Saturday, 14 March 2009

Meals with Jesus (4)

Patrick Comerford

Meal 7: The Meal on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 13-35)

The “Road to Emmaus” Icon by Sister Marie Paul OSB of the Mount of Olives Monastery, Jerusalem (1990), commissioned by the Canadian theologian Father Thomas Rosica

By a huge margin, the Bible story quoted most often during the first week of the world Synod of Bishops on the Bible has been the story of disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus, according to Father Thomas Rosica, who briefed English-speaking journalists on the synod speeches.

It is said the story kept coming up at the synod in Rome last October because so many bishops and other synod members saw it as the perfect example of what the Church must do with the Scriptures: discuss them with people, explain them and let them lead people to recognise Jesus.

The Superior General of the Salesians, Father Pasual Chavez Villanueva, told the synod that the story gives precise instructions for how to evangelise the young, emphasising that it is Jesus who evangelises through his word and that evangelisation takes place by walking alongside people, listening to their sorrows, and then giving them a word of hope and a community in which to live it.

Father Chavez told the synod that today’s young people definitely share with the disciples “the frustration of their dreams, the tiredness of their faith and being disenchanted with discipleship.” They “need a church that walks alongside them where they are.”

The story of Jesus and the Disciples on the Road to Emmaus is a very rich one and one that offers a model for Christian life and mission.

After seeing all their hopes shattered on Good Friday, two disciples – Cleopas and another unnamed disciple – head out of Jerusalem, and are walking and talking on the road as their make their way together.

Emmaus was about seven miles from Jerusalem, so it would have taken them two hours, perhaps, to get there, maybe more if they were my age.

Somewhere along the way, they are joined by a third person, “but their eyes were kept from recognising him” (verse 16, NRSV), or to be more precise, as the Greek text says, “but their eyes were being held so that they did not recognise him.”

They cannot make sense of what has happened over the last few days, and they cannot make sense of the questions their new companion puts to them. When Jesus asks them a straight question, they look sad and downcast.

I get the feeling that Cleopas is a bit cynical, describing Jesus as a visitor and him Jesus if he really does not know what has happened in Jerusalem. In his cynicism, Cleopas almost sounds like Simon the Pharisee asking his visitor Jesus whether he really knows who the woman with the alabaster jar is.

Like Simon, Cleopas and his friend thought Jesus was a Prophet. But now they doubt it. And the sort of Messiah they hoped for was not the sort of Messiah Jesus had been preparing them for, was he?

And they have heard the report of the women visiting the tomb, and finding it empty. Hearing is not believing. Seeing is not believing. And believing is not the same as faith.

When I find myself disagreeing fundamentally with people, I wonder do I listen even half as patiently as Jesus did with these two.

There are no interruptions, no corrections, no upbraidings. Jesus listens passively and patiently, like all good counsellors should, and only speaks when they have finished speaking.

And then, despite their cynicism, despite their failure to understand, despite their lack of faith, these two disciples do something extraordinary. They press the stranger in their company not to continue on his journey. It’s late in the evening, and they invite him to join them.

On re-reading this story I found myself comparing their action and their hospitality with the Good Samaritan who comes across the bruised and battered stranger on the side of the road, and offers him healing hospitality, offering to pay for his meals and his accommodation in the inn.

These two have also come across a bruised and battered stranger on the road, and they offer him healing hospitality, offering him a meal and accommodation in the inn.

Jesus had once imposed himself on Zacchaeus and presumes on his hospitality. Now Cleopas and his companion insist on imposing Jesus on their hospitality. The guest becomes the host and the host becomes the guest, once again.

He goes into stay with them. And it’s not just a matter of finding him a room for the night. They dine together.

An so, in a manner that is typical of the way Saint Luke tells his stories, the story of the road to Emmaus ends with a meal with Jesus.

And at the meal – as he did with the multitude on the hillside, and with the disciples in the Upper Room – Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to those at the table with him (verse 30).

Their time in the wilderness is over, the Lenten preparation has been completed. The one who has received their hospitality now invites them to receive the hospitality of God, and to join him at the Heavenly Banquet.

Their journey continues. Our journey continues. Christ is not physically present with us on the road. But we recognise him in the breaking of the bread. And we, being many, become one body, for we all share in the one bread.

Meal 8: The Heavenly Banquet

An Orthodox icon of the Mystical Supper

Our final meal with Jesus is the climax to all the meals with Jesus.

But before we move into the full meaning of our Easter Communion, Just want you to step back for a few moments, and think about Christmas.

Christmas is a much messier and more humbling story than we allow it to be with all our tinsel and decorations and carolling.

When Mary and Joseph are refused hospitality in Bethlehem, they are not only refused a bed for the night, but they are also left without anywhere to eat.

One of their earliest experiences as a family for Mary and Joseph is the refusal or denial of hospitality … being denied both bed and board.

