So first of all a modern historian searches for what ancient peoples say connects them with their own past.

Hence “conservatives” and reformers face the same challenge: the past is faraway from all, so all must give reasons for their choices.  And “conservative” ripostes that sainted ancient writers did not countenance the Open Table are doubly illusory. (1) No proponent claims that Justin Martyr or his successors favored the Open Table.  Evidence abounds that churches since the age of Apologists have required baptism before communion, at least normatively.  Nevertheless (2) I claim a stronger continuity with the ancients: our common loyalty to Jesus as our age knows him, and to theology based on scripture study first of all.  (It was Origen, long before Luther, who established that Christian theology is commentary upon scripture.) 

And scripture looks ever backward.  The gospel writers write much the way Chinese painters paint landscapes: with allusions to treasured past words and works, which they expect their public to recognize.  Gospel writers present Jesus’ sayings and his whole career in the light of his crucifixion, which was an unknown future for him, but well past for their readers; and they use the yet more distant written past to tell readers what Jesus meant.  We must look to Hebrew scripture first of all, in order to understand what the gospels say Jesus is saying.

Therefore Jesus’ own relation to scripture is crucial.  Some critics argue that because his parables refer regularly to agrarian life, Jesus must have been a peasant, and so illiterate.  Yet others point a few miles from Nazareth to the Galilean city of Sepphoris, a cosmopolitan center where a boy of peasant stock could readily have learned to read.  Synagogues even in small towns like Nazareth and Capernaum were places for study, before they were places for worship.  Jewish historians tell us scripture was their first textbook, and schoolboys memorized long passages much as boys do there in a muslim medrassah today.  Yet more important, internal gospel evidence supports Jesus’ awareness of sacred text.  And more than one parable turns on a question of literacy. 

For example, the Cheating Bailiff[4] can read: he helps illiterate peasants to forge new low-rent leases, and so to defraud their landlord, his former employer.  This parable, perhaps drawn from local events, was ethically disturbing enough to call for an editorial gloss at its end.  But the original can hardly be a story told by an illiterate for illiterates to hear.  Peasant folk tales exalt canny locals who outwit the educated by their native wiles; they do not hold up educated examples like the bailiff, whom illiterate peasants cannot imitate.

         Because Jesus’ parables often draw on well-known events or bear multiple interpretations, his relation to scripture is one area where we may hope to catch his own beliefs.  That enterprise is driven by more than scholarly curiosity.  Jesus holds authority among Christians that no historical figure holds in other religions.  Buddhists may recognize many teachers sharing equal standing.  Prince Siddartha Gautama launched Buddhism with his revolutionary insights about transience, attachment, asceticism, and enlightenment.  But there are many buddhas: you too can be one today.  And later jataka legends abound, telling the prince’s incarnations in far remoter antiquity, without compromising Buddhist teaching.  By contrast, the New Testament assigns Jesus unique authority; and the fifth century Council of Chalcedon likewise ruled that Jesus was not inspired like biblical authors—he speaks with God’s own voice.  Thus in Paul’s case we may modify or discard Paul’s talk about slavery, about women in church, about other matters.  But no Christian writer cavalierly corrects Jesus.  And no disagreement with Jesus will hold up long among his followers.  Correcting Jesus is out of the question for his Church. 

Jesus’ uniqueness has created problems for modern apologetic.  Above all, God’s Kingdom fills our scripture and our worship texts.  The 20th century opened with agreement among biblical scholars and liturgy reformers, that Jesus preached God’s future Kingdom would come soon, so his hearers must prepare to handle it.  The New Testament uses the metaphor parousia in Greek, or adventus in Latin: this was a regular administrative event, when a provincial governor came auditing tax returns, rewarding loyal officers, punishing treason, hearing appeals, and firming up public order.  Here was a ready image for the Hebrew tsedaqah, which throughout the bible means “God undoes our enemies and puts things right.”  First century Palestine abounded with groups preparing for God to come like a touring governor, finish off the wretched world order they knew, and put things right with the Jewish nation properly back on top.  Our biblical book of Revelation typifies their literature, with a few Christianizing paragraphs stitched in. So 20th century liturgists reformed our worship to restore this re-discovered eschatological emphasis on the future, assuming they were matching Jesus’ teaching.

