Jesus the Model of Mercy: The Open Table of God 

David McLoughlin shows us that God’s circle is a circle of inclusion. So Jesus keeps widening the circle because his mercy has no limits.

Three Egyptian men are eating a traditional breakfast outside.
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Mealtimes in Jesus’ life all too often involved boundaries, whenever possible, one ate the right kind of food with the right kind of people. The extreme practices of exclusion from the shared table of the Qumran sectarians, set out in the Dead Sea Scrolls, take to another level the widespread presupposition that sharing and participating in meals with sinful and impure people corrupts God’s holy people. Ritual and moral impurity seem to have been considered contagious, while strangely, catching holiness was not!

Mercy has no limits

Jesus initiates a different practice. He welcomes those who are morally ‘suspect’ by the prevailing standards, initially demanding nothing from them but their presence at his table. He has no fear of being contaminated by contact with them. On the contrary, he seems to think that when they experience something of the generosity of the Kingdom, it will change them and enable them to follow his way. This practice seems very particular to him as it is not reflected in the Roman or Jewish practices of the time, nor, for that matter, in the early church’s relationship to serious sinners. In the stories of the feeding of the crowds in the wilderness, we have this writ large. There is an open guest list, no chance or time for rituals of purification or cleansing. God’s unconditional acceptance is enacted, the abundance of provision symbolises the generosity of God’s freely given forgiveness, and points to the messianic banquet proclaimed by the prophets.

Jesus does not merely transgress boundaries as with his choosing to eat with Zacchaeus. His actions are purposeful. They provoke Zacchaeus’ conversion of heart, repentance, and discipleship. Zacchaeus’ promise of repayment will leave him as poor as the widow leaving her last coin in the Temple offering box and will demand just as great an act of faith. There is a confidence in Jesus’ engagement with the marginalised, the ritually unclean, the sinner. A confidence that he will not be defiled by them, but they will be touched by what the theologian Blomberg calls his “contagious holiness.” The restoration, which for some happened through his healing touch, for others occurred in the intimacy of his inclusive meals.

Parables and parallels

The parables open up the reality, but they also provoke thought – what could make a difference? What is the role of all the baptised and especially of those called to preach and teach?

What is required is the re-establishment of a sense of mutuality, of fundamental relationship or kinship. Without this, it is possible for the rich to continue to exploit the poor, seizing land and building great estates (Latifundia) through the manipulation of debt and patronage. First mentioned by Cato in his work On Agriculture, it became Roman imperial policy. The shared space that they all once inhabited as Israel, God’s free people, has been undermined. Not only undermined but re-interpreted. The poor are now to believe this situation is God’s will and a blessing upon the rich and powerful. In our time, the martyr saint, Archbishop Oscar Romero challenged similar practices in Argentina and named them as structural sin.

As Jesus tells the story of the Great Banquet in Luke 14:12-24 and the über-wealthy man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-13, both situations unravel – the destitute on the street become the honoured guests at the heavenly banquet. How is this possible? Either something is wrong here and now, or something is wrong in the afterlife. The story of Lazarus is strange since it includes the ordinary everyday world, a beggar at the door, with the world of the elite who are not part of the everyday. However, in telling this story, Jesus’ listeners begin to see the relationship between the stellar wealth of the minority super-rich and the growing poverty of the masses. In both stories, Jesus’ followers are given an insight into how the status quo might change – through a rediscovery and re-embracing of the vision of kinship and hospitality that Moses and the prophets demonstrated. A re-embracing of what Israel is meant to be. It is particularly fitting that Jesus depicts Abraham embracing Lazarus. The wealthy elite had adopted Abraham as the symbol of their class and its ethnic purity, legitimating their rule (Luke 3:7-9). But in Jesus’ story, Abraham is now the one who restores true kinship and hospitality to the destitute, welcoming them as his own children (Luke 13:28-29).

The sharing of food in both stories also establishes the parameters of relationship. Jesus’ practice points to a latent universalism within his teaching on the Kingdom of Abba. The Rabbis sought to define circles of inclusion within which righteousness could be secured. The wealthy landowner in Luke 14:15-24, whose first guests refuse his generosity, goes to those outside the gates: to the tanners, butchers, beggars, prostitutes, the strangers and foreigners and draws them into the circle of his warmth and light as welcome guests. He has lost the honour due him from his peers, so he chooses to surround himself with those who formerly had no honour or status. God’s circle is a circle of inclusion. Jesus keeps widening the circle as with the hated Samaritan, formerly outside the circle of righteousness, now becomes the minister of divine compassion.

Rituals of reversal

Anthropologists tell us that “To know what, where, how, when and with whom people eat is to know the character of their society.” (Farb and Amelagos, 1980, p.211). Jesus’ stories of the open table fellowship of the Kingdom are shocking. He tells of invitations to meals that do not map against class, gender, status or moral worth. He seems to have acted out his own teaching by eating with people of any and every station, ignoring all distinctions. And as you would expect, he is fiercely criticised, with his enemies saying he eats with tax collectors, sinners, and whores (Luke 7:33-34; Matthew 11:18-19). Implicitly suggesting he is no better than those he associates with. It is not surprising that even his family (Mark 3:20) came to take him back home because they thought he was “beside himself”, i.e., mad!