To refuse someone a place at your table is, of course, to deny them a place in your family. Yet, it is family duty – being of the House of David – that brings Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in the first place.

I wonder what all those family meals were like for the growing Jesus. Did Joseph tell him to eat up his vegetables? Did Mary tell him he couldn’t go out to play until he had finished eating?

As a pious religious Jewish family, they would have placed a high priority on the Friday evening meal, the Sabbath eve meal that has its own beautiful domestic liturgy in the home at the blessing of the wine and of the bread.

And then there was the usual, year-by-year round of religious meals, especially the Passover, when the saving events of the past were made real in the present, and there was hope for the future. As the child in the family, Jesus would have asked why this night was different to all other nights. What made it special?

And, of course, there would have been the usual meals associated with the cycle and rhythm of life, for bar mitzvahs, for weddings, and the meals brought to family members, friends and neighbours as they mourned loved ones at shiva.

Just as he is calling his disciples, Jesus joins his family and friends for one of these types of meals, as we know from the story of the wedding in Cana of Galilee (John 2: 1-12), the first of the signs in the Fourth Gospel.

At a wedding, new families are formed: there are new fathers-in-law, new mothers-in-law, new brothers and sisters-in-law. Eventually they become new grandparents, new uncles and aunts, when there are new grandchildren, new nieces and nephews.

And when the wedding is over in Cana, Jesus and his mother, and his brothers and his disciples return to Capernaum, where they spend a few days. No doubt, there is some bonding to be done, for there are new relationships, new ties of kinship.

But there are also hints at the wedding in Cana of the promise of the Resurrection and of the Heavenly Banquet. Have you noticed how the wedding takes place on the third day (John 2: 1), and just before the Passover (John 2: 13)?

It was a common in Jewish thinking and imagery at the time to speak of wedding banquets as a foretaste of God’s heavenly promises. The Mishnah says: “This world is like a lobby before the World-To-Come. Prepare yourself in the lobby so that you may enter the banquet hall.”

But then, so often throughout the Gospels, we find that great meals and wedding banquets provide a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet.

We are invited; but are we ready, are we prepared, to be wedding guests? (see Matthew 22: 1-14; Luke 14: 15-24). Think of the Ten Bridesmaids, and how the foolish ones are not ready when the bridegroom arrives (Matthew 25: 1-13).

On the other hand, plush dining can also tell us a lot about what the Kingdom of God is not like. Consider the story of the rich man, who dined sumptuously and alone, and left the starving, sick and dying Lazarus to go hungry at his gate (Luke 16: 19-31). This is not what the Kingdom of God is like, as Dives finds out. But he finds out when it’s too late for his own good.

The great Biblical meals celebrate not only what was, as with the Passover, but what is, in the present, and what is to come, as with the wedding banquets – new promises, new covenants, new families, new expectations, new hopes.

At the Resurrection Christ breaks down all the barriers of time and space. And so every Eucharist we celebrate today, in the present, reaches back in time into the past and makes real today the promises and hopes for liberation from slavery and sin. And the Eucharist of today also reaches out into the future and is a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet which is the completion of the promise of a New Heaven and a New Earth, the final glory of God’s creation (see Revelation 2: 17; 19: 9-10; 22: 17).

So often, we think first in terms of the Church and then in terms of the Sacraments. We think in terms of my church and its rules about who can be baptised and who can be invited to share in the Eucharist.

But we must ask again: Does the Church make the Sacraments? Or do the Sacraments make the Church?

The Church does not own the Sacraments. They are Christ’s invitation to us. There can only be one Baptism, for we are baptised into the Body of Christ, and there is only one Body of Christ.

And there can be only one Eucharist, for one being many are one body, and we all share in the one bread. In sharing in the Eucharist we are most visibly the Body of Christ … and Christ has only one body.

And the Eucharist is a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet. And when we find ourselves invited to it, we will find that there is only one Heavenly Banquet. I hope we will not be surprised like Simon to find who Jesus keeps company with at the table.

The Lent I have invited you to share with me today is a Lent that is an appropriate mixture of fasting and feasting. For our feasting and our fasting can never be separated from our hopes for the Heavenly Banquet and for the coming of God’s Kingdom.

The Prophet Isaiah challenges us about which fasts we choose and tells us (Isaiah 58: 6-9):

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

An icon of the Mystical Supper by the Orthodox priest, Father Luke (Rolland) Dingman, of Brookdale, California

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral. This is the fourth of four addresses given at the retreat for Bray Church Together in the Priory Retreat Centre, Tallaght, on Saturday 14 March 2009

Meals with Jesus (3)

Patrick Comerford

Meal 5: The Meal that never happened – the meeting with the Samaritan woman (John 4: 1-42)

For our fifth meal today, I have chosen a meal that never really happens in the Fourth Gospel, the meal that should have taken place on the outskirts of the city of Sychar, but of which we have no account.