But a dilemma arose once Schweitzer distinguished the Jesus of History from the Christ of Faith.  By 1975, Hans Küng’s On Being a Christian warned: modern Christians must come to terms with the fact that Jesus was wrong about the parousia.  The world did not end as Jesus had prophesied.  On the contrary, Roman imperial power thrived for fourteen centuries more, and embraced Jesus as its new official god.  Here was the profoundest challenge scientific research has made to Christian orthodoxy, far more threatening than evolution!  How could Christians hold faith in an incarnate Lord whose “messianic consciousness” was not only bizarre, but mistaken?  What further authority could we give him, seeing his favorite obsession disproved?  Assigning authority to an all-knowing Risen Christ of Faith (once the mistaken Jesus is gone) would contradict the gospels wholesale.  They were written expressly to tell us Who It Is That Is Here Now: so abandoning the historical Jesus would mean abandoning scripture too.

A decade later and to many scholars’ surprise, Schweitzer’s and Küng’s dilemma about correcting Jesus dissolved, and with it, a scholarly alliance on which liturgical renewal relied—though some old allies have not noticed.  In the 1960’s, British critics Norman Perrin and Reginald Fuller had overturned five decades of earlier argument by relegating all gospel futurism to Christian commentary (midrash).  During the next decades their opinion attained critical consensus. Unlike both Jesus’ contemporary teachers and his well-meaning gospel editors, Jesus himself never talked about the future.  Instead, Jesus preached the Kingdom come here and now, before we could possibly prepare or manage it. We must respond wisely, and just in time—otherwise fools will find it is already too late. Here comes God, ready or not![5]

JESUS’ PROPHETIC SIGN: A STUMBLING BLOCK

         For his distinctive message, Jesus chose a Sign.  The Hebrew word for a Sign is ’ôth; the Greek is sêmeion; but setting aside etymology and linguistic philosophy that fill many commentaries, we may observe how Hebrew prophets actually use Signs in scripture.  They use Signs to show people what God is doing, because people are dangerously failing to see it.  Jeremiah shatters a pot at the Jerusalem garbage dump, saying: this is what God will do with our nation unless our leaders change their plans.[6]  Jeremiah’s Sign does not begin magically to break up the nation; rather it is his urgent gesture to win people’s attention, so they will see what God is up to before it is tragically too late.[7]

For a prophetic Sign of his teaching that God comes here now, ready or not, Jesus took up an image from the prophet Isaiah, who envisioned a banquet where God’s chosen Hebrew people and the unclean heathen would dine together.[8]  Jesus began dining publicly with notoriously unqualified sinners, who were shunned by other religious reformers: a practice that above all led to his condemnation and death. 

Paul calls Jesus’ life and death a scandal, a term that likewise wants defining from usage.  The words Englished as “scandal” or “stumbling block”[9] denote a snare or trap.  But one singular Levitical instance became normative for the New Testament.  This was part of the Holiness Code, a text that Judah Goldin says all synagogue schoolboys memorized: “You shall not curse the deaf, nor lay a stumbling block before the blind. I am YHWH.”[10]  Nearly all references to a stumbling block in Hebrew and Greek scripture imply blindness.  When Jeremiah says, “I will lay a stumbling block before this people,” he is taunting them:  My people are blind![11]  New Testament writers use the verb “lay a stumbling block” thirty times, twice as often as the noun, echoing the Levitical meaning: those who take offense are tragically blind, and in danger.[12]  Terming Jesus’ ministry a scandal means people may fail to see what God is doing, despite Jesus’ Sign, and risk destruction, just as Jeremiah forewarned his nation they would be destroyed.  Jeremiah was ignored, and his people perished.  Gospel editors believed that had happened again to the first century Jewish nation who ignored Jesus’ Sign, when the Romans invaded and paved Jerusalem; and it will happen wherever people fail to see.

Like Jeremiah, Jesus chose a Sign to scandalize his nation.  In his day kosher food still lay in the future; ritual purity applied then to the diners, not to the food.  Palestine abounded in dining fellowships called chaburoth, each restricted by profession and by degrees of contamination through business contact with gentiles and non-observant Jews.  So Jesus chose that scandalous Sign for getting people’s attention before it was too late.  And that scandal continues wherever Jesus shows up today.  As the Lutheran writer Gordon Lathrop puts it: “Draw a line that includes us and excludes many others, and Jesus Christ is always on the other side of the line.  At least that is so if we are speaking of the biblical, historic Christ who eats with sinners and outsiders, who is made a curse and sin itself for us, who justifies the ungodly, and who is himself the hole in any system.”[13]

Some opponents of the Open Table deride its “mere acceptance” of unbaptized people.  P. Turner sees “a theological chasm…between those who hold a theology of divine acceptance and those who hold a theology of divine redemption.”[14]  But if such a chasm opens in popular piety, the gospel Sign does not point to it.  The presence of genuinely wrong and unacceptable people at the table was essential for Jesus’ Sign.  It fit his teaching perfectly.  The outstanding heroes of his authentic parables are criminals and pushy women.  Jesus’ criminals are real criminals: not to be rehabilitated by our “understanding” how they grew up oppressed or in dysfunctional families; not to be welcomed into our company in hopes they will change their ways.  In Jesus’ parables they never change their ways. 

