Jesus Verse by Verse

an expanded commentary on the Gospel of Matthew

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Digression 6 The Table Manners of Jesus

The Meaning of Table Fellowship
Meal times and table manners were used in the first century to reinforce social boundaries and statuses; those who broke those codes elicited the anger of others because they had acted dishonourably. And society was based around honour and shame; tradition was exalted and seen as the duty of every man to uphold. This of course is different from the Western worldview, where challenge to norms has become the cool thing to do, rather than it being cool to uphold tradition. People felt comfortable with the existing system of table manners and invitations- they preferred to eat with people of their social class because eating with a higher class or more elite group demanded that they must in turn invite those people to their table and entertain them appropriately. The open invitation of Jesus to dine with Him, and His utter overturning of these values in His teaching about inviting the desperate who cannot ever recompense you, was radical indeed. He was consciously challenging religious exclusivism. The anger vented against those who argue for an open table approach to Christian fellowship unites us with Him. Whom Jesus ate with led the Pharisees to conclude that he couldn't be from God (Lk. 5:30; 7:39; 15:1,2), and this is so often the case today- if you are “open table”, then you are rejected, no matter how you have given your life for the Lord and believe all the right doctrines.
The generation that crucified Jesus was perhaps the most studious, technically obedient, Bible-study and holiness oriented of any generation of Israel. The Jewish apocryphal writings had prepared the way. In the period in between the Testaments, not eating with Gentiles and sinners became an obsession. Judaism became increasingly exclusive. Tobit is told "Give none of your bread to sinners" (Tobit 4:17) and Tobit likens table fellowship between a righteous man and a sinner to that between a lamb and a wolf (13:17); the story of Judith tries to teach that table fellowship can make the difference between life and death (Judith 13:6-11); the additions to Esther claim that Esther had always refused to eat at Haman's table nor with the king (Esther 14:17); Sirach urged "Let righteous men be your dinner companions" (Sirach 9:16) (1); bread was not to be shared with the sinner (12:5; 13:17). Jubilees 22:16 warns Jacob to separate himself from table fellowship with Gentiles lest he be contaminated by association with them. Against this background, the Pharisees had become obsessed with food and whom you ate with. One’s fellowship or contact with uncleanness became for them the ultimate indicator of standing with God. Jerome Neyrey has summarized their concerns well (2):
“A. WHO: Who eats with whom; who sits where; who performs what action; who presides over the meal
B. WHAT: What is eaten (or not eaten); how it is tithed or grown or prepared; what utensils are used; what rites accompany the meal (e.g., washing of hands or full bath); what is said (and silence)
C. WHEN: When one eats (daily, weekly, etc.; time of day); when one eats which course during the meal
D. WHERE: Where one eats (room); where one sits; in which institution (family, politics)”.
The table manners of Jesus consciously sought to challenge all these assumptions. A poor person would decline an invitation to a good meal because he knew that he was expected to invite the inviter for a meal of a similar nature. The parables of Luke 14 argue that we should invite those who cannot repay us exactly because we are the beggars who are invited to His table by the pure grace of Jesus (Lk. 14:14,15). We are surely intended to imagine how hard it would’ve been for the servants who ran around the lanes and hedges urging people to come in to the wonderful banquet. The difficulty would’ve been persuading the beggars of grace, that grace is for real, all notions of fairness, reciprocity etc. have been overturned in God’s urgent zeal to fill His Kingdom with people.
“In the first century, given the intimate and culturally significant nature of the setting of meals, dining was an occasion to draw boundaries, solidify kinship, and perpetuate social values. To eat with people of a different rank or class, to eat with sinners, or to eat with the unclean was to defile oneself and recognize their status as either acceptable or equal to one’s own. Loyalty to God was expressed through eating the right kinds of foods with the right kinds of people (i.e. the people who shared and adhered to the same vision for what obedience to God meant). The fact that Jesus shared meals with those who had no right to eat with a true Jew has monumental implications” (3).  Table fellowship was especially significant for the Jews because of the connection they made between their table and the Lord’s table. Jacob Neusner explains: “The Pharisees thus arrogated to themselves—and to all Jews equally—the status of the Temple priests. The table of every Jew in his home was seen as being like the table of the Lord in the Jerusalem Temple. Everyone was a priest, everyone stands in the same relation to God, and everyone must keep the priestly laws” (4). The extreme sensitivity of the Pharisees to table fellowship means that it would be fair to say that it was the Lord’s radically open table which was a major factor in their mad hatred of Him which resulted in His crucifixion. 
The Table Manners of Jesus