Jesus and the Disciples have arrived at Sychar, close to Jacob’s well. But this is Samaritan territory. The Samaritans are religious and cultural outsiders for the Jewish people in the New Testament period.

Although these two people share the same land, the Samaritans are strangers and outsiders. Although they share faith in the same God and share the same Torah (the first five books of the Bible), the Jews and the Samaritans see each other as having a different religion.

At a social level, they cannot inter-marry, they cannot eat together, they cannot even share water from the same well.

Jesus tries to break down those barriers. The Good Samaritan is not a stranger but is the very best example of a good neighbour (Luke 10: 29-37).

Among the Ten Lepers who are healed, only the Samaritan returns to give thanks, and this “foreigner” is praised by Jesus for his faith (Luke 17: 11-19).

In this story in Saint John’s Gospel, which was the Gospel reading in the Lectionary last year for the Third Sunday in Lent, the Disciples are already doing something unusual: they have gone into the city to buy food; but this is no ordinary city – this is a Samaritan city, and any food they might buy from Samaritans is going to be unclean according to Jewish kosher or ritual standards.

While the Disciples are in Sychar, Jesus sits down by Jacob’s Well, and there he begins talking with a Samaritan woman who comes to the well for water. And their conversation becomes a model for how we respond to the stranger in our midst, whether they are foreigners or people of a different religion or culture.

Jesus presents the classical Jewish perception of what Samaritans believe and how they worship. The Samaritans accepted only the first five books of the Bible – the Pentateuch or Torah – as revealed scripture. For their part, the Jews of the day pilloried this Samaritan refusal to accept more than the first five books of the Bible by claiming the Samaritans worshipped not the one God revealed in the five books but five gods.

Jesus alludes to this – with a sense of humour – when he says with a touch or irony that the woman has five husbands.

In other circumstances, a Jewish man would have refused to talk to a Samaritan woman or to accept a drink form her hands.

For her part, any self-respecting Samaritan woman would have felt she had been slighted by these comments and walked away immediately. Instead, the two continue in their dialogue: they talk openly and humorously with one another, and listen to one another.

Jesus gets to know the woman and she gets to know Jesus.

A good host, as I said with the story of Mary and Martha, not only feeds the guest but shows full hospitality by engaging in full conversation with the guest.

All dialogue and all true conversation involves both speaking and listening – speaking with the expectation that we will be heard, and listening honestly to what the other person is saying, rather than listening to what our prejudices tell us they ought to say.

When the Disciples arrive back, they are filled with a number of questions. But they are so shocked by what is happening in front of them that they remain silent.

Their silence reflects their inability to reach out to the stranger.

But there are other hints at their failure and their prejudices: the woman gives and receives water as she and Jesus talk, but they fail to return with bread for Jesus to eat, and they fail to feed into the conversation about faith and about life.

They are still questioning and unable to articulate their faith, but the woman at least recognises Jesus as a Prophet.

They made no contact with the people in Sychar, but she rushes back to tell the people there about Jesus.

No one in the city was brought to Jesus by the disciples, but many Samaritans listened to what the woman had to say. And they came to faith. And they welcomed Jesus among them.

Jesus stays among them for two days … in other words, he leaves on the third day … they come to a full Resurrection faith, a full Easter faith, their time in the wilderness is over, their Lent, their time of preparation has been fulfilled.

To failure to bring back food to Jesus reflects the fact that they could find nothing in the city. But the woman returns to the city and finds people who are ready and willing to be called into the Kingdom of God.

Jesus, who is a stranger in Samaria, becomes a guest when the Samaritan woman shares spontaneously but sincerely with him at her well. But the Samaritan woman becomes the guest, and her fellow Samaritans become guests, when Jesus becomes the host and invites them into full citizenship in the Kingdom of God.

Meal 6, The unwelcoming host: the meal with the Pharisee: Luke 7: 36-50

Peter Paul Rubens: The Feast of Simon the Pharisee

My second meal for this session is a story about a meal where Jesus was a guest, but the unwelcome guest at the meal, when he was invited to the house of Simon the Pharisee.

Jesus is accused at different times of eating with publicans and sinners. He knows that his detractors point to him and say: “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7: 34).

But Jesus also eats with Pharisees too. Indeed, he may have had many meals with Pharisees, although the Gospel writers simply make a passing reference to the host without naming him (see Luke 14: 1-24), or perhaps ignore the meals altogether.

However, in our next meal, I want us to imagine an evening when Jesus is found eating with an eminently respectable member of society, a Pharisee, and leading Pharisee at that too.

Jesus is invited to dinner by a leading Pharisee, Simon, although it’s some time before we learn the name of the host that evening. Nor is it clear which city he lives in. Is it Capernaum? Is it Nain? I don’t know, I don’t know that it really matters. What does matter is that the man who should have been the host fails at his task, and the guest at the dinner becomes the true host.

