What’s for Dinner? Dining in the Gospels

In this installment in our series of eating (animals) in the gospels, I want to focus on those places where Jesus dines with others – excluding miracles and the Passover meal, which I address in separate posts.

There are a few places where the gospel writers present Jesus eating with others, often being invited over for dinner. I would like to focus on Mark 2:15-17; Matthew 9:9-13; and Luke 5:29-32. In these parallel passages, Jesus dines at Levi’s house. There is also the story of Jesus dining at the Pharisee’s house in Luke 7:36ff. And another Pharisee’s house in 14:1ff.

(1) Eating at Levi’s House with Sinners (Mark 2:15-17; Matthew 9:9-13; Luke 5:29-32).

And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples – for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Mark 2:15-17 NRSV

There are some minor textual variants for this passage. Some readings say “the scribes and the Pharisees” rather than “the scribes of the Pharisees.” Some readings add “and drinking” after “eating.”

Matthew’s version has a few minor variants as well, but also a major addition: just before the last sentence, he adds: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'”

The only interesting shift in Luke’s version is the addition of “to repentance” at the end.

There has already been a lot of scholarly focus on whom Jesus eats with based largely on this passage, especially among third-questers like John Dominic Crossan, who discussed, at length, Jesus’ “open commensality,” that undercuts hierarchy displayed in seating arrangements in the ancient world (e.g., look at Jesus’ saying at where to sit at the table in Luke 14:7-11).

Here he dines not with respectable people, but with sinners and tax collectors. Tax collectors would not have been impoverished, however, as some people think – just largely despised. Levi has a house and can throw dinner parties. It suggests he has at least some means at his disposal. Of course, the question remains: why were the scribes (of/and) the Pharisees there to begin with if they thought it was a place of ill repute?

I will not rehearse those issues for now. I only want to point out that the whole scene largely exists to set up Jesus’ final saying at the end of the pericope. What Jesus ate seems not even of secondary importance for this scene – it is completely overlooked or irrelevant. All we know is that Jesus ate (and perhaps drank), not what he ate.

(2) Luke 7:36ff.

In this pericope, “one of the Pharisees,” named Simon, asks Jesus to eat with him. In the process a woman in the city, a sinner, bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. She anoints Jesus’ feet with oil. Simon objects. Jesus tells a story about debt and forgiving debts. He notes that her sins are forgiven and she has shown great love. “But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?'”

Again, much hay has been made of this passage. It greatly alters the parallel passages in Mark 14:3-9 and Matthew 26:6-13.

In Mark, Jesus goes to the house of Simon the leper. It is also a dining scene, but the woman is not called a sinner, and she anoints Jesus’ head instead of his feet, which is a prophetic act and the only act in the gospel that gives Jesus the right to the title of “Messiah” or “Christ”; that is, “anointed one.” It is the equivalent of Samuel anointing David. Others – generally – object, mostly to the cost of the ointment rather than the woman’s status, but Jesus defends her, saying she has anointed him for his burial, and “what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” Famously, we don’t even know her name. Matthew’s version stays close to Mark though a bit shorter.

The entire scene is a meal. They are dining at the house of Simon (the leper / the Pharisee). If Simon was a leper, then that shows Jesus going out of his way to interact with those who are ritually unclear (or were formally ritually unclean?). If a Pharisee, it shows an interesting case of Jesus and Pharisees or a subgroup thereof getting along enough to invite into their home. (If you think this is weird, read Acts of the Apostles, which notes that some of the earliest Christians were also Pharisees without any thought that this might be a contradiction in terms – and maybe it isn’t!). Yet dining merely sets the scene for the act of anointing. Again, we will never know what Jesus ate at this meal.

(3) Table etiquette: Luke 14:7-11

Finally, the entire fourteenth chapter of Luke uses dining at the setting for Jesus telling a variety of parables and proverbs. He goes to the house of “a leader of the Pharisees” for a Sabbath meal. Jesus seems to hang out with Pharisees a lot in their homes – at least in the Gospel of Luke. It indicates he interacts with them a lot and not merely in hostile terms as we mostly see in Matthew. Jesus heals someone on the Sabbath during the process. And in vv. 7-11 shows some observations on meal etiquette.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host arrives he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 14:7-11 NRSV

Jesus then turns to the Pharisee who invited him and told him not to invite friends, relatives, or wealthy neighbors when having a lunch or dinner, but the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. Jesus then tells a parable about how such wealthy neighbors and friends were invited to a feast, but all found excuses, so the master of the feast invited the poor, crippled, blind, and lame instead.

At first, Jesus clearly understands that ancient meals were an illustration of social hierarchy. The closer one sat to the master of the feast, the higher one’s social status. He does not quite challenge this at first. But then he tells the master of the feast to invited those who normally would not be invited and, what is more, could not reciprocate and invite him in return. This seems to – slightly – undermine the social hierarchy. In the parable, it becomes a metaphor for the kingdom that those invited won’t get in, but others will take their places!

In this lengthy discussion of meals that takes up most of Luke 14, nonetheless, there is barely a hint of what food would be served, except maybe bread (v. 15), but bread a feast does not make.

In short, Jesus seems to be regularly invited to various peoples’ homes of different social locations – though all with enough means to throw a banquet of some sort – and not once does it indicate what he ate. It does, however, shed light on social configurations and how meals can reveal and perhaps challenge – even if only partially – such configurations. But what did Jesus and his fellow diners eat? We will have to look elsewhere.


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