“Bring a miracle and request a table. Those you heal must accept you into their homes….The deliberate conjunction of magic and meal, miracle and table, free compassion and open commensality, was a challenge launched not just at Judaism’s strictest purity regulations,…but at civilization’s eternal inclination to draw lines, invoke boundaries, establish hierarchies, and maintain discriminations…. Those distinctions were hardly even attacked in theory; they were simply ignored in practice.” — John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus.
In a post earlier this month, I wrote about Crossan’s interpretation of Jesus’ advocacy of a “brokerless Kingdom” that drew on the inexhaustible, easily accessible resource of the Holy Spirit. Crossan suggests that we have inverted Jesus’ order: seeking support of Jesus’ servants so that they might perform miracles of healing. By doing things in that order, we have created a “brokered Kingdom”, which misses the radical nature of what Jesus taught and imitates instead the “Kingdoms of this world.”
In this post, I want to follow up on Crossan’s interpretation of what Jesus sought from those recipients of miracles in response: commensality.
In sociology, which is from where Crossan is approaching the concept, commensality is all about the significance of food sharing, and that significance is enormous. Some evolutionary biologists have even proposed that humans evolved upright posture in order to have free hands to carry and share food (see this abstact). Whether that’s true or not, food sharing is as fundamental to human social groups as is grooming to other primate species. Crossan notes on page 341, quoting Lee Edward Klosinski, that:
“…sharing food is a transaction which involves a series of mutual obligations and which initiates an interconnected complex of mutuality and reciprocity. Also, the ability of food to symbolize these relationships, as well as define group boundaries, surfaced as one of its unique properties.”
Crossan further stresses on the same page that:
“…commensality is not almsgiving; almsgiving is not commensality. Generous almsgiving may even be conscience’s last great refuge against the terror of open commensality.”
John baptized. Jesus is not recorded spending much time doing so. I do not imply that Jesus opposed baptism, obviously, but I do suggest that whereas John may have seen his preparatory role as symbolizing one’s birthright into the kingdom, Jesus seemed far more interested in breaking down the barriers of inequality within the dawning kingdom itself. And if we are to be faithful, perhaps we need, like Jesus, to be relatively more concerned with eliminating the barriers among those already inside the Kingdom than in increasing entry into the Kingdom.
I suggested in the earlier post linked above that Crossan’s interpretation translates into terms with which the Restoration tradition is comfortable: apostasy, for example, corresponds to the artificial limiting of the free flow of the Spirit for the benefit of the religious establishment. To what, then, would the notion of commensality correspond?
I suggest that commensality can be seen in Restoration terminology as “covenant” — perhaps even as the essence of the “new covenant”. Commensality is obvious, of course, in the sharing of the Last Supper, reenacted in the sharing of food and drink in probably every Christian denomination in one form or another. Christ brings the miracle of the Atonement, and we pledge to keep the commandments which He has given us through a symbolic meal — that we may have His Spirit to be with us. In other words, it involves keeping that healing resource of miracle continually accessible.
But the same process of covenant in human relations is also apparent in the other ordinances within the community. God brings the miracle of birth, and the holding of a child becomes the symbol of the covenant of parenthood. God brings the miracle of sexual love, and it is symbolized by a public acknowledgement of livelong (in some cases, beyond lifelong) commitment to partnership as family. A blessing of healing is symbolized by a touch and results in a covenant both to forgive sins and to sin no more between God and the healed.
The most basic human interactions are elevated to symbols of covenant, if Crossan’s logic is to be followed to its conclusion, because those symbols don’t require brokering by specialists either. There is simply no Miracle Working 101 (or even graduate level Miracle Working 541) available to add to your transcript at any Christian seminary. Priesthood is simply the basket in which the manna is transported; it doesn’t make the manna form.
Commensality implies an egalitarian relationship that is not imposed at the top of society by institutions of government or church. Rather it is an egalitarianism that is granted by the One who could be King, but who has covenanted to be our Friend. Our response to miracle is a covenant to be friends with all who have been beneficiaries of the miracle and are willing to share covenants with us.