Have you ever been at a dinner where you know some of the guests were invited simply to boost the ego of those who had invited them? You know what I mean by the dinner-party-name-dropping-syndrome?

Some might think Simon was suffering from DPND syndrome when he invited Jesus to dinner. I’m not inclined to think so: after all, just a few verses earlier, Jesus has come in for some severe criticism, and has given a robust response.

Simon may have thought he was doing the decent thing … a Pharisee inviting a visiting rabbi and preacher to dinner would have been common courtesy and a common experience.

Nor is there is nothing unusual, anything offensive, about the behaviour of Jesus at this meal. He takes his allotted or allocated place at the table, and he probably enjoyed the conversation with the people beside him and opposite him.

But then the drama begins.

A woman in the city, a woman known as a sinner, manages to get in. Now, despite popular portrayal and the myths of centuries, it doesn’t necessarily mean that this woman was an open and public sinner, a figure who was known for her sinful ways.

Those who were blind or who were suffering from leprosy or a physical ailment were often treated as sinners. They were seen as having brought their visible scars on themselves, or to be suffering because of the sins of their parents or their ancestors.

Perhaps she wasn’t the easy woman of popular story-telling. Perhaps she was blind, or was disabled physically in some way. We are not told.

And some people ask: how did she get into the house anyway?

But on a balmy summer’s evening in a Mediterranean house, people will normally eat in the inner courtyard that is the part of any house of substance. I just love those long evening dinners in Greece, where you break bread and pour wine for each other at long tables, and as you hand the bread and pour the wine for the person next to you, the natural response is σε ευχαριστώ (seh efcharisto, thank you), the very phrase that gives us the word Eucharist, thanksgiving.

Anyway, as they were sitting around, perhaps in the inner courtyard, giving thanks to each other, this woman slips in, unnoticed. There was no need for her to gate-crash, she probably just slipped in silently and unnoticed.

At first, even Jesus would not have noticed her, for she stands behind him.

What hurt this unnoticeable woman on the margins so much that she cried so profusely? She cries so much that she must have been deeply hurt, thoroughly dejected and rejected.

I think Rubens and the other great painters get it wrong when they show her in front of Jesus, washing and drying his feet. This woman’s very marginalisation is symbolised in four ways:

● No-one noticed her coming in, or if they did, she wasn’t worth going to the bother of throwing out.

● When she is noticed, she is regarded by all present as being a sinner, although Jesus tells us that she has been forgiven … probably long before this incident took place.

● She remains unnamed, anonymous, throughout this story. At the beginning Simon is unnamed, but eventually we get to know who he is. This woman is obviously well-known in her town, but no-one calls her by her name. And in Christian tradition, we have continued to deny her identity, often confusing her with Mary Magdalene and with the woman caught in adultery – two completely different people altogether!

● And by her physical place at the table: she is standing behind Jesus, at the back, perhaps just where the servants would have stood as they waited to bring more dishes, or clear away some empty plates. But she takes the place of the servant at the table … in other words, she is a true deacon.

The woman’s behaviour is embarrassing for Simon. He never went through the normal courtesies and formalities of welcoming a guest into the house, seeing that his shoes were taken from him, his feet washed, his head anointed.

But her alabaster and tears used for anointing and washing Jesus, his head and his feet, also prefigures something else: the women who come to wash the corpse of the Crucified Christ, and to anoint him in his grave (Luke 24: 1-11).

This woman prefigures those women who will be the first witnesses of the Resurrection.

Wanting to eject her is a rejection of the Easter faith.

Simon thinks Jesus should know who this woman really is, failing to realise that Jesus knows what is really going on in Simon’s heart.

Simon is embarrassed, not by what Jesus might know about him, but by the woman.

But Jesus is not embarrassed at all. Instead of confronting the woman, he confronts Simon, and he commends this woman for her faith. He sends her out in peace – the very dismissal that we should experience at the end of the Liturgy every Sunday, week-by-week. She is sent out as a disciple, as an apostle, as a missionary.

And Simon wants to eject her.

Not because of who she is, or because of her reputation, but because she has shown him up to be a poor host.

There is a sharp contrast between the shallow faith of Simon, the pillar of the church, and the woman, who has been pushed to the margins, a sharp contrast between those with apparent faith and no response, and those dismissed for having no faith but who are full in their response to Christ’s presence among us.

Simon fails in offering the proper hospitality to his guest. This woman on the other hand receives the full and generous hospitality of God.

Simon has no place in his house for this woman – and to be honest, no place in his house for Jesus. But God has a place for her in his kingdom.

Topics for discussion and reflection:

The conversations between Jesus and these two women, the Samaritan woman and the woman with the alabaster jar, are models for all our encounters with people we see as different or as strangers.

Am I like the Disciples, and too hesitant to go over and engage in conversation with the stranger who is at the same well, in the same shop, at the same bus stop?

Am I like Simon, and only willing to count in within my inner circle those who are like me and who behave according to my standards?

