Contagious, What?



Wow, I never knew food could be so theologically important! As prominent as dining is in Scripture, there are surprisingly few sustained studies on the topic. In this book Craig L. Blomberg features one of the few works of its kind – a survey of food and meals in Scripture – and he concludes with some contemporary applications.

Chapter two was particularly stunning – I’d say this is some of the finest Biblical Theology I’ve ever come across. In this single chapter, Blomberg surveys key Old Testament texts in sequence to see what emerges. Somehow he manages to highlight every passage in the Old Testament in which a meal plays a particularly significant role. He starts in Genesis where the one prohibition God gave the first human couple was not to eat of the tree, and then goes through more than 100 other passages in the Old Testament where a meal is in view. Reading through it all was an experience difficult to describe – like charting my way to an island I’ve been to before but i’d never noticed how beautiful it was until now!

As I read through the 32 page chapter there were so many passages that popped out as either brand new to me [What? Elisha ordered flour to be put into a pot of poisonous stew? (II Kings 4)] or more theologically rich than I had ever noticed before. For example: Psalm 111:5 which declares that Yahweh “provides food for those who fear him; he remembers his covenant forever.” How delightful! Or similarly, Isaiah 55:1-2 depicts salvation as an invitation to those longing to eat and drink:

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;

and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk

without money and without cost. 

Why spend money on what is not bread, 

And your labour on what does not satisfy? 

Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, 

and your soul will delight in the riches of fare.” 

Blomberg explains,

“By likening his message to water, wine, milk, and tasty, nourishing, life-giving food, Isaiah makes it clear that it is not mere intellectual cognition he desires, but a chewing and digesting, an inner appropriation in which the total self is involved (cf. Ez. 2:8-3:3). He also wants to emphasize that the acceptance of his message is not like eating spinach or some other distasteful food. Not only is it tasty and life-giving; it brings joy!” 

Just beautiful. But interestingly, the overall impression emerging from the majority of the texts surveyed in this chapter is that meals in the Old Testament helped to draw boundaries. Only those who in some sense belonged were included; the total outsider was not welcome (64). In Chapter three, Blomberg then surveys intertestamental developments in table fellowships and finds that many of those texts emphasize the need for ritual purity, separation from sinners and related boundary markers (68). This background in turn helps to explain why everyone was up in arms when Jesus showed up, associated, and even ate(!) with all sorts of “down-and-out” people. Back in the day, the Jewish common meal seems to have had a “crucial position as possibly the most tangible expression, not only of the communal character of the group but also of its ‘purity’ and its genuine ‘priestly stamp” (80). Apparently, from one’s eating habits one could determine a person’s morality, piety, sociability, efforts for war or peace, parentage and friendships (91).

This gets me into the heart of the book. Besides my awe at some of Blomberg’s title headings, e.g.: “Chapter 4: Jesus the consummate party animal?” (97) or “How not to win friends and influence people: Matthew 8:11-12” (112) I was finally able to grasp why so many of the Jewish leaders felt Jesus’ breach of social and religious conventions as he ate were so outrageously disgusting and ultimately, wrong! For one, Jesus constantly hung out with people who were seen as “particularly corrupt above and beyond the general immorality” (99). As Blomberg describes,

“Jesus defies the conventions of his world by his intimate association with a group of people deemed traitorous and corrupt in his society.  Still, Jesus does not condone their sinful lifestyles but calls them to repentance, transformation and discipleship…it is a story about saving grace, for there are no penalties and no demands, except to follow Jesus.” (101).

Jesus’ meals with sinners give the world “a spectacular alternative” (103). Jesus’ gathering with ritually impure people and his fellowship with all kinds of “undesirables” show his meals to be symbolic of “the joy of God’s uncalculating forgiveness, and a pointer to the eschatological messianic banquet.” (italics original, 106). Constantly, the heterogenous make-up of the crowds especially in the Gospel of Luke come to the fore. As one Biblical theologian puts it,

“Once the boundary-setting and boundary-maintaining function of meals is recalled, the failure of Jesus and his disciples either to observe this role or otherwise to encourage the crowds to observe practices affiliated with it is startling. Here are thousands of people, an undifferentiated mass of people, some undoubtedly unclean, others clean, some more faithful regarding the law, others less so. The food itself – is it clean? Has it been properly prepared? Have tithes been paid on it? Where is the water for washing in preparation for the table? Such concerns are so lacking from this scene that we might miss the extraordinary character of this meal, extraordinary precisely because these concerns are so completely absent…Again, Luke’s narration underscores the degree to which God’s benefaction is without limits.” (Quoted on page 108). 

Elsewhere Blomberg alludes to this as the “great reversal” which would have shocked and no doubt angered Jesus’ original audience. But why? Why would Jesus go so far and break so many culturally and religiously accepted rules? Why would Jesus get so dangerously close to the untouchables?! Ah, and here is where we get to some of the goodest stuff! We find out that perhaps most strikingly of all, “Jesus is not defiled by his contact with impurity but instead vanquishes it through the eschatological power active in him. We might thus speak of holiness for Jesus, rather than sin, being that which he views as ‘contagious‘” (102-103). Jesus regularly associates with the various sorts of sinners on whom the most pious in his culture frowned, but his association is never an end in itself. As Blomberg says so artfully,

“Implicitly or explicitly, Jesus is calling people to change their ways and follow him as their master. But unlike so many in his world (and unlike so many cultures throughout the history of the world), Jesus does not assume that he will be defiled by associating with corrupt people. Rather, his purity can rub off on them and change them for the better. Cleanliness, Jesus believes, is even more ‘catching’ than uncleanness; morality more influential than immorality.” (128). Jesus’ rationale for associating with the outcasts is simple: he wishes to draw them to God. It remains striking that Jesus uses table fellowship as the setting for redrawing the religious boundaries of his world (150).” 

Wow, if there aren’t a billion potential implications in that one paragraph then I don’t know what else is going on. “Jesus does not assume that he will be defiled by associating with corrupt people. Rather, his purity can rub off on them and change them for the better.” If all Christ followers believed only that, how different would our fellowship be?