It’s clear that in Luke’s Gospel Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal. Huge emphasis is placed upon His approach to table fellowship; eating with people was without doubt one of His most common strategies. Mass addresses to the crowds followed up by meals with a smaller group would in any case be a logical pattern. The Gospel records are full of accounts of Christ’s meals. He was so often eating that He was slandered as a “glutton and drunkard” because He ate with “sinners” (Lk. 7:34). He was called a glutton because He was so often seen eating- for meals with people was His preferred manner of reaching out to people. And He was called a drunkard because He ate with sinners, which doubtless included drunkards, and His critics applied the principle of guilt by association, just as many religious people do today. If you break bread with a divorcee, you are divorced. I well recall one irate Christadelphian screaming in an old brother’s face: “You’re a lesbian!”after his admission that he “broke bread” with a sister who was a lesbian. That’s how guilt by association works, and it worked the same way in Jesus’ day as it does today. On one level, for many of us today, whom we literally eat with isn’t a significant issue. But in New Testament times it was of an importance which we can’t easily appreciate. We must be aware that we are likely to downplay the huge significance of the table manners of Jesus because we are not in the culture within which He lived. But in essence, many of us are- because we were raised in religious cultures which treated whom we “break bread” with to be of paramount importance. Any other form of fellowship is OK- but to share bread and wine is not, and the act has become freighted with all the phobias, fears and hang-ups which eating together had in the 1st century Mediterranean world. In this sense, the apparent cultural difference between us is not so great at all.
Jesus ate with sinners in order to lead them to repentance; that is the clear justification given by Him for His open table policy (Mk. 2:15-17). He saw His guests as the sick who needed a doctor, and His eating with them was in order to call them to repentance, rather than a statement that they had now attained a suitable level of purity to be worthy of His table. He therefore saw eating at His table as a means towards creating fellowship, and not as a consequence of being “in fellowship” with Him. This latter misunderstanding is sadly the view of those who insist upon a “closed table”, participation of which is limited to those who have attained a certain “statement of faith” or moral purity. The correct attitude to the Lord’s table arises out of perceiving that it is a means of witness, of creating fellowship with Him. The case of Zacchaeus is another good example (Lk. 19:1–10). People were shocked that Jesus would proactively take the initiative of inviting Himself into table fellowship with Zacchaeus. Especially before Zacchaeus had shown any signs of repentance. But it was that prevenient offer of fellowship and acceptance which elicited repentance within Zacchaeus. Note how He invited Himself into the house of Zacchaeus to eat with him, fully aware of the perception that "to stay in such a person's home was tantamount to sharing in his sin" (5).
Likewise the prodigal son- who is each of us- was accepted at the table just because he wanted to be there, not after any check of his theology or sincerity of repentance. The older brother’s attitude to table fellowship with his brother was that “If he’s going to be at the table, I’m outta here”. And so it has so often happened amongst God’s people. But the point of the parable is that the son who ended up out in the darkness, outside of the banquet, having placed himself out of reach of even his Father’s love, was the son who thought himself too good to break his bread with his brother. This is a sober and grave warning which we ignore at our peril.
No Guilt by Association
It was especially important for Rabbis or religious leaders to be seen as only eating with the right types: "The Rabbis would have been chary of intercourse with persons of immoral life, men of proved dishonesty or followers of suspected and degrading occupations at all times, but especially at meals" (6). The way Jesus wilfully invited such people (tax collectors, prostitutes, Mk. 2:15) to His table shows His specific rejection of this idea. The Talmud (b. Sanhedrin 23a) records that the righteous Jew wouldn't sit down for a meal until they were sure who their eating companions would be. The open table policy of Jesus was radical indeed. He showed them this welcome to His table in order to lead them to repentance (Mk. 2:17; Lk. 5:32). Note too how He ate with Peter in order to prove to him that He had accepted him, even before any specific repentance from Peter directed to Jesus (Jn. 21:1-14). Again, that meal was characterized by a super abundance of food, 153 fish (Jn. 21:11), pointing forward to the Messianic banquet. Jesus was assuring Peter that he would 'be there' and demonstrated that to Peter by having him at His banquet table. Indeed it has been observed that many of the meal scenes recorded in Luke feature Jesus calling people to be His disciples. He had no fear of 'contamination by communion' (a phrase used in the church of my youth). Rather, His association with sinners in this way was their opportunity to accept His salvation and thereby to be convicted of their sins and repent. In this context it has been remarked: "Jesus is not defiled by his contact with impurity but instead vanquishes it" (7). His holiness was thereby communicable to others rather than their uncleanness being as it were caught by Him. The "sinner in the city" whom He allowed at His table was a cameo of the whole thing; contrary to what was thought, He wasn't contaminated by her, but rather her presence at His table meant she left realizing her forgiveness and acceptance with Him (Lk. 7:36-50).
Exactly because Jesus ate with sinners, He was considered a sinner (Mt. 11:19). This was how strongly the Jews believed in 'guilt by association', and how intentional and conscious was the Lord's challenging and rejection of the concept. The Jews imagined the final messianic banquet at the end of the age (Rev. 19:7-9) to be filled with righteous Jews from all ages and all parts of their dispersion world-wide. But Jesus consciously subverts that expectation by speaking of how Gentiles shall come from all over the world and sit down at that banquet on an equal footing with the Jewish patriarchs (Mt. 8:11,12). And He went further; He spoke of how whores and pro-Roman tax collectors would have better places there than religious, pious Jews (Mt. 21:31,32). Not only were the very poor invited by Jesus to eat with Him, but also those most despised- tax collectors were amongst the most despised and rejected within Jewish society, not simply because they made themselves rich at the expense of an already over taxed peasantry, but because of their connections with the Roman occupiers. Sitting and eating with Gentiles and sinners was therefore Jesus showing how every meal of His was a foretaste of the future banquet of the Kingdom. He was calling all those previously barred from the Lord's table to come and eat. This was why the table practice of Jesus was seen as so offensive by the Jews- because it implied that their exclusive view of the future Kingdom being only for religious Jews was in fact wrong. Anyone who opens up boundaries, breaks a circle, removes one side of a triangle, faces the wrath of those within that construct. Christ's 'open table' policy then and now leads to just such anger. For we are to reach out to the most despised of society, the very poorest of spirit, and actually eat with them in conscious anticipation of how this is their foretaste of God's Kingdom.
