Meals were immensely important in the time of Jesus. This was true for a multitude of reasons. Let me mention a few.
First, the whole concept of profuse hospitality that had been alive in the Hebrew experience this since monotheism was born carried into the home. If visitors, aliens, and others were welcome, and they were, to come up to one’s home and ask to join in a meal or for a place to sleep or something of that nature; if that much concern was to be shown to an unknown, then surely, certainly, there was intense concern for family around one of the key issues of hospitality–namely, taking a meal together.
Implied in what I have just said is the reality of acceptance of those people with whom one ate. To be at table together by its very nature showed acceptance of others invited to share in the same meal. One did not share a meal with an enemy, at least knowingly.
It was not happenstance that caused the Lord’s Supper, a true communal meal, to find its way into the center of the practice of Christianity. What we remember when we gather for communion is Jesus’ sacrifice of himself for doing good. Jesus lost his life, as you well know, because he stood for good, goodness, godliness and would not retreat from his perception that God is love, spilling into the lives of all people. He would not tickle the Roman emperor’s fancy by denying his, Jesus’, convictions in order to praise the Roman Empire and its carefully conceived collection of deities.
So that conflict and that loss are always in the back of our minds when we come to partake of the elements of communion. What we enact, though, when we come to celebrate the Lord’s Supper goes back to being at table at any meal. If I sit with you at table then I accept you; I affirm you. I trust you. I take you to be someone who has my back, if you will, whether or not that always turns out to be the case. Again, I am not going to share a meal, conversation, and time with someone whom I know to be against me, someone who clearly has shown or otherwise made known that she or he has no regard for my well wellbeing.
Most meals in Jesus’ day included only family members, not guests. The family may have been the extended family, probably was. Then as we’ve noted sometimes there were unexpected guests, but most of the time when there was a meal families were eating together except at expanded celebrations with feasts to celebrate the major Jewish holidays.
Let me mention a third reason why the partaking of a meal with someone was considered so important in Jesus’ millieu. The preparation of a typical meal was a long, involved process. There was no fast food of course; maybe some loaves of bread would have been made ahead, bread that might last a couple of days, but not very long. Wine was made ahead, of course, and kept in wineskins for some time. Otherwise, everything had to be prepared freshly from scratch.
Most of the cooking was done by the woman of the family or the women in the family beginning with getting to the market early enough in the morning to purchase the best items, the freshest items; pulverizing wheat stalks into flour for bread, building a fire over which the food would be cooked, and so on. Perhaps there was some awareness, therefore, though hardly enough I’m certain, of the gift of the meal. Someone had paid for the items that made up the meal. Someone had labored, diligently labored, to prepare and serve the meal so there was a gift involved in sharing what was served at table.
Given the background and context of meals, then, only good should happen during and as a result of sharing a meal together. Notice that I said, “should,” and if I had not you would be saying it silently for me. Sadly, good alone did not/does not consistently happen as a result of sharing meals together.
I stumbled across an article about the importance of meals in modern-day US America. The headline proclaimed: “Experts everywhere agree: Sharing meals helps cement family relationships, no matter how you define ‘family.’” The article quoted author Miriam Weinstein extensively. Ms. Weinstein is the author of a popular book titled, The Surprising Power of Family Meals.
Quoting the author now: “Sitting down to a meal together draws a line around us. It encloses us and, for a brief time, strengthens the bonds that connect us with other members of our self-defined clan, shutting out the rest of the world [just long enough to accomplish that].”
The article reports on the results of numerous studies that concur with Weinstein’s findings. Here are some proven benefits of families taking regular meals together except when your children are in their two’s and their teens. Just kidding. I threw in that last part, but it’s just a painful joke. We have to find a way to be at table even with those family members who don’t want to be there with us and who, thus, do everything within their power to make the rest of us sitting there uncomfortable if not exasperated.
