Jesus doesn’t eat with people just to be nice

In his book, Delivered from the Elements of the World, Peter Leithart argues that Torah was a partial recovery of Eden. In giving Israel Torah, Yahweh was not excluding and distancing people from himself, but rather creating conditions in which they could again begin to draw near to him. This was primarily centred on the sanctuary: ‘Yahweh drove Adam and Eve out of the garden; he invited Aaron and his sons in. For the first time since Eden, a human being stood before the Creator to serve… The tabernacle was still holy space, but the boundaries of holy space had become porous’ (95). All of this pointed to the possibility of even freer access in the future.

Leithart goes on to detail how the sacrificial system brought people closer to God, and interestingly, notes the connection between one of the common sacrificial terms used in the Old Testament, and the concept of ‘bridal food’ (109). Thus the sacrificial system is ‘an ongoing wedding feast…Yahweh’s advent among his people is an occasion for joy, the beginning of continuous divine hospitality and festivity, as Israel eats, drinks and rejoices before and with her Lord’ (110). Food is central to God’s fellowship with his people.

This makes Jesus’ work of regularly eating with people all the more significant. Under Torah, ‘Yahweh lets Israel come as near as they can in flesh, but they can only get so close without being consumed’ (116). With Jesus, everything changes:

When Yahweh came in the flesh, the need for that stoicheic apparatus began to end. In Jesus, Yahweh himself sat at human tables and ate food with them. This is what Torah aimed at from the outset. It was what Torah encouraged Israel to dream of. Jesus did what Torah always aimed to achieve, to make it possible for the Creator and his rebellious creatures to share space, to live and walk together in a common garden, to share a common table. Yahweh’s entire program in Torah was designed to make human beings his ‘companions’ in the original sense of the word – God and humans as sharers of bread. The ministry of Jesus is what the sacrificial system looks like after Eden’s curse if overcome. Jesus qualified people to draw near to his table. He touched lepers and dead bodies, and instead of contracting their contagious miasma, his cleansing life flowed to them. Lepers were cleansed; a woman’s defiling flow of blood was stopped. The table fellowship of Jesus is the sacrificial system under poststoicheic conditions (138).

Hospitality, and in particularly the sharing of food, is a feature of the life of most churches, and is usually grounded in the fact that Jesus shared food with people. Appeal is often made to the fact that in sharing food with all kinds of ‘unworthy’ people, Jesus is doing something counter-cultural or outside of convention, and therefore displaying an extra measure of love, something we should model in our fellowship. True as this is, it does not account for the deeper purpose of Jesus’ actions: to fulfil Torah and inaugurate that freer access that was intended all along. When Jesus eats with people, he is not simply being nice.

Among other things, it strikes me that if what Leithart says is true, we ought to make an even bigger deal out of regularly eating together, in celebration of the fact that God has come to share food with us. Our fellowship together ought to bear witness to the fellowship we will one day share with God when his Kingdom comes in fullness. Further, it makes the Eucharist that much more central to the life of the Church, since it is here that this table fellowship with Yahweh is both sealed and signified. If this is indeed ‘what Torah always aimed to achieve’, it must be at the heart of who we are and what we do.

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