A Drunkard and a Glutton
Did they laugh, I wonder, or smile? The occasions when Jesus shared a meal with His disciples must usually have been happy occasions, though not without a sense that Jesus was there as their teacher, their Master. But on this occasion?
Jesus had realised that the time had come for Him to leave this world and return to the Father. He loved these men who were His own, and He loved them to the end. "With all my heart I have longed to eat this Passover with you before the time comes for me to suffer."
Then, knowing that the Father had put everything into His hands, that He had come from God and was going to God, He got up from the table... and put a towel round His waist and took a bowl of water, and began to wash the disciples' feet.
He came to Peter, who refused. "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?... You must never wash my feet!" "Unless you let me wash you, Peter, you cannot be my true partner."
"Then Lord, please, not just my feet but my hands and my face as well!" How typical of Peter! How hasty a reaction! How humble and loyal! And then, how impulsive, from one extreme to the other.
The other disciples looked at one another. Peter was doing it again, trust him to be an embarrassment to them. Did they, on this solemn occasion, exchange a quiet smile? Did they even laugh? (John 13)
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The high, holy and serious purpose of Jesus in coming into the world might seem to conflict with the methods He used in drawing all men to Himself. There is no doubting the serious purpose. "All creation took place through Him... in Him appeared life… the light of mankind. The light still shines in the darkness.... Wherever men did accept Him He gave them the power to become sons of God". … "Come to me, all of you who are weary and over-burdened, and I will give you rest.... I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. My yoke is easy, my burden is light." The Word came as a human being, into a world where He could be rejected. For some people, whatever He might do would be wrong. John the Baptist had come in the strictest austerity, and people said he was crazy. "Then the Son of Man came, enjoying life, and people say 'Look, a drunkard and a glutton'." (John 1. Matthew 11)
There were various occasions when Jesus went to parties, or enjoyed a social gathering. The first and most notable recorded in the gospels is the wedding at Cana. This revealed the turning point in Jesus' life which had just occurred, marked by His baptism. It was a family occasion, similar to other weddings which must have occurred in past years, when Jesus was at Mary's right hand. So it was no surprise when the problem about the wine arose that she should turn to Him, invoking their customary alliance. "Ask Jesus, He'll sort it." Judging by His words, Jesus was no longer willing to get involved. But Mary knew better, and told the servants to do whatever he might say.
He did solve the problem, but the action marked an end as well as a new beginning. For Jesus had left home, He had moved on, and came to the wedding with some of His new disciples. The miracle with the wine was not just a kindly helpful deed to meet the family's social responsibilities, not just the provision of best liquor at a cheerful party. It was a token of what His coming ministry would mean: practical love in action; power expressed in miracles; something far better than people had experienced before; new wine, that would transform society if the Jewish people could accept it. In the immediate situation, Jesus' disciples saw what He had done, and believed in Him, and hoped for more. (John 2)
Another notable social occasion followed the call of Levi (Matthew). As Levi sat in his tax office, Jesus had looked him in the face, and said "Follow me"; which he did. He left behind all the paraphernalia of the tax business, but he still had his own house, and there he gave a reception for Jesus. A great crowd of tax collectors and other disreputable people came along to the party with Jesus, and the scribes and Pharisees were not impressed. Jesus gave an explanation for His socializing, which was relevant throughout His ministry. It was analogous to the work of a doctor (conducting group therapy, perhaps?). His aim was to heal people's lives. These disreputable sinners were being helped to change their ways, they were being accepted as people despite their past conduct, with a view to repentance. Jesus' methods constituted a break with the tradition of keeping apart from the criminal, the bawdy, the irreligious. They were being given a taste of the new wine, even if it did not appeal to conservative tastes. (Luke 5)
The contretemps between Martha and Mary at Bethany fell upon a social occasion. It may not have been a special feast, but simply the almost routine large scale hospitality which was given when a special guest such as Jesus arrived. Both Martha and her sister were giving proper attention in their different ways to the honoured guest. Meals we know are important, but Martha had become too preoccupied with the many preparations. In the circumstance of Jesus being there, food and drink became secondary, His teaching had priority, and also a personal concern for the Teacher. We need not assume that Mary was being less practical than her sister, to pay close attention and memorise what Jesus was saying was very practical. What Jesus was looking for was not a feast, but sympathy and a sharing of thought. (Luke 10)
One Sabbath day Jesus accepted hospitality at the home of a leading Pharisee after the morning's worship. He was meeting with good respectable people, people with strong opinions and set in their ways, people who knew they were on God's side, and people who were very wary of Him, to say the least. His approach was direct and challenging.