JESUS’ CLAIM TO ORTHODOXY

         That is not to say Jesus thought himself a revolutionary.  One of his most famous parables shows quite the opposite: the Parable of the Pharisee & the Tax Collector,[15] which most “conservative” and “liberal” critics concur that Jesus authored. 

Despite common misreading and many commentaries, this parable does not set a hypocritical Pharisee against a repentant Tax Collector, as opposing models for our ethical choice.  Perhaps unique among the parables, this is a theological story-form comment (halakah) on Joel 2:13f, which lays out the Hebrew Scriptures’ doctrine of God.  When read on our Ash Wednesdays, that text is commonly mis-heard as an appeal to sorrow over our sins; but Joel means quite the opposite.   The Hebrew imagery “Tear your hearts, not your clothes” means: “Quit mourning over your deeds and your predicament, and instead change your plans,[16] and return to YHWH.  For he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love (chesed), and relents from punishing.”  The Hebrew editors carved a virtual woodblock from that text, and stamped it twelve times around their bible, sometimes bluntly overruling the earlier revanchist theology preserved alongside.[17] This is the Hebrew editors’ theology: therefore this is the true Old Testament doctrine of God. 

Jesus’ parable is ingenious.  It says God fixed things for the Tax Collector—just as the biblical tsedaqah means:God undoes our enemies and puts us back on top where we belong—whereas the Pharisee went home all unfixed, which is to say, doomed.

But not because of hypocrisy!  Hypocrites pretend to virtues they lack; but the Pharisee reports truthfully that he fasts twice in the week, and gives tithes of all he has.  Indeed, both his claims exceed the Torah’s commands, which mention no weekly fasting, and require tithes of only certain agricultural produce: a requirement that may have cost farmers up to 12% of their income, but cost merchants and rabbis like him practically nothing.  By contrast, the Tax Collector promises no change of life, no turning over a new leaf.  For all we know, this Tax Collector may have to gouge people as before, if only to make his living.  “Lord have mercy on me a sinner”—period.

Nevertheless in the light of Hebrew scripture’s doctrine of God, the Tax Collector is orthodox, and the Pharisee is not.  The Tax Collector tells the essential two truths that Joel and the bible’s editors teach: he is a sinner; and God has chesed, the strong love that sticks with people no matter what.  (As in “You’ll always be my child, no matter what you do.”)  By contrast, the Pharisee tells two lies, which he wrongly if earnestly believes: (1) that his virtues make him “not like others” in God’s eyes; and (2) that God achieved this difference, for which the Pharisee can give thanks.  Whereas the true God observes no differences among human beings,[18] and God has chesed for all.  The Tax Collector’s truth-telling is all God requires, to put things right for him. But God will not work with lies, so the Pharisee dooms himself. 

The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector represents the core of Old Testament Theology, as stamped twelve times around the Hebrew bible.  So if Jesus is its author, he cannot be an illiterate peasant, as some critics theorize, because the author knows Hebrew scripture more intimately than scholars do who fail to recognize his crucial theological allusion.  But the parable implies more: like the Tax Collector, its author is orthodox, and his opponents are not.  He is loyal to biblical tradition, and they are not.  He is the conservative, his opponents are the wrongheaded innovators.  Some scholars wonder if Jesus may have been a Pharisee, though of a different stripe than later Judaism would recognize.  In any case, if Jesus is the author of this parable—as historical critics and their “conservative” opponents concur—then Jesus’ dining with impure and unqualified sinners lays his insistent claim to biblical orthodoxy.  His Sign comes directly from Hebrew scripture itself, in the prophecy of Isaiah, unlike widespread chaburah practice.  And it upholds the well-published Old Testament doctrine of God, in contrast with the puristic movements of Jesus’ own time. 