If am going to enter into conversation with the stranger, am I open to listening to them, to talking openly and honestly with them about where they come from and what they believe?

When the conversation is over, will they remain strangers?

How open am I to new friendships?

How often do I think people get what they deserve rather than sympathising with their predicaments?

Do I live up to my weekly commission to go out into the world in peace and in the name of the Risen Christ?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral. This is the third of four addresses given at the retreat for Bray Church Together in the Priory Retreat Centre, Tallaght, on Saturday 14 March 2009

Meals with Jesus (2)

Patrick Comerford

Meal 3: The meal with Mary and Martha (Luke 10: 38-42)

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Velazquez

Saint Luke’s story of the meal that Jesus has with his friends Mary and Martha is not found in the other synoptic gospels, and the only other parallel is in the Fourth Gospel, where Jesus visits Mary and Martha after the death of Lazarus.

So the meals Jesus has with Mary and Martha must be understood in the light of the Resurrection, which is prefigured by the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

For many women, and for many men too, the story of the meal with Martha and Mary raises many problems, often created by the agenda with which we now approach this story, but an agenda that may not have been possible to imagine when the Gospel according to Saint Luke was written.

Our approach to understanding and explaining this meal very often depends on the way in which I understand Martha and her busy round of activities which have her distracted, and which cause her to complain to Jesus about her sister’s apparent lack of zeal and activity.

These activities in the Greek are described as Martha’s service – she is the deacon at the table: Where the NRSV says “But Martha was distracted by her many tasks,” the Greek says: ἡ δὲ Μάρθα περιεσπᾶτο περὶ πολλὴν διακονίαν (But Martha was being distracted by much diaconal work, service at the table).

Quite often, when this story is told, over and over, again and again, it is told as if Martha is getting stroppy about having to empty the dishwasher while Mary is lazing, sitting around, chattering with Jesus.

Does Martha see that Mary should only engage in kitchen work too?

Does she think, perhaps, that only Lazarus should be out at the front of the house, keeping Jesus engaged in lads’ batter about the latest match between Bethany United and Jerusalem City?

Is Jesus being too dismissive of Martha’s complaints?

Or is he defending Mary’s right to engage in a full discussion of the Word, to engage in an alive ministry of the Word?

Martha is presented in this story as the dominant, leading figure. It is she who takes the initiative and who welcomes Jesus into her home (verse 38). It is she who offers the hospitality, who is the host at the meal, who is the head of the household – in fact, Lazarus isn’t even on the stage for this scene, and Mary is merely “her sister” – very much the junior partner in the household.

Yet it is Mary, the figure on the margins, who offers the sort of hospitality that Jesus commends and praises.

Mary simply listens to Jesus, sitting at his feet, like a student would sit at the feet of a great rabbi or teacher, waiting and willing to learn what is being taught.

Martha is upset about this, and comes out from the back and asks Jesus to pack off Mary to the kitchen where she can help Martha.

But perhaps Martha was being too busy with her household tasks.

I was once invited to dinner by people I knew as good friends. And for a long time I was left on my own with the other guest as the couple busied themselves with things in the kitchen – they had decided to do the washing up before bringing out the coffee … the wife knew that if she left the washing up until later, the husband would shirk his share of the task.

But being left on our own was a little embarrassing. Part of the joy of being invited to someone’s home for dinner is the conversation around the table.

When I have been on retreats, a times, in Greek Orthodox monasteries, conversation at the table has been discouraged by a monk reading, usually from the writings of the Early Fathers, from the Patristic writings.

But a good meal, good table fellowship, good hospitality is not just about the food that is served, but about the conversation around the table too.

One commentator suggests that Martha has gone overboard in her duties of hospitality. She has spent too much time preparing the food, and has failed to pay real attention to her guest.

On the other hand, Mary has chosen her activity (verse 42). It doesn’t just happen by accident. Mary has chosen to offer Jesus the real hospitality that a guest should be offered. She talks to Jesus, and real conversation is about both talking and listening.

If she is sent back into the kitchen, then – in the absence of Lazarus, indeed, in the notable absence of the disciples – Jesus would be left without hospitality, without words of welcome, without conversation.

Perhaps Martha might have been better off she had a more simple lifestyle, if she had prepared just one dish for her guest and for her family – might I venture to say, if she had been content for them to sup on bread and wine alone.

She could have joined Mary in her hospitality, in welcoming Jesus to their home and to their table.

In this way, Martha will experience what her sister is experiencing, but which she is too busy to notice – their visitor’s invitation into the hospitality of God.

One commentator, Brendan Byrne, points out the subtle point being made in this story:

“Frenetic service, even service of the Lord, can be a deceptive distraction from what the Lord really wants. Luke has already warned that the grasp of the word can be choked by the cares and worries of life … Here the cares and worries seem well justified – are they not in the service of the Lord? But precisely therein lies the power of the temptation, the great deceit. True hospitality – even that given directly to the Lord – attends to what the guest really wants.”