A man with dropsy was there, needing healing. The diplomatic thing would have been to leave him alone, hoping for healing another day. Jesus in fact healed him, and brought the question of healing on the Sabbath into context. Jesus asked the company whether they would do anything to save an animal who had fallen into a cistern on the Sabbath day - this is something that the Qumran community who were ultra-strict sabbbatarians would not have done. If the Pharisees would not go to that length, what was so very terrible about stretching another point, and meeting the man's sad need straight away? It was a formal occasion. Jesus spoke openly to the guests who were choosing the best places. Socialising means giving as well as getting. It is best to give to those who are not able to return the favour,
One of the guests was inspired to remark how blessed it is to eat a meal in the kingdom of God. Jesus embodied the kingdom, and He knew that there were many there who did not want anything to do with him. He was reminded of the story then going the rounds about a tax collector (nouveau riche, and persona non grata with the Jewish elite) who gave a banquet, but everyone found an excuse for not attending. He told a similar story, which challenged His fellow guests to think, not how cosy it would be to feast in the kingdom, but am I at risk of cold-shouldering God in the same way? What an uncomfortable question to ask. (Luke 14)
One social occasion was a lakeside picnic to which Jesus did not invite the guests but found himself confronted by them. It was a crowd of thousands who needed Jesus - to heal them and to teach them. It turned out that they also needed someone to feed them. Were they a desperate, slightly feckless crowd? Jesus found a way to feed them, with the result that they wanted to have Him for their king. On this occasion Jesus was not the guest but the provider of the feast, responding to sheer need. (John 6)
It was to a need that Jesus responded when he had a meal with Zacchaeus. He had spotted the unpopular little man perched in the tree which he had climbed in order to be able to see Jesus. He saw the misery of rejection and loneliness - admittedly self-inflicted - etched on the face above the crowd. He chose a meal as the ideal opportunity for what he needed to do. (Luke 19)
It was her need that drove the woman at the feast who wasted precious ointment pouring it over Jesus. She was condemned and criticised, but Jesus spoke up for her. Did she realise that she was preparing Jesus' body for burial, that His time was so short? That was the sense in which he received her action, seeing the love which prompted it. It was once again a question of priorities. Money could indeed have been spent to help the poor, time and time and time again. But this was a unique farewell for a unique person. (John 12)
Later, there was the meal that never was. The travelling guest at Emmaus got as far as blessing the bread in a characteristic way, and being recognised .... Then He appeared again a few hours later to eat food with His disciples, so as to assure them that he was real and alive. And there was one last meal by the lakeside, reminiscent of past lakeside meetings. Seven disciples were fed, and reassured, and delighted, and forgiven for their lack of faith, and from that simple meal with their Lord they were sent forward to walk the path of discipleship in the new era. (Luke 24, John 21)
It would be possible to consider how sharing in meals fitted into Jesus' 'mission plan' for His ministry, how eating and drinking together was part of His technique for spreading His message. After all, part of the plan in sending out the Seventy disciples two-by-two was for them to accept hospitality. He used a large gathering for a demonstration of His power, as at Cana or when feeding the 5000. A meal with a Pharisee was a platform for teaching. A feast with Levi was a bridge to the tax fraternity. A meal became a schoolroom for personal teaching and pastoring, as at the Last Supper, or with Mary and Martha, with Zacchaeus, or beside the lake for Peter and John in particular.
We do not know to what extent these occasions were carefully planned, or whether Jesus was simply adept at seizing the opportunity they provided. Certainly He enjoyed life, but He kept the pleasures of the table subordinate to the greater needs of those around Him. In living life, and eating and drinking, and dying - and in being raised from the dead - our Lord was truly one of us.