Before starting to read this chapter ask yourself or share with friends: What are the most important things to attend to when preparing a dinner. Do I find the Eucharist nourishing for my spirit? In what ways?
Where Jesus Was Coming from – an Exclusive Society
A feature of Luke’s gospel is the surprising number of meals that Jesus shared. In every chapter, he seems to be either going to a meal, having a meal or coming away from a meal! Meals were important to Jesus as they are to us. Ideally, at the end of the day, the family sits around the table to enjoy dinner together. Sadly, this is happening less and less because of the many activities that family members are involved in and the dominance of the TV.
When people do come together for a meal, it’s not just to nourish their bodies but to enjoy each other’s company, to build up their relationships, to share what’s been happening in their lives. Food gives life, so the sharing of food is the sharing of life. Jesus invites us to share in his divine life when we accept the sacred food he provides for us.
Jesus ate meals with people of all levels of society though he showed a preference for eating with the lowest classes. Not only was this most unusual it was breaking one of the strict taboos of Jewish culture.
Jewish society had many classes, from the lowliest beggars to the Church and state rulers: the chief priests, the elders, the Pharisees. The Pharisees were very strict observers of all 600 or so of the laws. Breaking even minor laws made you ritually unclean and prevented you from taking part in temple worship until you were ritually cleansed. Eating with sinners made you ritually unclean. And it was assumed that if you were disabled, it was because of sin. The disciples asked Jesus once
Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? (John 9:2)
The link between disability and sin was deeply embedded in the culture, but Jesus rejected this assumption.
Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. (John 9:3)
Priests of the Old Testament (Aaron and his descendants) were required to be physically whole.
The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to Aaron and say: No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. (Leviticus 21:16–20)
This is the mind-set that Jesus was coming from. But Jesus blew apart this exclusivity by inviting to his meals those who were usually on the ‘don’t invite’ list.
And what did people think of this behaviour? Jesus reported to the crowds how neither the austerity of John the Baptist nor his own openness to all pleased ‘this generation’.
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Matthew 11:18–19)
The phrase ‘a glutton and a drunkard’ has a history. According to Old Testament law, a son who was stubborn, rebellious and disobedient had to be taken to the town gates and the parents had to say to the elders
“This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard”. Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear and be afraid. (Deuteronomy 21:18–21)
Tough times! Dominated by severe, exclusive laws! By knowing something of this background, knowing where Jesus was coming from, we get an idea of how utterly revolutionary Jesus was in eating with sinners and the disabled. By eating with the outcasts of society, Jesus was departing radically from the customs handed down for generations and he was putting himself at risk from the guardians of the law.
… in Luke’s Gospel Jesus got himself crucified by the way he ate. (Robert J.Karris, Luke:Artist and Theologian, Paulist Press, 1985, quoted in LITE Training Program, p.7)
Luke’s Gospel – One Meal after Another
The theme of meals permeates Luke’s gospel from beginning to end. In the story of the birth of Jesus, Luke has angels appearing to shepherds to tell them about the birth of the Messiah and saying to them
This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:12)
A sign of what? The manger was a feeding box for animals, so the infant Jesus is shown as food for creation from the moment of his birth. The word that Luke uses here for ‘wrapped’ is also the word he uses when he says that after Jesus died his body was ‘wrapped’ in a linen cloth. In connecting Jesus’ death to his birth in this inclusive way Luke reinforces the idea that Jesus’ whole life is God’s food for a hungry creation.
In Luke, the first meal recorded is ‘a great banquet’ with ‘a large crowd of tax collectors and others’ hosted by Levi, the tax collector, whom Jesus had called to follow him. It was at this meal the Pharisees and scribes complained about Jesus eating ‘with tax collectors and sinners’. To this Jesus replied
I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance. (Luke 5:27–32).
Meal times seemed to be favourite occasions for Jesus’ ministry. It was during a meal at a Pharisees’ house that ‘a woman who was a sinner’ intruded into the exclusive company and dared to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and wipe them with her hair. (Luke 7:36–50) The Pharisee host was indignant that Jesus would allow the sinful woman to touch him but Jesus rebuked him for his lack of hospitality and commended the woman ‘for showing great love’ and said to her ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace’.
In a parable about a king who provides a reception for his son’s wedding, Jesus tells us the reign of God will be like a banquet. When the invited guests did not turn up, the king said to his slaves
“Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet”. Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. (Matthew 22:1–10)
The kingdom of God begins in this world and comes to its fullness in the next. I see the Eucharist as a banquet with guests ‘both good and bad’, that is, those who have matured in their quest to be faithful as well as ‘the battlers’ who struggle but frequently fail. And I see this as an anticipation of the fullness of the kingdom in the next world. In my imagination I see a vast crowd of people including my own relatives and friends ‘up there’, enjoying themselves immensely around huge tables laden with wonderful food and drink. If you think my imagination is running away with me, read John’s vision of heaven:
Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready; to her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure” – for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb”. (Revelation 19:6–9)
The Last Supper was the culmination of the sequence of meals that Jesus shared as a prominent and distinctive feature of his time of ministry, and it was during this final meal that Jesus instituted the Eucharistic banquet from which we draw nourishment for our spiritual journey and in which we share his company.