It's noteworthy that Jesus made no attempt to examine or quantify the repentance of those "sinners" whom He invited to eat with Him. In Judaism, as in many legalistic churches today, there was great importance attached upon making restitution for sin, compensating for sin through some ritual, and only then taking their place 'in fellowship'. The way Jesus invited "sinners", tax collectors and prostitutes to eat with Him was in careful revolution against this idea. One could argue that He knew they were repentant; but the careful omission of reference to this leads us to the conclusion that He ate with them, fellowshipped them, in order to lead them to repentance rather than as a sign that He accepted their repentance. It has at times been argued that "sinners" is a technical term used by the Jews to refer to all the 'people of the land', the non hyper religious Jews. But E.P. Sanders has given good reason to think that "sinners" in the Gospels means just that- moral sinners, bad people in moral terms (8). The way Jesus broke bread with Judas is perhaps the parade example of Jesus demonstrating that His table was indeed open to sinners, even impenitent ones- in the hope that the experience of eating with Him would lead them to repentance (Mt. 26:20-25 cp. Jn. 13:18-30)
The Essenes
John the Baptist clearly had some associations with the Essenes, and yet it was he who prepared the way for Christ. Yet the Lord Jesus seems to have gone out of His way to invert and criticize the exclusivity of the Essenes by welcoming people of all kinds and levels of holiness or sin to His table; He was seeking to clarify that his human support base was in fact quite misguided. The Manual of Discipline of the Essenes taught that meals were only to be shared with those of the same level of holiness as yourself; exclusion from eating at table was a punishment for various infringements of law, just as some churches today exclude members from the "table of the Lord" for certain periods because of some 'offence'. The Essenes had the concept of being in 'good standing' with the elders and the community; and only those in good standing could eat at the same table. Table fellowship became something of an obsession with the Essenes- exactly because in sociological terms, it controlled the very definition of the community. It was felt that by eating with those outside the group, the whole group would be defiled: "To eat with an outsider or a lapsed member was a highly serious offence, because it was to eat or drink an uncleanness which then crept into the human sanctuary and defiled it" (9). Jesus and the later New Testament teaching of imputed righteousness contradict this; holiness can be passed on by contact with Jesus, whereas we can't pick up any guilt by association from whom we eat with. The guilt by association mentality was rife in first century Judaism: "The demand for separation was based on a desire to avoid contamination through contact with outsiders" (10). Time and again, Jesus consciously challenges these positions; He welcomed children and the lame and blind who came to Him in the temple (Mt. 21:14), when the Damascus sect of the Essenes didn't permit "the blind, lame, deaf, feeble-minded and under-age... even to enter the community" (11). The Qumran group's interpretation of Ps. 41:9 is significant. The familiar friend "who ate my bread with me" is interpreted in the New Testament as referring to Judas, who fellowshipped with Jesus but betrayed Him. But 1QH 13:23,24 interpret this as meaning that woe is prophesied to any who share table fellowship with sinners and therefore their judgment is just and avoidable if they had only eaten with the righteous. Jesus was aware of this of course and seems to have purposefully fellowshipped Judas, knowing the consequences. His wilful, conscious critique of Essene sensibilities about table fellowship was humanly speaking foolish; because this was the very power base which John had prepared for Him to establish His Kingdom upon. But instead He shunned that and preferred to establish His Kingdom on the basis of tax collectors, the despised, the morally fallen, the irreligious. Even more fundamental was Christian teaching that atonement and forgiveness of sins was to be achieved through the death of the Lord Jesus on the cross and a willing association with His blood, through which His righteousness, which was God's righteousness, was imputed to the believer. Qumran and Judaism generally believed that holiness was "attained by strict devotion to the Law and by conscious maintenance of cleanness from any physical and ethical impurity... [this] was considered an alternative means for atonement" (12). Crudely put, if you sinned, then you atoned for that by keeping distance from sinners. The Lord Jesus taught that forgiveness was from Him, from His death and association with a crucified criminal, and you met together with other sinners to celebrate this by eating together with Him and them. This was so different to the Jewish view.
An Analysis of Table and Eating Incidents
An analysis of the eating incidents in the Lord’s ministry reveal that He purposefully used them in order to turn established patterns of table fellowship on their head. Within His community, there was to be a profound disregard for the notions that your bread was to be broken only with those of appropriate relationship to you, status or purity. The following table, adapted from another writer, shows if nothing else how many are the incidents of table fellowship recorded in the Gospels; and how insistently and consciously the Lord worked to demonstrate that table manners were radically changed at His table.
A Chronological List of Table-Fellowship Incidents in Jesus’ Ministry
Category A – Jesus uses meals to reconfigure kinship relations Category B – Jesus disregards a person’s status during a meal Category C – Jesus disregards purity rituals involved in meals