How remarkable, then, that later Jewish usage followed Jesus’ example better than his Church did!  Rabbis soon shifted their focus from the purity of the diners, to the purity of their dinner foods—and the kosher kitchen was born.  Today all but ultra-orthodox Jews welcome non-Jews to their tables, while Christians cannot agree formally to eat with each other; instead, we mimic Jesus’ opponents, with their various chaburoth for diners variously purified.  Worse yet, if Jesus’ claim to biblical orthodoxy has merit, Christians are defying the bible’s theology wholesale.  Then in what sense can we call our official closed-communion policy traditional?  Recent essays deploring the Open Table appeal to ancient theologians who indeed required baptism before communion; and a few writers side with those for institutional reasons, against Jesus’ radical Sign of biblical orthodoxy.  But not one of those ancient Christian authorities would ever have done so.  Their purpose was to follow Jesus fully; and their arguments appeal to scripture first, as every Christian theological argument must. 

Welcome, acceptance, and openness are all important to the gospel.  But the current debate about such virtues’ rightful place within Eucharistic discipline sidesteps the main point.  It is as though after Jeremiah broke the pot at the garbage dump, the faithful had debated for 2500 years How God Wants Us To Recycle Trash.  (Who should take the trash where? Who may receive it?  Who should say what words?)  Like the virtue of hospitality, recycling is important: it shows our respect for the environment and our responsibility toward Mother Earth, and may impact our chances for a human future on this planet.  But recycling was hardly the point of Jeremiah’s Sign.  Likewise, welcoming strangers and telling them God loves them, and building community, and growing bigger and more effective ministries, are all fine things; moreover they yield moving stories about people introduced to communion for the first time.  Sara Miles’ book Take This Bread: a Radical Conversion (2008) recounts her change from atheism upon first communion at St Gregory’s, and the feeding ministry she founded in response.  But these were not the chief point of Jesus’ Sign.  His point was: God is reconciling people who scarcely imagine how they belong together, and making peace among them—God is doing this everywhere in the world, not just in churches—and if we do not join in with what God is doing, we are headed for disaster.

         Talk of Jesus’ own orthodoxy, and Christian and Jewish inheritance from it, raises the question of faith.  Classical theory requires faith for effectually sharing Christian sacraments, and Open Table advocates properly address this requirement by examining faith in scripture.  New Testament writers present faith more simply than later doctrinal formulae will do.  Paul’s faith might fairly be summed up as trusting God the way Abraham and  Jesus did, while the gospels later nuance that concept to fit their community experience.  Simple doctrinal declarations do appear in gospel midrash, yet declarers are never rewarded with promotion among the disciples.  Indeed Matthew’s gospel has Jesus say that correct belief is wholly a gift from God, not anything humans can provide.[19]  Where faith does explicitly earn a reward, as in the healing stories, it bears no relation to doctrine.  The Samaritan Leper and the Syro-Phoenician Woman (a Philistine) are both traditional enemies of Jewish religion; the Roman Centurion is purposely distinguished from believing Jews.[20]

In gospel midrash faith shows up instead as a conviction that Jesus has something people want, which they seize aggressively. Matthew reports a saying likely authentically by Jesus, “from John the Baptist until now…violent people have taken the kingdom by force.”[21]  Luke’s Zacchaeus midrash expands that saying through a precisely constructed story.[22] The loathed tax collector Zacchaeus responds immediately to an arriving opportunity, much as the parables’ heroes do; he acts aggressively, as the healing stories teach; Jesus invites Zacchaeus unconditionally, to the crowd’s blind consternation; he responds as the prophet Joel would have him do—not with tears, but a change of life plans.  Here is Luke’s portrait of his own church, faithful at once to Jesus’ teaching and the core of Hebrew scripture. 

Luke’s church portrait adds an ethical nuance further inferred from the prophet: Zacchaeus responds to Jesus’ dinner invitation as the parables’ heroes do not, by an absurdly generous plan that he cannot credibly fulfill.  Yet Jesus thereupon declares his salvation, since human ethical success cannot measure out God’s chesed.  Luke’s church expects a change of plans will result from Eucharistic fellowship, though never properly earn it, because without such a change of plans, successful or not, Joel’s prophecy spells our doom.  That is why the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns against “cheap grace:” a fatal error that consists not in taking salvific gifts undeservedly (what Lutheran would object to that?) but failing to change one’s life direction in faithful response to God’s free gift. 

More cheerfully, Luther’s Shorter Catechism holds that the essential action of baptism is not the water bath, but the progress in virtuous living that follows it.  And even in baptism, where faith is a central issue, correct doctrine is not a primary condition for entrance.  In many baptismal services composed since the New Zealand Prayer Book of 1989, following early Christian ritual texts, doctrinal faith profession follows the water bath and anointing, and is voiced by the whole community—not offered by candidates as a condition for acceptance.  Might not the same be said of Eucharistic sharing?  What more faith can be required of sharers than the aggressive desire which Zacchaeus exemplifies, and newcomers show as they communicate at St Gregory’s Church for the first time in their lives?

