The following is part of a paper I recently presented. It is, as you will see, handicapped in a few ways – notably, in length (I could have easily doubled the content), scope (I could have easily gone father in framing the ideas and presenting their present applications), and the way it is presented (notes for presentation; that is, it is not to my mind as “reader friendly” as I would hope if I were reading it myself).
Share your thoughts, if you would? I do so love a good conversation.
Table Fellowship as Expressed in the Gospel of Mark
Introduction & Thesis
For the purposes of this discussion, I must assume that the reader has already read The Gospel of Mark chapter 7 and is familiar with the general theme of revelatory disclosure to the early adherents of Jesus. Without this assumption, the prevalent body of this paper would be towards reconstructing both the gospel, its location in the Synoptic writings of New Testament literature, and the socio-historical framework within which is resides. Further, I must assume that this discussion of “table fellowship” is a new one to the reader, as the expression itself is only some two, arguably three decades in usage with the Evangelical context. Even if the expression is known, I will need to situate it for the purposes of this paper, so the assumption is that the reader has knowledge of the expression, but will perhaps need to see how it is used. Assuming that the Gospel of Mark is the first of the Synoptic writings (and thus, Matthew and Luke are derivatives), the reader will have some knowledge of how the theme of table fellowship reoccurs throughout the Gospel writings and, having noticed this pattern, the reader will be prompted to think about how best to incorporate Jesus’ theology and expression (i.e. “table theology”) into their life and ministry.
I want to examine how Jesus’ model of table fellowship is put forward in the Gospel of Mark. “Table theology” will be an all-inclusive term for both the way that we think about table fellowship, and how we practice it for there are a myriad of ways that we, as the people of God, could embody this. This paper will bring attention to how Jesus proposed and embodied table theology, why it is important for us to pay attention to this strand of theology in scripture, and to implicitly reconsider the ways that we can embody this theology today.
For our purposes, it is important to zero in on Mk. 7:1-23. Here, a group of Pharisees and “some of the scribes” approach Jesus about “some of his disciples” (v.2-5). They have noticed that certain disciples have not been washing their hands before eating. The matter is not one of hygiene, but of social stability. In the minds of this group, the disciples are enemies of social stability; the disciples threaten the fabric of Jewish nationalism. There is certainly an emphasis on what is “clean” and “unclean,” that is, the dietary codes and laws of the Torah. Indeed, these two words show up no less than thirteen times in the Gospel of Mark and their usage has as much socio-political implication as it does spiritual. Jesus is, to be sure, concerned with what is clean and unclean every bit as much as this group that has approached him; yet, contextually, his understanding and interpretation of what is “clean” and “unclean” is decidedly different from his contemporaries. His reaction, coming out of his understanding, is so strong that a reader cannot read this story well unless they come to believe that more is going on that just a discussion of diet. The religious leaders focus on purity (the washing of hands) and the disciples – and thus, by association, Jesus – are not being questioned on this. The question, or rather “point of charge,” is that they are “associating with notorious sinners, those living in open defiance of the basic laws of Judaism” (Green 128). It is a return to the accusations put against Jesus and his followers in the first stage of his ministry, that they are all unobservant Jews and, having been found wanting, are “unclean” – that is, not part of the people of God.