Wedding Feast at Cana






Banquet at Levi’s House






Picking grain on the Sabbath






Sinful Woman at Simon’s






Too busy to eat; family comes






Feeding the 5,000






Eating with unwashed hands






Feeding the 4,000






Mary & Martha






Eating with unwashed hands






Prominent Pharisee/ dropsy

B, C





He eats with sinners

A, B











Anointing at Bethany






Jesus washes the disciple’s feet






Lord’s Supper






Two on route to Emmaus






Appearance to the Ten






Breakfast by the Lake






It could also be noted how frequently the Lord uses food and meals as a basis for His teachings (e.g. Mt. 11:18,19; 15:20; 22:2–14; 24:38; 25:1–13; Lk. 10:7; 11:5-12; 12:36; 13:26; 14:16–24; 17:8; Jn. 4:31–34; 6:25–59). There is simply huge emphasis within the Gospels upon eating and table fellowship. The meals of Jesus are noted, and His parables often refer to meals and eating together (Mt. 21:31,32; 22:1-14; Lk. 7:36-50; 10:38-42; 11:37-54; 12:35-38; 14:1-24; 15:1,2; 11-32; 19:1-10; 24:30-32; Jn. 2:1-12; 21:1-14). Sorry to keep underlining the point, but this is without doubt a major theme of the Gospels. Clearly, we are intended to learn something from this emphasis. The huge focus upon meals and table fellowship which we find in the Gospels clearly carried over in significance to the early church; because having given such emphasis to Christ's open table fellowship in his Gospel, Luke in Acts records how the disciples broke bread with each other in their homes as a sign of their unique fellowship in Christ (Acts 2:42,46). Significantly, it was by eating with Gentiles that Peter openly demonstrated that God had accepted Gentiles (Acts 10,11). In first century Judaism "meals... were principal expressions within Judaism of what constituted purity. One ate what was acceptable with those people deemed acceptable" (13).
The Feeding Miracles
The feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels; it is highly significant, not least because of the utterly open fellowship which Jesus demonstrated, especially bearing in mind that the meal was consciously intended as a foretaste of the future Messianic banquet. The food was shared with no respect to boundaries and without any tests of purity or ethnicity. The Pharisees would’ve been disgusted. Mark especially brings out the connection with the breaking of bread, because he describes both events with the same words and as following the same order of events- Jesus taking the bread, blessing it, and giving to the disciples. Jn. 6:51-59 appears to be John’s version of the “breaking of bread” Last Supper discourses in the other Gospels. They record the Lord taking the bread and saying “This is my body”, but John puts that in terms of Him saying “I am the bread of life”. The point is that we are to understand in a very deep sense that that bread really “is” Jesus. Not literally, of course, but to such an extent that we accept His actual presence with us at the “breaking of bread”.
The Messianic Banquet
The Bible images salvation as a feast with God at His table. The salvation of Israel from Egypt forms the source material for many later allusions to our salvation in Christ- and it was celebrated by Israel being invited up to Mount Sinai to eat and drink with God (Ex. 24:9-11); and it was regularly commemorated in the Passover meal. The future Kingdom of God was spoken of as a meal on a mountain, “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, for all peoples” (Is. 25:6-8). Then, death itself will be on the menu and God will swallow it up. It is pictured as an eternal feast which will last eternally.  People from all nations of the earth are to be God’s guests. No one is to be excluded. The records of the feeding miracles are presented in terms of this Messianic banquet. They describe the guests as not merely squatting on the ground, but the Greek word for “reclining” is chosen. They likely didn’t actually recline, but this word is chosen in order to heighten the similarity with the Messianic banquet. Jesus set no conditions for participation, nor did He check out the ritual purity or morality of those thousands who reclined there. We are reminded of how at the Last Supper, Jesus shared bread and wine with those who seriously misunderstood Him, of whom He had to ask “Do you now believe…?”, and knowing full and painfully well that one of the twelve was to betray Him. The Lord’s eating with 5000 people, some of whom were likely Gentiles and many were children, was an allusion to the future Messianic banquet to which the “breaking of bread” also looks forward; His meal times were therefore a foretaste of the final banquet, and the point is, He invited all and sundry to be present at them. There was a super generosity of Jesus in the feeding miracles, to the point that baskets full of leftovers were gathered up because of the super abundance of the provision [this point is emphasized in all the records]. This theme of generosity is continued in the way at the early breaking of bread meetings, the early believers “ate their food with glad and generous hearts”, sharing what they had in common. We see here one of many strands of evidence that the Lord’s feeding miracle, with its openness and largesse, was seen as the template for the breaking of bread meetings practiced by the early church.
The Symposium