Eucharist as Food
The Eucharist is the primary way that Jesus gives himself to us as food: first, in the liturgy of the Word, teachings that we take in and digest. Jesus’ wisdom nourishes our spirits and shows us the way forward step by step. Jesus’ teachings are so universal they can apply to any era with only some modification for the culture. The gospel reading at Mass provides rich food for our spirits and close attention ensures we don’t miss any crumbs. Private reading of the following Sunday’s gospel and discussion with a few other parishioners or friends would contribute immensely to a better assimilation of the meal – pre-dinner drinks with nibbles!
Then in the liturgy of the Eucharist, a sacred meal of bread and wine is laid out for us on the table. The prayers make this clear. The Preface of the Holy Eucharist I says
As we eat his flesh that was sacrificed for us, we are made strong, and as we drink his Blood that was poured out for us, we are washed clean.
The feeding of the five thousand with five loaves and two fish was a powerful sign of Jesus’ ability to nourish his people and anticipates the gift of the Eucharist. In John’s gospel this event is followed by a long discourse in which Jesus strongly asserts his power to feed. (John 6)
A detailed commentary on this rich but complex chapter is beyond the scope of this book, so I will limit myself to a few remarks. Jesus chides the people for chasing him around the lake because they wanted more of the free food that Jesus had given them. He says
Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. (v. 27)
He tries to lift their aspirations from the material to a spiritual level, and encourages them to believe in him, but the people ask for a sign, a work to warrant believing in him and they remind him their ancestors ate manna in the wilderness. Jesus replies it was not Moses who gave this ‘bread from heaven’ but God, and God would give them ‘the true bread from heaven’.
He then tells them
I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (v.35)
What an audacious and momentous statement!
No longer will Moses, the manna, Wisdom or Torah [Jewish law] provide sufficient nourishment. Jesus, the bread of life, will satisfy the deepest needs of humankind, all hunger and all thirst. (Francis J. Moloney SDB, The Gospel of John, Sacra Pagina series, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville USA, 1998, p.214)
By saying ‘whoever comes to me’ Jesus is again breaking down Jewish exclusivity; Jesus is food for the world. Jesus points out that those who ate the manna, even Moses himself, are now dead, but those who eat the bread that Jesus gives will have eternal life.
We need to be careful not to understand everything in this discourse as relating to the Eucharistic bread. Throughout the discourse there is a broader dimension: Jesus’ whole life and teaching are spiritual food. In verse 51 Jesus says
The bread that I shall give is my flesh for the life of the world.
Behind the Eucharistic language the interpretation given here is Jesus’ self-gift for the life of the world. (p.220)
Jesus was giving this discourse while teaching at the synagogue in Capernaum (verse 59) during Passover time (verse 4). It will be at another Passover meal that Jesus will fulfil his promise of giving people his body to eat and his blood to drink when he institutes the Eucharist.
When reading this chapter, and indeed, any part of the Bible, we have to understand the translation of words from Hebrew, Greek and other ancient languages is quite hazardous. We can be easily misled when we presume the literal meaning of the words. Just a few examples: ‘body’ in English means the physical body, whereas in Scripture it often means the whole person. ‘Blood’ often refers to life as there is no life without blood. Sometimes, as with Jesus at the Last Supper, it refers to a person losing their life by the shedding of their blood, that is, someone who is going to die.
Both ‘flesh’ and ‘blood’ can refer to what is worldly as opposed to what is spiritual. We find this when Jesus commends Peter for his answer to Jesus’ question ‘Who do you say I am?’ Jesus said
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. (Matthew 16:17)
We need to take special care when reading John as he likes to be poetic and metaphorical. ‘Bread’ can refer to wisdom as in ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed’. (Proverbs 9:5) Jesus’ teachings are full of wisdom, how to live a fulfilled life, and we understand he is sometimes using the word ‘bread’ in this way.
Jesus is the Bread of Life in the sense that his revelation constitutes teaching by God (v.45), so that one must believe in the Son to have eternal life. (Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, Doubleday, New York, 1996, p.346)
The great Indian leader Gandhi once said
If God were to appear to starving people, he wouldn’t dare appear in any form other than food.
Our human spirit cries out for nourishment just as our bodies crave daily food and our minds thirst for education. The Eucharist is the spiritual nourishment that Jesus provides.