Jesus responds by quoting the prophet Isaiah 29:13, but his reference seems befuddling. Their question is about hands, but the reference is about hearts and lips/words. Contextually, Isaiah is speaking about those people of God for whom the narrative is nothing but “words sealed in a scroll”, a people so far afield of the purposes of God that their religion is based on what they have been taught rather than what they know, what God has done and is currently doing, and who “turns things upside down” for themselves as much as others. That is, in a certain light, Jesus overreacts. The question, which is about washing your hands before a meal, is preloaded with meaning and thus exaggerated. But even in this, Jesus continues to inflate the issue. By referencing Isaiah 29, Jesus is returning their critique and locating them with those who are drunk and creating an environment of drunkenness (v. 9-10), stupefied and illiterate themselves and perpetuating stupidity and illiteracy (v. 11-12), with those who are tyrants and ever-ready to do all manner of evil (v.20), who “deny justice” (v. 21) and who “err in spirit” (v.22) and not even in practical or individual matters, which are presumably more easy to forgive, but in the complex interpersonal ways that destroy communities. Jesus continues the tirade, expanding Isaiah’s cultural critique to involve those who disregard their parents even while making vows to God (Mk 7:9-13). This kind of behavior, he says, makes void both the word of God and the tradition one claims to be upholding, “and you do many things like this” (v.13). And now, having roundly condemned this group, Jesus brings attention to their behavior by calling the crowds back to him, those “unclean” followers of his. He shines light directly on these people, his accusers, who have “gather around him” secretly and makes their sinister intent publicly known (v.1).
To the crowd, Jesus begins a different narrative. He reminds the crowd of Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter 29:
The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. For the tyrant shall be no more, and the scoffer shall cease to be; all those alert to do evil shall be cut off… No longer shall Jacob be ashamed, no longer shall his face grow pale. For when he sees his children, the work of my hands, in his midst, they will sanctify my name; they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob, and will stand in awe of the God of Israel. (v.19-20, 22-23)
The kind of behavior that this group of Pharisees and scribes exhibits, Jesus is saying, will come to an end. The disenfranchised, the “outsiders”, the “unclean” will be vindicated and welcomed by the God of Israel and people like this, those who “abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition” will be evicted. People are not, Jesus asserts, declared unclean by something like hand washing or even by the communal caste system of the time (v.14-16). People are instead already defiled – and proving it by actions like that of the Pharisees and “some of the scribes” every day, proving “from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come… [Indeed], evil things come from within and they defile a person” (v.17-23)
We must not fully side with Jesus just yet. The group of Pharisees and “some scribes” has merit, for while there is no express command in the Torah regarding handwashing and thus it is a tradition, and while hygiene is important – perhaps Evangelicals would do well to encourage their congregations to live healthier and eat healthier – their intention is noble. They intend to protect the identity of the Jewish people in the midst of a long train of slavery, wars, political upheavals, and the occupation of Rome as yet another foreign power dictating the place of a marginalized people. As N.T. Wright puts it, many who have grown up “knowing that there is a long-standing debate in the Western churches about the relative place and value of ‘scripture’ and ‘tradition’” will be predisposed to incorrectly see this group in a negative light (Wright 87). Their intention is commendable, whether we see this pericope as simply about diet and health, or whether we understand it as something not readily accessible to us in the present era, some two millennia later. Yet we can clearly see from Jesus reaction that something is “off” about their question. We must be sympathetic enough to allow for the fact that the author of Mark spends the first four verses of chapter 7 adding context to their question and is, in some sense, aware that Jesus’ reaction needs to be put in context. Further, the author notes that the group, who at other times bring charges and accusations, “notice” that the disciples are not following the custom, and so “the Pharisees and the scribes asked him” a question (v.2, 5). This scene cannot be reconstructed without trying to explain the context under which Jesus responds so strongly, for indeed the author of Mark and the other Gospel writers do not always depict Jesus’ behavior and sayings with the tenderness and dreamy idealism that later commentators exhibit (see Matt. 8:21-22; 10:35-37; 12:34-39, 47-49; 15:22-26; 23:17,19; Mk. 3:31-34; 7:26-27; 11:1-3, 12-14; Lk. 8:20-21; 9:59-62; 11:40; 14:26; 24:25).