FORGIVE US AS WE HAVE FORGIVEN

John Patton bases his revolutionary work, Is Human Forgiveness Possible? A Pastoral Care Perspective, (1985) on many years’ experience guiding people through forgiveness processes.  He argues the Church makes a mistake by urging people to forgive, and so adding a hard obligation to their sense of injury.  Whereas in practice, he finds forgiveness involves discovering that you have forgiven people and given up your desire to be separate from them—

“Understanding human forgiveness not as doing something but as discovering something—that I am more like those who have hurt me than different from them.  I am able to forgive when I discover that I am in no position to forgive.  Although the experience of God’s forgiveness may involve confession of and the sense of being forgiven for specific sins, at its heart it is the recognition of my reception into the community of sinners—those affirmed by God as his children.”[23]

From Patton’s perspective we may remark the line in the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (perfect tense in Matthew).[24]

Yet more radical than Rowan Williams’ well-meant praise for  “the meals that Jesus shared with outcasts and sinners to show that God was ready to welcome and forgive them,”[25] Jesus’ scandalous meals were Signs that God has forgiven all humanity and holds no desire to be apart from us.  Today when we watch people whom we think unworthy join our eucharistic gathering, instead of our telling ourselves we were mistaken about these folks, and should reconsider how they deserve inclusion—we had rather think: these are real, nasty, active sinners, and God sees no difference between them and me.  I am just like them.  So I hereby abandon my desire to be separate from them.

No chasm yawns here between acceptance and redemption.  It is not sinners we accept, but the world which God has already forgiven and redeemed.  We can rightly embrace Turner’s preferred “theology of redemption,” if we recall what that biblical metaphor means.  Redemption means paying off other people’s compounded debts without their help because they are fiscally or morally bankrupt and absolutely cannot quit them—not because they have reformed and become a better risk now, and should get a second chance.  They are not reformed.  Neither are you who read this.  Let me list some of my own qualifications for this Eucharistic feast, which your lives surely mirror.  You are a pack of lying, cheating, thieving, treacherous snobs; you are misogynist, misandric, homophobic, racist, ageist hypocrites: just like me.  No changes.  Psychology Today magazine says the average American tells over 900 lies a day.  “Lovely to see you!” “I’m doing just great, thanks!”  “I’ll be there in a minute!”  At Jesus’ table we liars eat together, offering nothing.  Not our repentance; not our frail New Years’ Resolutions, which neither God nor Jesus has ever credited; not our little moral improvements; nothing.  God does all that happens there.

STILL THE RIGHT SCANDAL FOR OUR DAY

Today as in Jesus’ day, the Eucharistic Table is a Sign of what God is doing everywhere, that the world otherwise tragically fails to see.  Yet the world offers no other answer, and God’s answer is urgent.  Consider the terrorist bombs that blew up the muslim golden-domed shrine in Iraq only a few years ago: that shrine was sacred to both Shi’a and Sunni; indeed the imam buried there had prayed his tomb would be a refuge of reconciliation to both.  The terrorist bombs were unanswerable, un-repayable, un-solvable.  No option remains but forgiveness.  That is our world, the world God has already forgiven and completely reconciled to God’s self.

 

In our liturgy, Jesus’ Open Table feeds all the genuinely wrong guests together.  This banquet serves for more than making people feel accepted.  It serves for more than building community.  It serves for more than church growth.  It serves for more than sharing gifts that baptized Christians can have, or faithful Trinitarians can have, or sanctified and morally improved converts can have.  Jesus’ Open Table remains today a scandal, a stumbling-block thrown down on our path, to teach a blind and reeling world what God is doing everywhere in this world, before it is too—damned—late.

If my argument offends in any way, please savor in your imagination the offense which Jesus’ Sign caused then.  He knew the self-dooming took offense: “blessed is anyone who does not stumble blindly over me.”[26]  Not that Jesus was an unfeeling man, or a social iconoclast.  Rather, Jesus was importunate.  Importunity means demanding attention boldly at the worst possible time, in order to gain what you cannot gain politely.  For example, after you have ignored monthly bills and phone messages, a bold creditor might importune you in the public street to pay your bill, hoping that your embarrassment will force you to pay up, as your self-respect did not.