Everyone in the family is benefitted from sharing meals together, assuming that the food served has been prepared from fresh and wholesome ingredients, not ingredients that are spoiled and will make most or all members of the family ill. If that occurs, there’s a different kind of bonding that takes place as family members wait for the next available bathroom.
We can’t get to all age groups, so let’s focus on how quality family meal time benefits the children of the family.
Children who, most of the time, have at least one daily meal with their families get better grades, develop healthier eating habits that they will carry into adulthood, have closer and more positive relationships with parents and siblings, have greater tenacity in resisting peer pressure to get into trouble, and more strength and resilience in bouncing back after one of life’s crises. More whole family meals at home was the single strongest influence in better achievement test scores and fewer behavioral problems at home, at school, and elsewhere.
Children naturally depend on parents to model good health for them, for the kids. How did we do with that, my fellow parents, or how are we doing with that? Researchers say that most US American kids, 70 percent of them, learn what they know about health from their mothers while 30 percent learn how to be healthy or not from their fathers. If you have two mothers like Lillian, then you get 140 percent of your health information from your moms. These statistics assume a two parent, in tact family unit.
Because feeding is the most basic animal form of caring, sharing meals is one of the most central family bonding acts.
More meals at home resulted in less obesity for all members of the clan.
As a result of little lessons about table manners, kids learn to share and think of others. By saying, ‘please,’ and, ‘thank you,’ researchers tell us that we recognize the humanity of our tablemates, acknowledging the fact that they deserve respect just as we also deserve respect.
About 20 percent of US American teenagers tell therapists and research specialists that if they have less than tree whole family dinners weekly, there is a high degree of stress in the family most of the time. Teens from homes where at least five whole family meals are shared in a week’s time, about 7 percent of the total–not so good!!!–report that stress is rare in their families and tension between family members unlikely.
Direct quote from the article: “More than a decade of research by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University has found that the more often kids eat dinner with their families, the less like they are to smoke, drink or use drugs.”
We are thinking together today about “bread and betrayal,” so I thought it would be worthwhile to think about some of the most remembered turncoats in history before we get to our primary character and focus.
Guy Fawkes was one of several British Roman Catholic revolutionaries who plotted to blow up most of England’s aristocracy in 1605. To set this in a bit of context, 6 years after this plot King James released for distribution his famous or infamous Authorized Version of the Bible, in time to be called the KJV, the King James Version of the Bible. It’s important to remember that King James employed professional biblical scholars to do the translation work. He may have had opinions about certain subjects that caused a translation committee to lean a certain way for the sake of their powerful monarch, but the King himself, as far as I know, did none of the translation work himself. Back to Guy Fawkes in 1605. The Gunpowder plot was stopped by authorities who caught Fawkes before he could carry out his plan to kill off the aristocrats. Rich or not, they were his fellow citizens, and he turned on them. He was willing to kill them for the benefit of the non-wealthy like himself. He was sentenced, in 1606, to be hung, drawn, and quartered, but he foiled all the King’s men by jumping from the scaffold at the last minute; this turned out to be a suicide though he may not have intended that.
Robert Hanssen was a police officer in Chicago who, in 1976, let that job to become a Special Agent for the FBI. In ‘79, he became involved with the FBI’s counterintelligence unit. Scholars of American History tell us that this professional move “paved the way for some of the most treasonous acts in American history.” In 1983, Hanssen was reassigned; this transfer was to the Soviet espionage. He was an ultra techie guy who used computers and surveillance equipment to their maximum potential. He got to know some key people at the Kremlin ending up selling lists of FBI double agents, those appearing to work for the Soviets but actually working for the US. He commanded huge sums of money for the information he could provide, and he quickly became filthy rich. His own brother-in-law ratted him out, and he was easily convicted. He is serving a life sentence in solitary confinement at the supermax security facility in Colorado.