By locating the argument not on the issue of handwashing, but rather the food, Jesus is sending a clean message concerning the table fellowship of his time; namely, that by declaring people in or out of the community, by declaring people “honorable” or “unclean”, by making the kind of judgments that the Pharisees and “some of the scribes” are making, something has gone horribly and dramatically wrong with the social system. The people of God were supposed to be welcoming, to draw people in, to be a people of generosity to others but especially to each other. The laws and commands of God were never intended to tear people apart in this way and Jesus is outraged. His public shaming of the group that has approached him secretly is a prophetic demonstration to the gathered crowd that they cannot follow this kind of behavior found among their leaders. While this seems simple enough to understand, why do I propose to introduce the idea of table fellowship?
By “table fellowship” I am intending to focus in on the theme of community construction (or, alternatively, deconstruction) by way of food and food practices. Food has long been a folkway of relationship building. To “break bread” with someone is an intimate affair, showcased – at least for Americans – in the way that we twitter about “dinner dates” when we are in a relationship, the way we have mythologized Thanksgiving dinner between Puritans and the First Nations, and have a mixture of fear, awe, and dread where it concerns business lunches. Though we may think that we understand the power of food in our daily context, America is not the only nation where food has taken on supernatural properties, nor the last five hundred years the only ones in which food was considered holy enough to unite a people. One need only topically read the Talmud to see that food has held a sacred space in religious conversation for centuries – even millennia, if one believes the Edenic narrative of sin entering the world through a “forbidden fruit” akin to Eris’ apple. That is, even the most ancient legends record a curious treatment of both food and the ability of people to put aside their differences, or be divided from the gods forevermore because of a meal. As it concerns the Bible, specifically the Christian Scriptures, and even more precisely the Gospel of Mark, food is a dividing line between the people of God. One is either part of this elect group, part of the epic, journeying narrative, or seen as “unclean” – an “outsider” – based on their diet and food practices, based on whether the people share a meal or shun one another. Food is not holy in itself, but it certainly draws attention to the holiness of the people consuming it. Which is, we may suppose, what Jesus was getting at in Mark 7 when he speaks about the food itself not defiling a host as much as the host defiling the food, or rather the meal as the embodiment of the community (Mk. 7:18-23).
For the purposes of Jesus’ discourse and ministry, many scholars believe the table tradition was rooted in the Greco-Roman symposium tradition. The Symposia of Plato and Xenophon were archetypes, with generous conversation aided by libation and a formal banquet. In practice, the symposia was a social activity where diners reclined around a triclinium (a U-shaped table with couches). Social status was clearly displayed in this way, especially in relation to one another (Freedman 302-03). A good host, for example, would assign the guest of honor a seat near the entrance. The Gospel of Luke chapter 14 appears to agree with this expectation, as Jesus quite extensively shares his thoughts on the symposia and stratification of class/caste systems of his time. By the time that Jesus begins his ministry, the Jewish adoption from Rome of these practices was no longer about who was honorable as much as it was about social position. It was not about participating in community as much as where one stood, much like a baseball player who pays more attention to their endorsement deals and ranking than actually making sure the team wins. If Jack Shepherd in LOST was correct, we will either live together or we will die alone, and Jesus is challenging the leadership as much as the people to recapture that sense of community, to come to terms with the fact that their custom of handwashing and “staying pure” in opposition to Rome, the custom meant to distinguish them from outsiders, is an ironic joke as long as they continue to divdide themselves not just from Rome, but from each other. This kind of behavior destroys the people of God both within and without and it is little wonder that Jesus responds as strongly as he does. If the people are willing to dismiss even their parents and hide behind the korban or “a gift to God,” then their holiness is wildly misplaced and such behavior has must stop (Stern 92-3). Sadly, it doesn’t. Traces of this systemic “outing” continued for years. A statement by Paul in Romans 9:3 has traces of this division. But what we observe here is not so much about “clean and unclean” or even Jewish identity, though those are of course central to what is going on. It is about how the Kingdom of God is envisioned. At root, this group presents the way of God as one of division. Jesus presents it as one of openness. And while there are a myriad of ways that such a worldview is expressed, Jesus is pointing out that if something as communally important as a meal has become a source of division, then the people of God have gone wildly off track. Like his cousin John before him, Jesus is publicly shaming this kind of behavior and calling it out, he is bringing attention to it, and (as ever) inviting others to examine this kind of pattern with him and condemn it.