There was in the first century Mediterranean world a form of banqueting known as the symposium. There was a formal meal, drinking of wine, an address, often of a religious or philosophical nature, and often sexual entertainment. The church at Corinth had clearly turned the breaking of bread meeting into such a symposium. It could be argued that the early church simply adopted the format of the symposium for their communion meetings (14). But there was to be a radical difference- the attendees were of various social classes and races, and men as well as women were to be there [symposiums were typically for men, or the women sat separately]. It has been pointed out that the symposia featured "ceremonialized drinking" (15), which helps us see how the breaking of bread meeting instituted by Jesus could so easily have been turned into a kind of symposia. But the symposia were meetings of equals, from the same civic or business association, guild or philosophical college;  the idea of the communion service being a gathering of sinful believers in Christ from all parts of society and of both genders, slave and free, was radical. Significantly, Mk. 6:39 describes the huge crowd sitting down to eat with Jesus in symposia. He redefined the idea of a symposia. The abundance of food would have reminded the crowds of the descriptions of the Messianic banquet in the Kingdom as having super abundant food. All who wanted to partake were welcome; there was no attempt by Jesus to interview all those men, women and children and decide who was clean or not. Vine comments on the significant fact that the Lord blessed the meal: "According to the Jewish ordinance, the head of the house was to speak the blessing only if he himself shared in the meal; yet if they who sat down to it were not merely guests, but his children or his household, then he might speak it, even if he himself did not partake". His leading of the blessing was therefore a sign that He ate with these people and / or considered them as His own household. Luke's parallel record speaks of the crowds reclining to eat that meal (Lk. 9:14,15 kataklino)- to invite us to see it as a real banquet. The later feeding miracle occurred on the other side of Galilee to Magdala (Mt. 15:39), suggesting the miracle occurred in Gentile territory, with people present from "far off" (Mk. 8:3; hence the guests "glorified the God of Israel", Mt. 15:31). Surely there were Gentiles present at that meal, and the LXX uses this phrase to speak of how Gentiles from "far off" would come and sit down at the Messianic banquet of the last days (Is. 60:4; Jer. 26:27; 38:10; 46:27).
The Feeding Miracles
John’s account of the feeding miracle is surely intended to reference the “breaking of bread” meeting; he uses the verb eucharistein  to describe how Jesus blessed the food, and this word has a ritual, religious sense; it wasn’t simply a giving of thanks for food, but rather a blessing over it. John’s Gospel is different from the synoptics in that he prefers to not state some things which they record but rather expresses them in more spiritual terms. Thus John has no command at the end to be baptized; but Jn. 3:3-5 makes up for this by telling us that we must be born of water and Spirit to enter the Kingdom. Likewise the extended record of the Last Supper discourses in Jn. 13-17 contain no specific command about the breaking of bread. But I suggest this is because John’s record of the breaking of bread command is presented by him in the account of the feeding miracle in Jn. 6; indeed those words about the bread of life are often read in order to introduce the breaking of bread service. Strangely, closed table communities often use John 6 to do this; but the context of John 6 is a radically open table to thousands of people! A case can be made that the material in John’s Gospel is comprised of a number of sections which in their first usage would’ve been the exhortation / homily / sermon given at early “breaking of bread” meetings amongst John’s converts (16). In this case the seven “I am…” sayings in John would be his form of recording the Lord’s statement that “This is My body… This is My blood”. “I am the bread of life” is therefore John’s way of recording “This is My body”. Likewise John’s record of the Last Supper discourses focuses upon the abiding presence of Jesus (Jn. 13:8,13; 14:1-6,16-28; 15:1-11,26; 16:7,12-16; 17:20-26). This again is his equivalent of “This is My body… My blood… Me”.
Clearly Jesus intended His meal with that huge crowd to be a foretaste of the future Kingdom. To exclude people from the Lord's table is therefore tantamount to saying they have no place in God's Kingdom. Hence Paul warns that we can eat condemnation to ourselves by not discerning the body of Christ; by excluding some from His table, from the one loaf, we are saying they are not in His body, not possible candidates for His Kingdom; and thereby we exclude ourselves from that body. It's not surprising that the early church, at least in Corinth, allowed the meeting to turn into the kind of 'symposia' they were accustomed to. The church of later ages, including our own, has struggled terribly in the same way. The communion service has tended to become a club, a meeting of equals, and too often it has effectively been said "If he's coming, if she's accepted there in fellowship, then I'm out of here". In essence we are faced with the same temptation that was faced and succumbed to in the earlier church- to turn that table into a sign of our bonding with others of our type, rather than allowing the radical challenge of Christ's table fellowship to really be accepted by us as a radical advertisement to the world of Christian unity. The Jewish sensitivity regarding your table companions has too often been transferred to the church of our day.