The Pharisees clashed with Jesus over his eating practice. In the face of Greco-Roman corruption and their leader’s collusion, in order to keep the purity of Jewish life, they had taken all the dietary and purity rules applicable to the Priests and Temple practice and adapted them to the domestic table of the home. Their pure homes took the place of the impure Temple. They lived a priestly spirituality not unlike the idea of the baptised as the priestly people of God. But in the process, they effectively cut off the mass of the peasants of Galilee and Judaea from their circle of holiness. The poor could not give the time and effort to maintain such ritual practices of purity and tithing, nor could they afford to buy only from certain sources and suppliers.

Jesus’ shared meals are a direct provocation to such pharisaic practices. For them, he is unclean because of the people he eats with. He is contaminated by associating with the sinners and the unclean/impure. Jesus’ response is clear and direct. He locates the centre of God’s people differently, outside of defined holy spaces. At his meals, outsiders become insiders as an enactment of the coming of God’s Kingdom. “Many will come from east and west, from north and south and sit at table in the reign of God.” (Luke 13:29; Matthew 8:11). Jesus’ meals then become rituals of reversal, challenging the received wisdom of the religious and social elites and effectively witness to the breaking in of God’s reign among the very people that their practices exclude.

Then as now, the basic struggle of peasant families, who form the basic unity of Jesus’ society, was to survive between harvests. Harvests which were the fruit of their labour on their own small family holdings, which in Palestine were seen as God’s gift, that which made them “the people of God – Israel”.

The Lord’s Prayer as petition

In the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 the prayer has four direct petitions:

May your Kingdom come!
The bread we need each day give us today.
Cancel our debts for us, as we too have cancelled for those indebted to us.
And do not lead us to the trial.

The first line asks for God’s direct intervention. And then we see why they need that intervention. The petitions lay bare the political and economic situation of the Galilean peasants under Roman occupation and the collusive leadership of their leaders and priests.

The appeal for bread speaks of ever-present, commonplace hunger. When their harvest fails, they starve. When their overlords call in too much produce, they starve. When their resources grow limited, they resort to loans. Loans from neighbours are fine and the assumption is they will be paid back interest-free – as and when. But when all are without surplus, then loans must be made from their Roman or Greek landlords, and Jesus tells us elsewhere, in his parable of the dishonest steward, that their interest rates were extortionate, 25% on grain and 100% on oil (Luke 16:1-8). Unable to meet their repayments, they eventually have to mortgage their land and all too often forfeit it. Families are broken up, children are sold as debt slaves, and the men become wandering day labourers without shelter or family networks to support them and with increasingly short life expectancies.

The petitions of the Lord’s prayer address this reality and speak of an alternative equitable use of resources. It is not simply utopian. They are not expecting God to do everything. Those praying already commit themselves to renew the ideal of the Mosaic covenant with its expectation of cancelling each other’s debts. It is a prayer of petition but also of commitment to revive the cooperation and mercy of the covenant within their village communities. So much of Jesus’ conflict with the “Scribes and Pharisees” is not so much over ritual purity laws but over their focus on the support and maintenance of the Temple and formal religion. This was at the expense of the basic subsistence needs of the people of the land. In Mark 7:1-13 Jesus criticises the Scribes and Pharisees for finding ways to avoid supporting those in need, even parents, by declaring their wealth “korban”, for the use of the Temple after their death. Elsewhere, he criticises them as “devouring widows’ houses” in Mark 12:38-40.

So, the context for the Lord’s Prayer is villages where people are hungry and are in debt to one another. There is clearly a persistent worry about the basics: food, clothing, and shelter (cf. Luke 12:22-31) and elsewhere, Jesus addresses the reality of those without land, day labourers, and debtors (cf. Luke 16:1-8). It is precisely to such village communities broken by economic pressures and misplaced ritual requirements that Jesus addresses his ministry and teaching. Into such, he sends his disciples to work, accepting the subsistence support they may be offered. In other words, their presence is to be a help, not a burden, and their message comes without hidden costs attached, as in Luke 10:8-11.

A renewed communal life

Jesus’ mission addressed this breakdown of the Mosaic covenant. He was not primarily calling individuals to private acts of faith but whole village communities to a renewed and healthier shared life under the Father God’s reign.

So read again Luke 6: 27-49 in the light of this. Read it as a teaching to communities fractured by debt pressures, e.g. “to the one who ask from you, give, and from the one who borrows, do not ask back… But love your enemies, and do good and lend.” The enemy here is not the Romans but the neighbour who owes you! Taken as an exhortation to local communities, it echoes the spirit of the Covenant, e.g., Deuteronomy 15:7-11. “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful” asks the members of the communities to reflect God’s generosity as reflected in Leviticus 19:2. It re-enforces the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer.

Effectively, in the face of economic and social fragmentation, Jesus is provoking a renewal of the people’s prophetic vision. He teaches there is an alternative! He shares the prophetic vision of the Kingdom of the merciful Abba and its promises and their worth within it and then underlines the principles of the Kingdom in terms of a renewal of the Covenant’s mutual sharing and cooperation. It is a call to a renewed communal life, starting from the local, and capable of resisting the powerful, political and economic forces that would undermine it.

Further reading

Blomberg, C.L. (2005) Contagious Holiness: Jesus’ meals with Sinners. Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press

Crosson, J.D. (1994) Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. San Francisco: Harper

Farb, P. & Amelagos, G. (1980) Consuming Passions: The Anthropology of Eating. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Horsley, R.A. (2011) Jesus and the Powers: Conflict, Covenant, and the Hope of the Poor. Minneapolis: Fortress Press