The awkward meal

Luke 11:37–54

Today, let’s have a look at what it was like to have a meal with Jesus.

This story about a meal comes in the middle of Luke’s Gospel. That seems rather suitable place as having meals with people seems to have been an important part of the work that Jesus did.

Eating together is in some ways symbolic of the Kingdom of God, with the closeness and sharing. When Jesus walked the dusty trails of Palestine, it was the custom to eat two meals day. The major meal was supper, usually eaten after work had ended and the sun gone down. At that time of day it was cool and they could relax. Evening was also when the Greeks and Romans ate their main meal.

On this occasion, Jesus has been invited to eat by one of the Pharisees who was listening to his outdoor speech. It was the first meal of the day to which he was invited. That’s the meaning of the Greek word aristao. It was a small meal that we might call brunch, breakfast and lunch rolled into one, eaten at noon.

The focus of these meals was not eating as you might expect. It was in fact an occasion for talking. These types of meal were common at the time. The purpose was to sit around, or perhaps recline, and listen to moral instruction. It came to be called a ‘symposium’.

Jesus was invited by the Pharisee not for food, but to talk to a group while they shared a small meal. It was not strange that Jesus started to give a sermon in the middle of breakfast, that was partly why he had been invited. Another reason may have been to get him to say something incriminating. If they expected Jesus to give a quiet talk, the Pharisee and his friends were probably surprised by the aggressive words and actions of Jesus.

The host would be seen by society as an honourable man. He probably had invited prominent teachers on many occasions so that they could show off their education.

To start with, Jesus didn’t wash his hands before the meal. How many of you would be upset by that behaviour in your home? Polite society and important guests all washed their hands according to the tradition. It was good manners, and it showed respect for the Jewish religion.

The fact is, however, that this was not a rule from the Old Testament. It was a strong tradition that had become somehow very important. Perhaps we have similar feelings about some of our church traditions that aren’t actually in the Bible. We can feel most upset when they are ignored. For example, some people feel disturbed by women in church who don’t wear a veil or don’t cover their head.

Jesus began his teaching at the door, by rejecting the traditions of man.

His host was amazed to see that he sat down to eat without first performing “the hand-washing ceremony required by Jewish custom”. (verse 38)

Jesus then started to talk about the cups and dishes on the table.

The Pharisees were not only scrupulous about hand washing but also about ritual purity. They washed themselves in ritual baths. And they washed their plates and cups in ritual baths.

The majority of Pharisees belonged to the school of Shammai. They taught that the outside of a cup could be clean even if the inside was dirty. The minority view, held by the followers of Hillel, was that the inside of the cup had to be cleaned before the outside or it could never be wholly clean.

Jesus agrees with Hillel and then applies the rule to the people around the table. By extension, this applies to all of us. Jesus says that unless the inside is clean, the whole can never be clean. Jesus tells them that they are “filthy—full of greed and wickedness!” They’ve washed their hands scrupulously, and their cups and plates, but they are filthy. Jesus has of course done none of these rituals and yet he is perfectly, spotlessly clean. Jesus has a clean heart, the rest of us have dirty hearts. The other people around the breakfast table with Jesus knew he was telling them that they had dirty hearts.

Perhaps they were prepared to answer back, or maybe just thinking to themselves how ridiculous that idea was. After all, they tithed diligently, down to the correct proportion of their herbs. The law of the Old Testament does not command anyone to tithe their garden herbs. The Pharisees would enjoy long debates on such topics as whether a herb was a food or not, and thus what laws of the Old Testament it was subject too.

In their meticulous observation of the Old Testament law, the Pharisees were also very strict about social hierarchy. In public places and the synagogues, people were seated according to their rank. Their rank was determined by, among other things, their knowledge of the law. The custom of the day dictated particular greetings for people of different rank.

Jesus is being quite offensive by accusing such superior people of being unclean. “You ignore justice and the love of God,” Jesus says. They are focusing on the wrong things. They are spending much to much time and effort arguing about things that are not even commanded in Scripture and ignoring the important things that are commanded.

All of us need to take a moment to look at our own lives in case we are doing the same.

Jesus makes the point that what they are doing makes them no different from a hidden tomb.

A person was thought to be defiled by any contact with a grave or a dead person. A corpse could spread ritual impurity faster than anything. These Pharisees taught that you could become ritually impure if even your shadow touched a corpse or a grave. A hidden grave was therefore a serious problem. A person could become impure by accident. To prevent this from happening, tombs were whitewashed.

Jesus says that on the contrary the Pharisees do not have whitewash.

In verse 44, Jesus tells them straight. “You are like hidden graves in a field. People walk over them without knowing the corruption they are stepping on.”

When a prominent lawyer complains that he has been insulted, Jesus goes even further.

The job of the teachers of the law was to guide people in the ways of obedience to the law. It is part of the job of a teacher to help people understand and clear up confusion. Instead, says Jesus, these people are obscuring the truth of God’s ways with all kinds of petty and burdensome rituals and customs of their own making. Jesus says they “crush people with unbearable religious demands” and do nothing to help them.

That’s what it’s like to have a meal with Jesus.

It isn’t about the food. Our meals should also be times of talking and sharing, seeking the deeper ways if God. If Jesus does come and sit down with us, he is likely to say things that make us feel uncomfortable. If we listen humbly and obey him, we will learn so much and perhaps we shall no longer be a corruption influence in this world but a blessing.

Filled with the Holy Spirit, purified inside, we are learning to focus not on the burdensome rituals made by man but on what Jesus said was important – justice and the love of God.

God is not calling us to be experts in religious law, but experts in love and fellowship. We are called to be holy priests who minister to all God’s people. Let’s see if this next week we can discern in our own lives areas where we have wrong priorities or wrong focus.

Maybe you can invite Jesus to eat with you, ask the Holy Spirit to be candid in his evaluation of your own purity. Ask him to give you some advice on how to live a Kingdom life.

Amen 아멘

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About Pastor Simon

Pastor at Jinju International Christian Fellowship. Formerly of Eastbourne, East Sussex, UK. I am Simon Warner of Jinju Church. We speak English at Jinju Church, South Korea.
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