Celebrating the Messianic Banquet


It was big show biz news this last week — Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill are returning for ‘Star Wars: Episode 7’. In how many of our memories resides the fantastic flight of Luke Skywalker, who with the help of Hans Solo, and without computer assistance releases his proton torpedos so that just before the Death Star can fire its’ planet annilihilating ray it is blown to smithereens and thus freeing the rebel alliance from the domination of the Galactic Empire! That was in Star Wars Episode IV, the first one, which was released in May of 1977.  Remember how at the end of the movie the countless rows of warriors, the triumphant remnant of the brave rebellion force, were standing at attention in a great cathedral like hall while the heroes are honored by the princess and the great celebration that followed?


In 1979 Robert Jewett wrote a piece that said that that scene celebrated a theme that unites popular entertainment and popular religion. He pointed out that in both popular religion and popular entertainment such a grand celebration can occur only after the apocalyptic battle is won.


One of the most enduring images indelibly stamped in the minds of most Christians is Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”.  It is a somber and formal painting of six male disciples with various expressions on their faces sitting on either side of Jesus.  In most churches where I have observed the Eucharist being served it is similarly a solemn, somber and to some degree guilt ridden liturgical rite.  What is noticeably missing is the joyous atmosphere of early Christianity which continued the sometimes raucous celebrations of Jesus and his disciples. Jesus’ followers connected God’s kingdom with a feast.  The image of the banquet connects Jesus with the words of the prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah 25:6-8.

6On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. 7And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. 8Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.


In Jesus’ life and ministry the thing that seemed to outraged people the most was that in opposition to the popular religion of his time, and ours, Jesus brought the banquet described by Isaiah wherever he went, most interestingly into the homes of two people on opposite sides of a very divided Israel: Simon the Pharisee and Zacchaeus the tax collector.  As a result he was accused of being a glutton, a drunkard and a friend to tax collectors and sinners.  He was asked why his followers didn’t fast.  For the Pharisees and for John the Baptist fasting was to atone for the sins of Israel that had brought destruction and degradation.  The idea was that if by repenting the wrath of God could be avoided then the messianic age might begin in which God would vanquish their enemies and the fasting could turn to feasting and celebration.  But to celebrate now, before the victory, was presumptuous and subversive.  Jesus’ strategy was simple but profound: celebrate God’s presence now in the messianic banquet, prior to the destruction of evil, and evil will be transformed by the celebration itself.


Jesus said to the Roman soldier in Matthew 8  “Not even in Israel have I found such faith.  I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.  The enemy peoples from the ends of the earth, previously excluded from eating with the Jews because of legal restrictions and a long tradition of enmity, would be invited to the messianic table.  The messianic banquet was to be a feast of enemies.  The feast is for ‘all peoples’.  The sheet spread over all nations, the shroud cast over all peoples is the wall of nationalism, a barrier to understanding which separates people from neighbors and from God.  Once eliminated communion results around the Messiah’s table.  Given the rich foods and wines prophesied by Isaiah it would make for quite a party.


Look at what Jesus did as told Luke 7.  For what ever reason Jesus accepted the invitation to the home of Simon the Pharisee.  We often miss the point that the story isn’t about the immoral woman who anoints Jesus with precious oil, wetted his feet with her penitential tears and kissed them and dried them with her hair as outrageous a spectacle  as that was.  It is about Simon the Pharisee who had been less than hospitable to Jesus as a guest in his home. Pharisees, to give the Jewish people a sense of God in their daily lives, developed a series of rules to interpret the Torah in the context of changing situations.  They developed a clear cut norm for every situation in life.  But, according to Jesus their many rules and demand for strict adherence to them ruined the spirit of the law.   One rabbinic saying representative of first-century Judaism is: Joy in this world is not perfect; but in the future our joy will be perfect.”  That is, when the Messiah has vanquished his enemies and ours, (which to the Pharisees meant run the Romans out of their country) then unreserved celebration will be possible.  Another statement from the same time is: “ It is joy before God when those who anger Him vanish from the world.”


Look at what Jesus did as told in Luke 19.  He didn’t denounce Zacchaeus or support the Zealot’s campaign of ritual assassination for him and his family.  No.  He invited himself into the rich man’s home for the messianic banquet. Of course the crowd murmured at his accepting this sinner who by collaborating with the Romans he was considered a traitor. The popular approach was to first destroy evil in a military campaign and then plan a victory celebration.  With Zacchaeus, Jesus’ approach enabled a voluntary transformation that military might could never have achieved. Feeling unconditionally accepted and assured a place among the people of God Zacchaeus’ defenses collapsed and he began a life of caring for his previously exploited fellow countrymen.  Jesus’ strategy was simple but profound: celebrate God’s presence now in the messianic banquet, prior to the destruction of evil, and evil will be transformed by the celebration itself.


Instead of stirring up the populace through prophetic demonstrations and apocalyptic proclamations to gain a following as did messianic pretenders, Jesus took a very different approach to calling his disciples.  It was different from the master-pupil relationship preferred by the rabbis. Rather than simply attracting followers from whom brilliant students could be selected as the Pharisee masters did, Jesus chose his disciples.  He called them, one by one.  When you look carefully at who Jesus called to be at the center of his ministry you would be hard put to not see that his intention was to guarantee that the celebration of the messianic banquet would be a genuine feast of enemies.


A more contentious group could be hardly imagined.  Matthew, identified as Levi, was a tax collector and collaborator with the Roman provincial administration; the four fishermen, Peter, Andrew, James and John were of the working class so called ‘people of the land’ viewed by the religious establishment as sinners and by the bureaucrats as troublemakers.  Two were associated with the Zealots, Simon the Canannaean, a technical term for revolutionary and that other one with the strange sounding second name ‘sicarius’ meaning assassin. There was the disciple who came from a family with Hellenistic aspirations that’s why they gave him the Greek surname Philip.  And finally there were Thomas and Thaddaeus both identified with Judas the son of James and Bartholomew, an upstanding middle class figure most likely referred to in John 1:45.

The groups from which these men came hated each other.  The Zealots and the bureaucrats were engaged in a brutal struggle of assassination, purge and ambush.  It is likely that the ‘middle of the roaders’ despised the extremists on both sides.  One thing is certain: people who were representatives of these groups would never have voluntarily joined with one another in common meals or common causes.  They had to be called, impelled, to risk crossing the walls of exclusion.  Their very selection by Jesus bears the distinctive stamp of his idea about how the Isaiah 25 prophecy would be fulfilled.  He wanted a truly inclusive feast bringing together mortal enemies around a single table emblematic of the reconciliation that marks the Kingdom of God.


Celebration brakes down the inhibitions imposed by piety.  Unconditional acceptance was experienced with all its shocking power.  They ate together.  They shared a common purse.  And this unlikely group traveled from town to town in an amazing pilgrimage.  One day they would eat with sinners and outcasts, the next with Pharisees and the next with wealthy members of the political establishment.  They went to weddings feasts and shared simple meals on the hillside.


The real miracle is that even after Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion – before that first Easter sunrise – they had reconvened. A spirit of unconditional acceptance and forgiveness that was greater than all their differences had taken hold of them.  And we are them today.  It is not our similarities that holds us together.  It is not our common pilgrimage.  It is that we each have been chosen by Christ,. called to join in this unmistakable feast of enemies.  Jesus’ strategy is simple but profound: celebrate God’s presence now in the messianic banquet, prior to the destruction of evil, and evil will be transformed by the celebration itself.



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