Meal 4: The meal with Zacchaeus: Luke 19: 1-10

An icon showing Jesus calling Zacchaeus down from a tree in Jericho

Later on in this Gospel, Jesus is also the guest of Zacchaeus in Jericho.

Once again, this story is unique to Saint Luke. Shortly after telling the story of the Pharisee and the Publican in the Temple, Jesus arrives in Jericho – perhaps the home city of the man who was helped on the side of the road by the Good Samaritan.

There, a man who wants to see Jesus is probably pushed to the back of the crowd for two reasons that count him out: he is small in stature, and he is a tax collector.

The physical problem shows how Zacchaeus is pushed to the margins by those who should have counted him into their social and religious community. He is of little stature not just physically, but socially too.

Can you imagine yourself as a little child trying to see a great parade – perhaps a Saint Patrick’s Day parade – when you were small?

Did everyone want to let you through?

Or did you not count?

No-one stood aside for you. And no-one is going to stand aside for Zacchaeus. They belittle him, and they probably think he deserves it – after all, the taxes he collects support the Roman occupation and administration.

But Zacchaeus overcomes, rises above, his exclusion, by climbing the tree – is there a symbolic reference here to clinging to the Cross? In any case, Zacchaeus climbs the tree to see Jesus – something you could imagine a child doing, but surely not the sort of thing a well-paid civil servant should be seen doing?

Zacchaeus sees Jesus and Jesus sees Zacchaeus.

And Jesus invites himself not just to dine with Zacchaeus, but to stay with him.

“Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for I must stay at your house today” verse 5).

Normally, it is the potential host rather than the intended guest who does the inviting. So once again, Jesus the Guest becomes Jesus the Host.

Zacchaeus is delighted. But the good burghers of Jericho are unsettled. They murmur that Jesus is heading off to dine with sinners.

We are so self-righteous at times in our churches that we are very unwilling to welcome those who would be seen today as the little people. One rector I know in a comfortable South Dublin parish challenged his parishioners, who are very generous in their giving, especially when it comes to development agencies, mission agencies and what we once called Third World causes.

He asked them how they would react if a group of travellers turned up on a green space in the parish on a Saturday night, and all of them presumed to come to church on the following Sunday morning.

In welcoming Jesus, Zacchaeus has what only be described as a conversion experience.

The NRSV translation tells us that he promises to amend his ways and that, in the future, he will give half his possessions to the poor, and return anything extra he has squeezed out of people when he has been collecting taxes.

Oh, the joys of being a PAYE/PRSI worker in the tax system we have in Ireland!

Unfortunately, the NRSV translation is a little inaccurate here. Zacchaeus makes no such promise about the future. He says, in the original Greek, that this is what he is doing in the present – the present tense is used.

If he’s telling the truth, then Zacchaeus has been grossly misrepresented, misunderstood and libelled by his neighbours and within his own community, even at the point where he is dining with Jesus.

The present tense is important. For this day, on this day, Jesus affirms that Zacchaeus too is a child of Abraham, that he too is an heir to those promises made long, long ago to Abraham.

Those who needed conversion were not Zacchaeus and others like him on the margins, who were in need of seeing people as Christ sees them.

Jesus seeks out the sinners, the lost, those who are excluded, those counted out, and invites them to the heavenly banquet. Like Zacchaeus, they too are brought from the margins into the centre.

The one person everyone thought was outside, is on the inside as far as Jesus is concerned. And those who think they are on the inside are in danger of finding that they are on the outside.

Some questions for consideration

Are we welcoming enough, as individuals and as a Church?

Is your Church a Martha-style church or a Mary-style church?

How would you feel if Jesus came to Bray tonight and decided not to come to your church tomorrow morning, but to go somewhere else?

What if you were left without Jesus being present in your church tomorrow morning … in either Word or Sacrament?

How often are we prepared to welcome Christ’s presence among us only in the way we choose?

For those in the Roman Catholic tradition, do we neglect Christ’s presence in the Word too often?

To those in the Protestant tradition, do we neglect Christ’s presence in the Sacrament too often?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral. This is the second of four addresses given at the retreat for Bray Church Together in the Priory Retreat Centre, Tallaght, on Saturday 14 March 2009

Meals with Jesus (1)

Patrick Comerford


How many of you have given up some food treats for Lent?

How many of you have given up chocolate?

How many have given up sweets?

How many have given up cakes, sweets and biscuits?


There was a priest in this diocese once who was reputed to have said superciliously that every Lent he gave up that slice of lemon in his Gin and Tonic.

We often associate Lent with giving up something, especially with giving up some aspect of food or drink.

And we also make a mental association between the forty days of Lent and the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness.

This was the Gospel reading we had this year on the First Sunday of Lent (Mark 1: 9-5), two weeks ago (1 March 2009).