Table theology then focuses on those ways in which Jesus is offering the opportunity for people to unite. Not politically, not in religious belief or practice, but through something as familial, as simple, and as community-building as a meal. He invites those on the borderlands of his society to come together, to reconcile, and to share a meal together – washed hands or not.
On a much larger scale, Jesus is already putting in place the kind of theology that Peter and later Paul will propose (Acts 10:9-21, 34-35; Gal. 1: 15-17) and which the church in Jerusalem, overseen by James, will later ratify – the people of God is a broad and expansive community. This community is both expressed and embodied in table fellowship, in sharing time and even the intimacy of meals together. The role of this kind of fellowship cannot be overestimated for “the Mediterranean basin in the first century” where “eating food with another person had become a ceremony richly symbolic of friendship, intimacy and unity… [and where] coming together to eat became the occasion for sensing again that on was an integral, accepted part of a group” (“Table Fellowship” 796). It is wonderfully telling that Jesus spends so much of his tour ministering through food. In the Gospel of Mark alone, Jesus heals Peter’s mother and they share a meal, he eats with tax collectors and sinners, plucks grain on the holy Sabbath, eats bread with his disciples who eat with unwashed and “defiled” hands, declares all foods clean, feeds and eats with gentiles in a desert in Gentile land (1:29-31; 2:15-17; 2:23-28; 7:1-15, 17-23; 8:1-10). The author of Mark also indicates that so much of the disagreement between Jesus and the religious establishment is related to food (2:15-17, 23-28; 7:1-15). This mission towards reconciliation through hospitality is broader than food, as indicated by Mk. 6:7-13. Indeed, Jesus’ reconciliatory ministry is concerned every bit as much with God and humanity as it is with restoring interpersonal relations. Rhoads puts forward that, in understanding what kind of kingdom Jesus is trying to inaugurate is based on the worldview at issue – a society of Roman origin, or a society always-ever concerned with God and the people of God. It is a relationship, Rhoads argues, based on one’s worldview and the social organization Jesus is proposing/calling the people to return to.
The worldview Jesus teaches his followers involves these assumptions: God’s rulership has begun (1:15); followers are to cross boundaries to proclaim the good news to the ends of the earth (13:10, 27); and the mission is urgent because the end of history will come soon (13:5-37). This missionary commitment to spread the good news to all nations before the world ends supports social organization very different from that of John’s Gospel. Instead of fostering a tight-knit group isolated from the world, Mark urges upon his hearers a loose-knit social network based on hospitality as the disciples go from place to place proclaiming the gospel (1:17; 6:7-13; 10:29-30). Thus, the sociology of knowledge helps one to see how the group’s “knowledge” relates to the social order of that group. (Rhoads 152).
If we, as religious people in the 21st Century, are to ever engage in real dialogue about the intentionality of God, we must come to terms with one another and seek common ground. It is a truism to say that which unites us is greater than that which divides us. And while it is well and good to speak of ecumenical, even interfaith dialogue, we have yet to address the divisions within our own communities over things like race, economics, mental illness, and sexuality. One of the great ironies of religious education is realizing how familiar the past that once was now is. We are separated from the Pharisees and “some scribes” of the First Century by time more than anything else. Our concerns remain the same regarding who we should “allow” in our houses of worship and personal dwellings.