In Jesus’ parables, importunity always works.  A neighbor pounds on your door at night to borrow food, betting correctly you will jump out of bed before he wakes your household;[27] a poor widow screams at a corrupt judge in open court, until he grants her justice without his customary bribe;[28] a hungry child demands bread and gets it;[29] violent people storm into the kingdom.[30]  In the gospel midrash a blind man shouts politically dangerous titles ever louder over the disciples’ protests until Jesus heals him;[31] and a bleeding woman successfully grasps her healer’s robe, when she knows she is ritually impure.[32]  By contrast, in real life prophetic importunity is always risky: Jeremiah was shut up (in every sense) in a dry well.  Likewise, Jesus could have welcomed sinners discretely, politely, stating his rationale in conventional form—but that would have undone his purpose, which was to seize his nation’s attention and show them what God was up to while they remained tragically blind.  So Jesus chose to make a scandal: importunate, deliberate, and fatal for himself. 

The banquet we keep to remember him is almost a happy historical accident.  What if the religious custom of Jesus’ time had allowed everyone to dine together without distinction?  Would Jesus have had to search the scriptures for some other scandalous Sign to win people’s attention?  Then what would we be doing today in his memory?  If not eating and drinking together as Isaiah dreamt, then marrying prostitutes like Hosea?  (Jesus’ company included whores.)  Or like Jeremiah, burying our dirty underwear and digging it up a week later as a Sign of the Resurrection for all to wear?  Christians are lucky the aberrations of Jesus’ time suggested such an agreeable Sign instead, for him to make a scandal of, and for us to carry onward!

Textual criticism undercuts an alternative interpretation favored by some opponents of the Open Table: that the Last Supper differed from Jesus’ suppers with whores and greedy villains.  At his Last Supper, so that argument runs, Jesus dined with his close disciples only, and the Eucharist is properly celebrated thus, with only the qualified present.  (This argument is also raised against the liturgical presidency of women.)

Certainly there was a last Supper, but New Testament evidence does not tell us what happened there.  John describes no eating or drinking ritual; synoptic accounts merely copy Paul’s first Corinthian letter, written years earlier.[33]  There Paul reports what Christians told him at Antioch when he visited, about what they were doing in Jesus’ memory.[34]  Based on Paul’s report, scholars have debated Gregory Dix’s question[35] whether the Last Supper and our Eucharist derived from the Passover Seder or the chaburah friendship meal—both of which we know today only from later sources.  But recent Jewish scholarship has killed that debate.  All four documented dinner ceremonies represent historical stages of one evolving ritual: the Hellenistic symposium banquet, which is not Jewish at all.  With each successive stage, organized teaching about symbolic meanings moved earlier into the ritual: thus today’s Passover Seder represents the final stage. 

By Paul’s report, Christians at Antioch were keeping that Hellenistic ritual at a stage halfway along the development line, with the bread explained symbolically at dinner’s start, and the cup and remaining teaching still given afterward.  Thus the Antiochenes imported their memorial of Jesus into a Hellenistic banquet order they already knew.  We learn nothing about what ritual Jesus himself followed at any supper, including his last: that might have been Hellenistic, but we have no reason to presume so.  Paul is not concerned with rite anyway.  He adduces the Antiochenes’ Last Supper story to bolster his message that Christians should share their food.  You stupid Corinthians who will not share are failing to perceive Christ’s body in this company present right here.  You are blind to the Sign right before you, and blindness will mean your ruin.  Paul’s logic focuses on this company, this meal; not Jesus’ last. 

THE OPEN TABLE AND BAPTISM

Entering the doors at St Gregory Nyssen, San Francisco, every newcomer sees Jesus’ table nearby awaiting all, and the baptismal font sunlit beyond it.  During the liturgy most people accept our communion invitation, some for the first time ever; and through thirty years and two successive rectorships, any unbaptized who return to communicate regularly have asked for baptism soon.  (An exception is Jewish spouses in mixed marriages: some communicate, some never do; but we do not press Jews to be baptized.)[36]

While this pattern obviously reverses the traditional relation of baptism to eucharist, it also induces us to tell newcomers why we encourage their baptism.  The same challenge faces every church in our modern world, where every choice requires a reason.  The oft-heard title “Christian Initiation” is not ancient; it appeared first in Counter-Reformation ritual books,[37] marking a table fellowship bounded by dogmatic formulae—whereas today’s newcomers already participate there in growing pastoral practice.  Moreover, secular initiatory outfits like Freemasons and Oddfellows, hugely popular during the nineteenth century, are declining today while eucharistic participation is on the rise.  Even apart from historical research into Jesus’ ministry, churches have good reason now to make the eucharist our formal Christian incorporation rite, as Nathan Mitchell suggests.[38]