Although, surprisingly, that reading does not say that Jesus fasted while he was in the wilderness … it says he was there “forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1: 13). It is only Saint Matthew who says he “fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished” (Matthew 4: 2).

And, I suppose, many of us also make a mental association between the forty days of Lent and the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness, on the one hand, with, on the other hand, the forty years of exile the freed slaves spent in the wilderness after they came out of Egypt.

But fasting is not about starvation.

Saint Mark tells us the angels waited on Jesus while he was in the wilderness during those forty days (καὶ οἱ ἄγγελοι διηκόνουν αὐτῷ). While he was there, they were deacons to him; they served him at his table. The verb διακονέω means to be a servant to, to serve, to wait upon, to attend to, especially to wait at a table and offer food and drink to the guests. It is often applied to women preparing food, supplying food and the necessities of life, meeting the needs of others, even taking care of the poor.

So, unlike Matthew, Mark implies that in the wilderness, Christ was waited up and served by God’s messengers and agents.

Similarly, in the wilderness, the freed salves did not go without being fed. Before they went out into the wilderness they were fed at the meal of Passover. And while they were in the wilderness, they did not starve either: they were fed on manna and on quail.

So often, times in the wilderness and important covenant moments are always linked with sacred meals. Think about the Passover meal, the Last Supper and the Heavenly Banquet.

And so in Lent – even if you have given up chocolate, or that slice of lemon in your Gin and Tonic – it is not inappropriate to be thinking of meals, thinking of covenant meals during this Lenten retreat.

More precisely, it is appropriate because Lent, like those times in the wilderness, was originally more about preparation rather than about reparation; initially, it was more about looking forward to future hope than looking back on past sinfulness.

In the Early Church, Lent began as a time for the catechumens to prepare for baptism, to prepare for dying with Christ and rising again with Christ, and so it was a time of preparation for their participation for the first time in the Eucharist, in the Holy Communion, in the Liturgy.

For those Christians who had erred or drifted away publicly from the communion of the Church, this season of Lent was a time of preparation for restoration to full communion.

As I thought about this I was struck once again by the image of the Prodigal Son who is welcomed home by his Father, and how his father celebrates the son’s restoration to full membership of the family with a meal (Luke 15: 11-32): “Let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” (Luke 15: 23-24).

In other words, Lent is essentially a reminder for us that we were baptised into the Body of Christ, the Church, and we exist as the Church because we come to full life as Christians as we take part in the banquet.

“We who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (I Corinthians 10: 17).

Or, as we say in our Eucharistic acclamation at the fraction in the Church of Ireland:

“The bread which we break is a sharing in the body of Christ.

“We being many are one body, for we all share in the one bread” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 218).

We are invited together to the meal. And the one who invites us to dine with him at his table is not the priest who presides at the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Liturgy. The one who invites us is Christ himself.

He invites us not just to the meal Sunday by Sunday, he invites us especially at Easter, because we are baptised into that Body of Christ that best expresses itself in the Easter faith. And he invites us, of course, to look forward to the Heavenly Banquet.

And in looking forward to the Heavenly Banquet this Lent, I invite you today to join me on this retreat in reflecting on some of the meals with Jesus that are a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet. In each session, we shall look at two meals, we will have some for discussion, and I will leave us with some questions for reflection at the end of each session.

Meal 1: The Hospitality of Abraham (Genesis 18: 1-15)

Are you a little surprised to find that our first meal with Jesus is a meal in the Old Testament?

The story of the Hospitality of Abraham is a key story in the Hebrew Bible. One day in his old age, Abraham finds himself sitting at the opening into his tent, in the heat of the day. And unexpectedly he finds himself welcoming three strangers by the oaks of Mamre. He takes good care of them, sits them down, washes their feet and brings them food and drink.

In welcoming these strangers, Abraham and Sarah find they are welcoming angels, and receiving God as their guest, they come into full communion with God.

Sometimes the guests are referred to in the plural. But sometimes the story uses the singular form when we are told that the Lord is appearing to Abraham, as Abraham addresses “My Lord” and as we are told the Lord spoke.

As a consequence, God makes a promise to Sarah that at first seems laughable and unbelievable. But this is a key story in the unfolding of God’s plans for all of humanity and all of creation.

The story is traditionally depicted in Orthodox iconography as a visit not by strangers or even by angels, but as a visit by the Triune God, with Christ as the central figure. Many of us are familiar with Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Hospitality of Abraham.

Of course the pre-existent Christ exists before the incarnation. Through him all things were made. And his invitation to dine with him transcends all our understanding of past, present and future.

The guest becomes the host. The stranger at the table becomes the host who invites us to dine with him.

Hospitality is no mere human transaction – “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25: 35).

This story has many resonances of the meals that Jesus will have with strangers in the New Testament, and is also an anticipation of the heavenly banquet.

