Feasts and food play a surprising role in the Scriptures when you consider how many people went to bed hungry. And maybe that’s the point. While eating and drinking sustain human life, they also create the opportunity to celebrate God as the One who provides life. And they then become metaphors throughout both the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament of any kind of event where human needs are met.
Where so many were chronically hungry, the power to control food was in the hands of the wealthy. That was one reason Israel created laws to protect their poorest citizens from starvation by giving permission to eat grain from a neighbor’s field, or leave some for the poor at harvest time (see Ruth 2).
Eating together provided social bonding, such as in families where everyone trusted the other. That Joseph’s brothers ate a meal after so callously tossing him into a pit to die has extra harsh rings through this ancient ‘food lens’ (Gen. 37:23).
Jesus told a parable about a rich man who wouldn’t provide even crumbs for poor Lazarus begging at his gate—only to have their roles dramatically reversed in the afterlife. As the poor are rich and the rich are poor, Lazarus is now in the place regarded as the highest bliss by Jews, the bosom of Abraham. When the rich man begs for mercy from Hades for drink, Abraham addresses him as ‘child’, implying that although he was a Jew by birth, there was no guarantee of his eventual place in paradise. The parable continues to have impact in a society divided by the well-fed and the hungry (see Luke 16:19-31).
Matthew 22 has another parable Jesus tells to explain the kingdom of heaven built around a banquet. The king prepares a dinner feast for his son’s wedding and since meat was eaten only at special festivals, the killing and preparation of ox and cattle was a special treat. Yet the guests ‘paid no attention and went away—some to their fields, others to their businesses’ (Matt. 22:5, Common English Bible). The servants went out to find those who would like to be guests and the lesson of hearing the Kingdom message instead of turning away was heard with extra amazement for those who would never turn down an invitation to such plenty.
In fact, Israelite faith was historically grounded in and forever celebrated around a meal. The Passover showed not only God’s provision for nourishment, but also the Almighty’s protecting power. Scholars believe the Passover began as a nomadic holiday to ensure the safe passage of sheep or goats to summer pastures, and centered on the sacrifice of a young lamb or goat.
Exodus 12 – 13 tells us that the night of the Exodus, however, the Israelites were to take the blood of the sacrificed animal and smear it on their doorposts. This would be the indication that the angel of death would ‘skip over’, i.e. ‘pass over’ (or protect) the Israelites’ homes and bring damage only to the Egyptians. These chapters direct the Israelites’ descendants to never forget this towering demonstration of God’s love and protection.
“In honor of the Lord your God, celebrate the Passover each year in the early spring, in the month of Abib, for that was the month in which the Lord your God brought you out of Egypt by night” (Deut. 16:1, New Living Translation).
And so the Jews continued this practice for the next 1300 years that led to the New Testament period in which the gospels explain the three occasions in which Christ Jesus kept the Passover tradition of his ancestors. The most famous is his final meal that has become a core worship practice for millions of Christians called the Eucharist or Last Supper.
While each Gospel tells its version of The Last Supper, only Luke has a verse that precedes the sharing of the bread and wine. “For I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:16, New Revised Standard Version). Then what happens at the end of Luke’s Gospel? The risen Christ shares meals.
The first is with the two men leaving Jerusalem for Emmaus, despondent over the crucifixion and not yet aware of the stone rolled away. Christ Jesus eventually reveals himself , and when? At the meal, where “he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them“ (Luke 24:30, NRSV).
In John’s Gospel, Jesus appears as the disciples have returned to their earlier fishing profession. Catching nothing, they realize their Master is on the shore and has prepared a meal of fish and bread for them. In the centuries hence, we see that the meal that had celebrated God’s deliverance now points to the fulfillment of the Kingdom, here, now.
No wonder we continue to say a grace of thanks before partaking of a meal, remembering how much food is symbolic of God’s ever-providing love.