The Radical Openness of Jesus
The table manners of Jesus were simply inclusive rather than exclusive. And when it came to dealing with those who differed, such as the followers of John the Baptist, His attitude was that whoever isn’t against is for (Lk. 9:50). John the Baptist’s followers clearly believed in demons, yet God still worked with them; they were against fellowship with the disciples of Jesus, and yet for all their practical and doctrinal failures, Jesus graciously considered them “for” Him and not “against” Him. The fact that at His very last supper, He chose to eat with the man whom He knew was not at all “with” Him shows His insistence upon trying to teach to the end that He sought to treat people as family in order for them to become family, He shared His Kingly table with sinners in order to invite them to His level. And it was not only in His choice of table companions that the Lord challenged existing beliefs about purity and fellowship; He did away with the concept of clean and unclean foods, declaring all foods clean (Mk. 7:19). It was hard for even His disciples to accept this (Acts 10:14-16; 15; 1 Cor. 10:23-27); how much harder for the Jews as a whole. The Lord also refused to uphold the idea of ritually washing before meals; He had none of the paranoia about uncleanness being picked up through how you ate and whom you ate with.
As taught throughout Luke 14, the idea of the Messianic Banquet as a table for “the just” and “the blessed” was reversed- rather would it be populated by the unclean and unrighteous living on the edge of town. Truly “In Jesus' interpretation of the heavenly marriage feast and other traditional statements about politico-religious and social relations, the significance of the meal- the food, the host, the guests, the circumstances- is absolutely reversed. Temple and sacrifice, family, priesthood, and nation are radically redefined… in contrast to the Passover that brings the family together, Jesus' sacrifice breaks it apart to create new bonds” (17). Meals served as boundary markers between groups, reflecting religious and social stratification- and Jesus reversed all that by opening His table to all. Although 21st Century Western society has departed somewhat from this, meals have been that way in most cultures over history. For only humans eat collectively as families; there is a sense of assurance and community in eating together (18). The way Jesus opened His table was and is radical indeed. It is just as radical for those of us brought up to think that the “breaking of bread” must be closed and fenced off to any believers who interpret Scripture differently to us, or “who fellowship with those who do”, as stated in the “Four clauses concerning fellowship” of the church of my youth.  We mustn’t fail to perceive how radical were Jesus’ actions at His table: “When Jesus subverted conventional mealtime practices, he was doing far more than offering sage counsel for his table companions. Rather, he was toppling the familiar world of the ancient Mediterranean, overturning its socially constructed reality and replacing it with what must have been regarded as a scandalous alternative” (19).
The Breaking of Bread and the Table Manners of Jesus
The question, of course, is whether we are to understand the “breaking of bread” as a religious meeting as being a continuation of the meals Jesus ate. The simple fact is that meals were religious acts in the time of Jesus. Indeed, nearly all the meals recorded in the Bible have some religious or spiritual significance. Especially in the book of Genesis, meals are used as signs of covenant making, reconciliation, peace, agreement, forgiveness and acceptance. There was far more to meals than merely eating together. The fact is that for many of us today, there is no significance attached to which table in McDonald’s you sit at. But we are quite wrong to read that attitude back into the meals we read of in the Bible. So I believe we are to see all the meals of Jesus, including the Last Supper and His continued eating with us today, as all on the same continuum. His table manners were radical, there can be no doubt about that; it would be strange indeed if a ministry noted for those radical meals was to be concluded by a Passover-style meal with a closed table and an expectation that we should keep it likewise closed.
The connection between the Last Supper and the previous meals of Jesus during His ministry ought to be obvious- it was one other meal, and meals had religious significance in the context in which Jesus held them. The participants are spoken of as “coming together to eat” (1 Cor. 11:33), as if the “breaking of bread” was also a meal, after the pattern of the original "breaking of bread" being a Passover-style meal. Hence it is called a "love feast" (Jude 12), and Acts 2:42,46,47 speak as if it involved eating a communal meal together. If we can accept that the original “breaking of bread” was indeed a meal, it would seem almost axiomatic that access to the “bread and wine” as in the “emblems” would have been open. For would the early brethren really have said: “You’re welcome to eat everything on the table except the unleavened bread”? Or would they really have invited those present to pray and worship with them before and after the meal, but not while they were praying for and taking the bread and wine? There is no hint even that this was the case.