This story is also reflected in the Letter to the Hebrews: “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

Meal 2: The feeding of the multitude (John 6: 5-15)

As you are aware, while Saint John’s Gospel gives us to most detailed account of the conversation around the dinner table at the Last Supper, this Gospel contains no institution narrative.

Instead the whole Gospel can be seen as a Eucharistic commentary, a commentary that continues, of course, in the Book of Revelation.

Indeed, the first of the Signs in Saint John’s Gospel is the Wedding at Cana (John 2: 1-12), and Saint John’s Gospel concludes not with the Ascension but with another meal, the breakfast by the shore of the Sea of Tiberias and the conversation that follows (John 21).

The Early Church, as it read the Fourth Gospel, would have understood each meal in the light of the Resurrection, with a post-Resurrection faith and understanding, and in the light of the weekly Eucharistic meal. And this understanding, of course, would also have applied to John’s account of the Feeding of the Multitude, which we also know as the miracle of the loaves and fish.

There are six different accounts of two miracle stories associated with the Feeding of the Multitude.

The first story, the feeding of 5,000, is reported by all four Gospels (see Matthew 14: 13-21; Mark 6: 31-44; Luke 9:10-17; and John 6: 5-15). This is the only miracle – apart from the Resurrection – that is found in all three Synoptic Gospels and in Saint John’s Gospel. The second story, the feeding of 4,000 is told by both Mark (Mark 8: 1-9) and by Matthew (Matthew 15: 32-38), but not by either Luke or John.

According to the Gospel narratives, the first feeding of the multitude takes place after Jesus has been teaching in an area away from the towns. He insists that the people are fed where they are, rather than being sent away to the nearest towns. The Synoptic Gospels tell us that this takes place in a desert place near Bethsaida, but the Fourth Gospel does not identify the location, merely telling us that this is a grassy place on a mountain overlooking the Sea of Tiberias.

The only food the disciple can find among the crowd is five small loaves of bread and two fish. Saint John also tells us that these came from a single boy in the crowd (verse 9). Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it the people – which is precisely what happens in the Eucharist: the bread is taken, blessed, broken and given in every Eucharist, and that would have been immediately understood by those who heard this story being read out loud in the Early Church.

The Synoptic Gospels tells us that there are 5,000 men there that day, not counting the women and children. So, perhaps, 15,000 or more people are fed in groups of fifty and a hundred. Then, after the meal is over, the disciples collect the scraps, filling 12 baskets.

Saint Luke’s account links the Feeding of the Multitude with Christ talking about both his coming death and the coming of the Kingdom (see Luke 21-27).

In the Fourth Gospel, the preceding food miracle is at the Wedding in Cana, where Jesus turns the water into wine. Now we have a miracle with bread. The Eucharistic connection of bread and wine is obvious even to the first-time reader.

But the story is also full of Messianic hope because it recalls the story of King David. When David first fled from King Saul, he fed his small group of followers, those who acknowledged him as the rightful king, with the priest’s bread, asking the priest: “Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here” (I Samuel 21: 3).

In the Fourth Gospel, the account of the Feeding of the Multitude is followed with the conversation Jesus has with the crowds who follow him to Capernaum. The main motif in the passage (verses 26-59) centres on Jesus saying: “I am that bread of life” (verse 48). In this way, Jesus links the Feeding of the Multitude with the feeding of the people in the wilderness with manna and with the heavenly banquet and the coming of the kingdom (see John 6: 25-40).

More strikingly, this story echoes that of Elisha who fed 100 men with 20 loaves of bread (2 Kings 4: 42-44), saying: “For thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left’.” The feeding of the multitude therefore may be seen as a demonstrative prelude to Jesus words, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in will never be thirsty” (John 6: 35).

And the feeding with the fish is a prelude to, looks forward to another meal by the shores of Lake Tiberias … that breakfast with the disciples when Jesus feeds them with bread and fish.

Once again, Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to those he is feeding (John 21: 13).

The fish is an early Christian symbol of faith in the Risen Christ: Ichthus (ἰχθύς, capitalised ΙΧΘΥΣ or ΙΧΘΥC) is the Greek word for fish, and can be read as an acrostic, a word formed from the first letters of several words, spelling out Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ (Iēsous Khristos Theou Huios, Sōtēr, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour).

Yet, Jesus puts no questions of belief to either the disciples or the crowd when he feeds them on the mountainside. They did not believe in the Resurrection – it had yet to happen. But Jesus feeds them, and feeds them indiscriminately.

The disciples wanted to send them away, but Jesus wants to count them in.

Jesus invites more people to the banquet than we can fit into our churches.

Some questions for discussion:

How welcome is the stranger in my church?

How would I feel when, just as I was looking for a moment’s rest and peace, I was disturbed by the arrival of three strangers?

How far does my hospitality extend?

How seriously do I listen to what strangers have to say to me?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral. This is the first of four addresses given at the retreat for Bray Church Together in the Priory Retreat Centre, Tallaght, on Saturday 14 March 2009.