That is, for all of our conversation about embracing the LGBTQ community, of reaching across the racial barriers, educational and financial barriers, are we all that different from the people Jesus once condemned? It seems the Evangelical community, like the religious leaders of Jesus’ time, have a vested interest in perpetuating caste systems. The Occupy Movement was suppressed politically as much as spiritually for the way that is disturbed social order, and as a part of the Millenial generation, it seems not a day goes by that I do not hear another horror story of the Church victimizing someone who self-identifies on the LGBTQ spectrum. It is perhaps time to remember that “this breaking and sharing of bread among the people of God reaches a fulfillment in the ministry of Jesus, whose ‘last supper’ with his companions was the culmination of the many meals of hospitality he hosted that were open to all, especially the marginalized and the stranger” (Vondey 30). It is difficult to claim that we are following the life and teachings of Jesus as long as we participate in a socio-spiritual model that excommunicates, shuns, or marginalizes people based on their sexuality instead of listening to their desire to be a part of a community. A religious community. Our community.
The Church would do well to re-examine New Testament literature, paying attention to the ways in which table fellowship is used to convey Jesus’ idea of the Kingdom of God as a place of community instead of division.
One of the most telling stories in the Gospels that affirms the healing power of table fellowship takes places after the resurrection – not with a stranger or outsider, but with Peter, who had so recently abandoned Jesus (Mk. 16:1-7; Jn. 21:1-14). Peter had abandoned his call after the events surrounding the execution of Jesus. Perhaps disillusioned, perhaps even doubting himself for abandoning Jesus against his sworn promises, Peter returns to his life before joining Jesus – he returns to the fishing trade. At the tomb, a young man is present. Given Mark’s cosmological treatment of curious figures like this man, it is presumed the man was an angel. The man makes a point of telling Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, to “go tell [Jesus’] disciples and Peter” that Jesus is going to Galilee (Mk. 16:7). The addition, or rather the singling out, of Peter is curious. As the most outspoken of the disciples, Peter’s inclusion is a forgone conclusion. Naming him only brings more attention to Peter’s turning away. While Mark’s gospel originally ended right after this exchange, later additions include that Jesus visits the disciples “as they were sitting at the table” (v.14). The reader is left to wonder what this curious addition, “and Peter,” means until reading John’s gospel. There, in John 21, Jesus visits the disciples and apparently surprises them. This is, many believe, the first appearance of Jesus to Peter since his death, and the third visit to the disciples (v.14). That Peter’s return to discipleship comes after the breakfast meal indicates that table fellowship is for outsiders wherever we may find them – that is, religious and non-religious alike. The ways that we determine who is “in” or “out” are meaningless when table fellowship can apply to Jews, Gentiles, believers, doubters, and the disenchanted. To the very end, the Gospel of Mark and the rest of the Gospels show a pattern of behavior that Jesus is trying to bring restoration to all peoples through the intimacy of a meal and that there is a healing interaction taking place whenever and wherever food is taking place. Where the Pharisees and “some of the scribes” sought to make distinctions clear – who is clean or unclean – Jesus responds quite strongly that they, and by extension we as readers, must examine our social structures and break bread together, even if we are uncomfortable with the ways of others. In my own life, I try to embody this with members of the LGBTQ community and interfaith discussions, but I have seen others intentionally express on racial and cultural grounds, as well as mental health. We, as the people of God, would do well to sit down with the “others” in our lives and get to know them, to eat with them, to share stories with them and find common ground. To hear their stories and humanize them over a meal would bring to bear all of the things Jesus does in his ministry, and especially in Mark 7, towards reconciling the world.
Freedman, David Noel. “Table Fellowship.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 6. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992.
Green, Joel B, Scot McKnight, and I H. Marshall. “Clean and Unclean” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1992.
Green, Joel B, Scot McKnight, and I H. Marshall. “Table Fellowship” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1992.
Imbelli, Robert P. “Table Fellowship.” America 200.15 (2009): 30-32. Military & Government Collection. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.
Rhoads, David. “Social Criticism: Crossing Boundaries.” Mark & Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies. Eds. Janice Capel Anderson and Stephen D. Moore. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992.
Stern, David H. Jewish New Testament Commentary. Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1996.
Wright, Nicholas Thomas. Mark for Everyone. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.