The disciples perceived the link between their eating with Jesus at meal tables, and the future Messianic banquet- for James and John asked that their favoured places at Jesus’ table during His ministry be retained in the future Messianic banquet (Mk. 10:35). There was a super generosity of Jesus in the feeding miracles, to the point that baskets full of leftovers were gathered up because of the super abundance of the provision [this point is emphasized in all the records]. This theme of generosity is continued in the way at the early breaking of bread meetings, the early believers “ate their food with glad and generous hearts”, sharing what they had in common. We see here one of many strands of evidence that the Lord’s feeding miracle, with its openness and largesse, was seen as the template for the breaking of bread meetings practiced by the early church.
The same Greek words for "break bread" are used in the healing miracles, where Jesus broke bread and gave it to the crowds (Mt. 14:19; 15:36), and for how Jesus took bread and broke it at a meal with the Emmaus disciples (Lk. 24:30); those two words are also used to describe how Paul 'broke bread' with the passengers and crew on board ship (Acts 27:35). So the evidence would seem to be that the meals of Jesus [which were open to all, sinners included] were of the same category and nature as the memorial meal known as "the breaking of bread"- for the same phrase 'breaking bread' is used (Mt. 26:26; Acts 2:46; 20:7; 1 Cor. 10:16; 11:24). The same rubric of taking bread, blessing and giving to the disciples is found in the feeding miracles as in the Last Supper, and in the Lord’s post-resurrectional eating with the couple in Emmaus- as well as in Paul’s exposition of the Christian “breaking of bread” which we have in 1 Cor. 11. Mark’s Gospel seeks to draw a parallel between the Lord’s feeding miracles and the last supper “breaking of bread”. In each account, there is the same action recorded: Taking, blessing, dividing and giving out (Mk. 6:41-44 cp. Mk. 14:22-25). That same four fold theme is to be found in the “breaking of bread” which Paul shared on the stricken ship in Acts 27:33-37, where we note that how he “gave thanks” is described using the verb eucharisteo. Truly “One cannot escape the Eucharistic shape of [that] story” (20).
It’s a hard job for those who wish to separate the open ‘breakings of bread’ performed by Jesus and Paul from the “breaking of bread” as in our Christian ritual of remembrance of Christ’s death. They would have to argue that ‘breaking bread’ is used in different ways in the New Testament. Contrary to what their position requires, “”Breaking of bread” was not a standard Jewish designation for a full meal, but only for the ritual act that initiated it” (21). The Emmaus disciples were particularly struck by the way in which Jesus blessed and broke the bread (Lk. 24:30-35), showing that ‘breaking bread’ isn’t used to simply refer to any kind of eating. Note how Luke comments on Paul’s “breaking bread” at Troas: “After he had broken bread and eaten” (Acts 20:11). ‘Breaking bread’ isn’t equal to simply eating any old meal. Likewise the word eucharistesas is associated with the “giving thanks” for the bread and wine at the breaking of bread (Mt. 26:26; Mk. 14:22; Lk. 22:17-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-25; Acts 2:46); but this isn’t the usual word which would’ve been used to describe giving thanks for a meal. That would’ve been eulogia, equivalent to the Hebrew berakah. The word eucharistesas seems to have a specific ritual, religious sense (as in Rom. 14:5; Jubilees 22:5-9); some argue that it means to give thanks over something, in this case the bread, rather than to simply give thanks for e.g. a meal. It is therefore highly significant that this is the word also used for Christ’s breaking of bread to the 5000 strangers, Gentiles and semi-believers in the desert, and Paul’s breaking bread with the sailors on the doomed ship (Jn. 6:11,23; Acts 27:34-36). This strongly suggests that we are to see in those incidents a spiritual, ritual ‘breaking of bread’ rather than a mere sharing of food.
Our tendency is to suppose that there were different types of meals together; some religious and some secular. Closed table communities, faced with the inclusive example of Jesus’ meal tables as recorded in the Gospels, are forced to assume that He was just simply eating with people with no religious overtones. But that is simply not the case; all eating together at the same table was seen as a religious act. If it were not, then there wouldn’t have been the scandal caused by His eating with sinners (e.g. Lk. 15:1,2). “All meals in the ancient Mediterranean world were to some extent ritual occasions… our concern for distinctions among types of meal fellowship was not theirs” (22). Especially in first century Palestine, the teaching of the religious Jews had made table fellowship of huge importance. They taught that the way to resist the Roman occupation of their holy land was to themselves be holy, to only break bread with faithful Jews, to magnify Jewish religious separation and unity amongst themselves. For Jesus to teach and practice an open table to Gentiles and non-religious Jews was infuriating for the Jewish religious elite. It has been well observed: “Jesus welcomed those outcasts into table-fellowship with himself in the name of the Kingdom of God, in the name of the Jews’ ultimate hope, and so both prostituted that hope and also shattered the closed ranks of the community against the enemy. It is hard to imagine anything more offensive to Jewish sensibilities” (23). And many believers of our day have likewise been crucified by their brethren for adopting the same position as their Lord.