Fortunately, the rich history of Christian sacramental life offers more appealing symbols for summoning folks to baptism.  “Illumination” appears widely in early documents, and light imagery has renewed modern churches’ baptismal rituals.  St Ephrem’s title “Fire on the Water” evokes early Syrian processions to the river, and St Gregory’s Church processions to our rocky font, with the whole congregation carrying candles: a participatory action involving all in doing the baptizing.  More than an appealing style choice, congregational participation points up an important shift in sacramental theory, and the right relation between baptism and eucharist, however we order them.  George McCauley, SJ, observes that Christian sacramental talk has been skewed for centuries by focusing on what worshippers receive, rather than what the Church does in Jesus’ Spirit and after his example.  Talk about communion has slid into disputes over the diners’ fitness to receive grace that God actually gives for free: these disputes direct attention away from the Church’s evangelical task, which is to hold Jesus high in the whole world’s view. 

It is important that newcomers experience welcome at Jesus’ table—yet more important, even essential, for Christians to do the welcoming that Jesus himself did.  Early Apologists emphasize our forebears’ actions, quoting pagan observers: “See how these Christians love one another!”  Jesus’ Open Table was his way of showing the world what divine chesed means.  So after welcoming newcomers to dine with us at St Gregory’s, we invite them to re-create Jesus’ welcome for friends and neighbors like themselves.  Embracing baptism they go beyond being blessed recipients, and in Jesus’ name they join our mission of welcoming the whole humanity God has redeemed, by holding up Jesus’ Sign—and a hundred more ministries in his Spirit—for a blind world to see, and change its plans.  The Open Table serves for their incorporation; baptism serves next—and urgently—for their enrollment. 

Newcomers’ surprised joy at being welcomed must quickly become visible joy in welcoming, or Christian mission fails.  Northern Hemisphere churches can no longer presume outsiders’ esteem such as the Apologists once claimed.  Our contemporaries dismiss our sincerity, our competence, our relevance to everyday life.  Their visit to a Sunday or wedding or funeral liturgy is virtually the only time outsiders will see for themselves what the Church is up to, and what we believe God is up to.  There above all we must uphold Jesus’ Sign of God’s free welcome to a lost world that God has already forgiven and reconciled.  Friedrich Nietzsche, a Lutheran pastor’s son, put bluntly today’s evangelical charge for the faithful inside church and out:

“Christians should look more redeemed.”


[1] Luke 15:2.  The Greek houtos alone is pejorative and dismissive.

[2] Berger’s example: at Ujamaa villages the Tanzanian government has collected tribes too small to thrive alone, into cooperative villages.  The village councils like to choose days when the various tribes dance their dances for each other, as a way of fostering mutual understanding among people who may not share the same language.  Here Berger finds all the elements of modernness.  Beforehand, people danced their dances because these inevitably had to be danced: when the moon rose; when the crops came in.  But now they were danced at a time and for a reason chosen by the village council—who could conceivably choose not to dance at all.  Beforehand, the whole people danced; there was no audience, except perhaps the gods.  But now they danced for an audience of their fellow villagers to watch and learn.  Berger concludes, “In sum, even if the motions of the dances remained unaltered in every detail, they would now no longer be the same dances; dancing then and dancing now are two drastically different activities.”  [Berger, P., Pyramids of Sacrifice: Political Ethic and Social Change, Basic Books, New York, 1974, p.170.]

[3] The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919). Huizinga’s opening deserves quoting fully:

“To the world when it was half a thousand years younger, the outlines of all things seemed more clearly marked than to us. The contrast between suffering and joy, between adversity and happiness, appeared more striking.  All experience had yet to the minds of men the directness and absoluteness of the pleasure and pain of child-life.  Every event, every action, was still embodied in expressive and solemn forms, which raised them to the dignity of a ritual.  For it was not merely the great facts of birth, marriage and death which, by the sacredness of the sacrament, were raised to the rank of mysteries; incidents of less importance, like a journey, a task, a visit, were equally attended by a thousand formalities: benedictions, ceremonies, formulae.

“Calamities and indigence were more afflicting than at present; it was more difficult to guard against them, and to find solace.  Illness and health presented a more striking contrast; the cold and darkness of winter were more real evils.  Honours and riches were relished with greater avidity and contrasted more vividly with surrounding misery.  We, at the present day, can hardly understand the keenness with which a fur coat, a good fire on the hearth, a soft bed, a glass of wine, were formerly enjoyed.”