But just as meals are a major theme of the Lord’s ministry before His death, so they continue to be after His resurrection. Nearly all the resurrection appearances feature Jesus eating with people (Lk. 24:13-35, 36-43; Mk. 16:14-18; Jn. 21:1-14). Not only are the words used for the “breaking of bread” meeting identical with those used at the feeding miracles of Jesus in His ministry, but the order of events is identical- He took bread, blessed it, and gave to the disciples to give to others (Mt. 26:26; Mk. 14:22 re. the “breaking of bread”, and Mk. 6:41; 8:6; Lk. 9:16; Jn. 6:11). Luke’s Gospel records seven meals of Jesus (Lk. 5:27-39; 7:36-50; 9:10-17; 10:38-42; 11:37-54; 14:1-24; 19:1-10), and then presents the last  supper (Lk. 22:7-38) and two meals after the Lord’s resurrection- the breaking of bread at Emmaus and then with the disciples in Jerusalem (Lk. 24:13-53, 36-53). The meals recorded are all either in Jerusalem or on the way to or from Jerusalem. It appears that Luke intends us to see them all as seamlessly connected. The “breaking of bread” scenes are just as “open” as the other meal scenes at which Jesus radically challenged the “closed table” mentality of the Judaism of His day. It would be strange indeed if Luke were to record how Jesus was radically “open” in His table manners and then intend us to understand that the last  supper was a closed table affair- and that fellowship in the community of believers depends upon upholding a closed table.
There is the strong sense that if you break bread with someone, then you are sharing their theological positions and lifestyle. This is perhaps the strongest psychological reason why some make a closed table the litmus test of a church they are willing to belong to. But the table manners of the Lord Jesus showed the very opposite approach. In any case, if, e.g., the leadership of a church are teaching a non-Trinitarian Jesus, a full blown Trinitarian will not come near that church. And if they do and if they take a nip of bread and sip of wine- so what? That doesn’t make you a traitor to the cause of non-trinitarianism. The sense that we have become as others who are breaking bread with us is really guilt by association; and this is not taught in Scripture, indeed the very opposite is taught; not least in the example of the Son of God who became so closely involved with sinners in order to save them. There really would have to be hard Bible evidence provided that we are counted as those with whom we break bread; and it’s not there.
(1) This point is exemplified powerfully in Patrick Skehan, The Wisdom of Ben Sira (New York: Doubleday, 1987) p. 220.
(2) Jerome H. Neyrey, The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation (Peabody, MA: Hendrikson, 1991) pp. 361-387.
(3) Scott McNight, Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, Eds. Michael Wilkins and J.P. Moreland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995) p. 64.
(4) Jacob Neusner, From Politics to Piety: The Emergence of Pharisaic Judaism (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1973) p. 83, and see too his The Idea of Purity in Ancient Judaism (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1973).
 (5) I.H. Marshall, The Gospel of Luke (Exeter: Paternoster, 1978) p. 697.
(6) Israel Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels (New York: KTAV, 1967 ed.) p. 55.
(7) J. Marcus, Mark 1-8 (London: Doubleday, 2000) p. 231.
(8) E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (London: S.C.M., 1985) pp. 174-211.
(9) Bilha Nitzan, 'The idea of holiness', in D.K. Falk, F.G. Martinez and E.M. Schuller, Sapiential, Liturgical and Poetical Texts from Qumran (Leiden: Brill, 2000) p. 145.
(10) P.R. Davies, 'Food, Drink and Sects', Semeia Vol. 86 (1999) p. 161.
(11) M.A. Knibb, The Qumran Community (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1987) pp. 109,110.
(12) Craig Blomberg, Contagious Holiness (Leicester: I.V.P., 2005) p. 81.
(13) Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography (London: Doubleday, 2000) p. 473.
(14) Dennis Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist (MN: Fortress, 2003).
(15) W.J. Slater, Dining in a Classical Context (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991) p. 7.
(16) Barnabas Lindars, Behind the Fourth Gospel (London: S.P.C.K., 1971) pp. 23,47,61.
(17) Gillian Feeley-Harnik, The Lord's Table: Eucharist and Passover in Early Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981) pp. 130,131,144.
(18) See Mary Douglas "Food as a System of Communication" in In the Active Voice (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982) pp. 82-124.
(19) Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) p. 550.
(20) Mark Stamm, Let Every Soul be Jesus’ Guest (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006) p. 45.
(21) John Koenig, The Feast of the World’s Redemption (Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 2000) p. 91. This is confirmed in Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969) p. 131.
(22) Stamm op cit p. 47.
(23) Norman Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (New York: Harper and Row, 1976) p. 103. Indeed Perrin goes so far as to argue that it was Jesus’ table fellowship behaviour which led Him to His cross.