(F. Hopman translation, 1924, republished Dover, 1999.)

[4] Luke 16:1ff.

[5] Frederick Borsch once lamented to me how swiftly the majority sided with Perrin & Fuller, rejecting Borsch’s work along with others’.  Yet writers in allied areas have missed or ignored this about-face.  Twenty years on, Fuller lamented in turn that New Testament discourse had become schizophrenic, with Paulist critics still trumpeting futurism as the fundamental view Jesus and Paul shared, even while gospel critics methodically pared it away.  And liturgists continue today writing futurist prayers and formulae like “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”—apparently unaware that from today’s New Testament critical majority viewpoint, focusing Christian aspirations on a future climax contradicts the distinctive teaching of Jesus himself.

[6] Jeremiah 19.

[7] Today’s best secular analogy is “Titanic” films.  Except for a recent romantic hit, nearly all contain the same scene.  On the ship’s bridge officers peer ahead into the fog, seeing nothing.  The cameras pan down the side of the ship to the water.  There little ice cubes float by—and the orchestra celli sound “hmmmm!”  Those ice cubes are a Sign.  Moviegoers know they show what is coming and is already here, while the fog-blinded crew disastrously cannot see it.  (The fact that Titanic actually sank on a clear night is mere history!)

[8] Isaiah 25:6ff.

[9] Hebrew mikshol/makshelah andGreek skándalon or próskomma—these words occur interchangeably.

[10] Leviticus 19:14.

[11] Jeremiah 6:21.

[12] See 1 Corinthians 1:23, 8:9.  Romans 9:32f, 11:9.  Revelation 2:14.

[13] Gordon Lathrop, Holy Ground: a Liturgical Cosmology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press 2003) pg. 64f.  Cited also in Thomas O’Loughlin, “The Eucharist as ‘The Meal That Should Be’” Worship, Vol. 80 No. 1, January 2006.

[14] Philip Turner, “An unworkable theology,” First Things, vol.154, June/July 2005.

[15] Luke 18:10ff.

[16] In the Hebrew biblethe heart (lëv) is not the seat of our emotions: those reside in the kidneys, nose and other body parts; lëv is where we make plans.  Hence the Greek Septuagint regularly translates lëv as nous.

[17] See Exodus 34:6 and Numbers 14:18, where the older theology of God’s implacable and endless vengeance follows directly: the editors preserved that text while stamping their revision literally on top.

[18] By contrast, popular religion believed riches and power were marks of God’s favor: hence warnings at Colossians 3:25, Romans 2:11, Ephesians 6:9, James 2:1, 1 Peter 1:17.  See also Acts 10:34, where Peter congratulates a pagan centurion: Ep’ alêtheias katalambanomai oti ouk estin prosôpolêmptês o theos.

[19] Matthew 16:17

[20] Luke 17:19, Matthew 15:28, Matthew 8:6 // Luke 5:10.

[21] Matthew 11:12.

[22] Luke 19:1ff.

[23] J.Patton, op.cit., ad finem. Italics original.

[24] Matthew 6:12.

[25] Ursula Hashem cites R. Williams, “Lecture delivered by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the Islamic University, Islamabad” ACNS: 4081. Lambeth, 23/11/05.

[26] Matthew 11:6 // Luke 7:23 in Greek: makarios estin hos ean mê skandalisthêien emoi.

[27] Luke 11:6ff.

[28] Luke 18:1ff.

[29] Matthew 7:9.

[30] Matthew 11:12.

[31] Mark 10:45ff, Luke 18:35ff.

[32] Mark 5:25ff.

[33] 1 Corinthians 11:20ff.

[34] My late friend Thomas Talley thus interpreted Acts 11:26.  Nevertheless Talley opposed Open Communion today as a threat to ecumenical consensus.

[35] The Shape of the Liturgy, 1945.

[36] Jews’ participation at Jesus’ table today is always conscientious, and so is properly for them, not for Christians to regulate.  When touring with museum groups in Asia I always announce at Saturday supper that I will celebrate the Divine Liturgy early next morning for all who wish to share.  Many Jewish tour members come to pray and make their communion, while the baptized Christians mostly stay in bed.

[37] Harald Buchinger cites Pierre-Marie Gy, “La notion chrétienne d’initiation,” Le Maison Dieu 132 (1977), pp 35-36, reprinted in La Liturgie dans l’histoire, Paris Cerf (1990), pp 17-39.

[38] [38] N.D. Mitchell, Eucharist as a Sacrament of Initiation, 2003.