I don’t think I’d put Jane Fonda, “Hanoi Jane,” on a list of super traitors, but some did and do. She was vehemently opposed to the Vietnam War. As the war continued with no end in sight, she sympathized with North Vietnam who was our enemy in the conflict. She went to North Vietnam and became involved firsthand in getting to know, she thought, what was really going on. She took pity on the North Vietnamese and spoke out in their favor to her fellow Americans. She interviewed numerous POW’s for television news back in the US, and those prisoners almost across the board spoke of how well their captors were treating them. After the war and their release, many of those same POW’s said they knew that had to tell Ms. Fonda what she wanted to hear or face consequences worse than they already endured once she took her leave. Many Americans including plenty of military brass wanted her tried for treason, but she was somehow able to escape it.
Julius Caesar appointed himself “dictator for life” of the Roman Empire. He was a violent man whose ways of abusing his people resulted in his assassination. Caesar’s own nephew, Brutus, joined in the secret plot to kill this dictator for life. He was therefore a traitor to his uncle and his family as a whole. A group of senators with the help of Brutus killed Caesar with their bare hands. The attack was so violent that many of the senators were themselves injured trying to kill their leader. The famous quote, “Et tu, Brutus?”, was uttered by Caesar as he saw the depths of his betrayal by his subjects, most painfully by his own nephew. Brutus would take his own life 42 or so years before Jesus was born.
How about Benedict Arnold? He was an American general in the Revolutionary War who, during the war, decided to change his allegiance to the British. One of his first responsibilities as a British supporter was to help the British takeover the American fort at West Point, New York. He failed. Is there anything worse in public life than a failed traitor? Benedict Arnold boarded a ship under the cover of darkness on its way to England. Turns out the British didn’t like or respect a traitor even if he had come over to their side. General Arnold died in poverty and virtual anonymity in Canada as the nineteenth century was dawning.
Of course, there are other kinds of betrayal other than being traitorous to one’s country.
I could mention names like John Edwards and Tiger Woods in this context, and you’d understand why. I could mention Jerry Sandusky in this context, and if you believe the charges leveled against him as the jury did, then you’d understand why his name could be mentioned in a sermon on betrayal.
I could bring up the fallen television evangelist, Jim Bakker, and if you remember him and Tammy Faye, you know immediately why I could call his name in this sermon. You may remember their wildly popular television show, “The PTL Club.” PTL stands for “Praise the Lord.” They built a huge, loyal group of viewers who kept large sums of money flowing into the all aspects of the Bakkers’ ministries and the lavish personal lifestyle. After a while, criticism and proposed scrutiny of Jim Bakker’s fundraising and financial methods. In 1979, a story appeared in The Charlotte Observer, and I remember this vividly. Being a seminarian at that time, these kinds of stories really caught the attention of myself and my colleagues. The Charlotte newspaper, which was surely a thorn in Bakker’s flesh, charged that hundreds of thousands of dollars raised allegedly for international mission efforts were actually spent for PTL upkeep, the air-conditioned dog house they built for their pet, the his and her matching Rolls Royces, and the gold pipes they had placed in their Florida condo. Investigations began, but investigators never seemed to be able to get their teeth into anything solid. Finally, the IRS got involved and found $13 million Bakker couldn’t account for. He finally told the IRS that the only way this could have happened was for the devil to have gotten into his finance computer. Even this was dismissed by the Justice Department. Finally, even with the vast amounts of money still flowing into the PTL organization, Bakker was in serious debt, and he knew that a church secretary with whom he had been having an affair was about to report her situation to the press even though Bakker had given her $265,000 to keep her mouth shut. When his debt reached $130 million he filed for bankruptcy at which point there was a major investigation leading to convictions, 24 of them–all related to mail and wire fraud. The judge sentenced him to 45 years in person and a half million dollar fine. He only served 5 of those years before another judge shortened his sentence and set him free. He is now pastoring a church devoted, he says, to winning the whole world to Jesus Christ.
Judas Iscariot. Of course, his name had to come up in this sermon. In fact, he’s the central character on whom you’ve been thinking the sermon centered. We’ll see.
This is what one internet source reports about Judas:
According to the Bible, Satan “entered Judas” before he betrayed the son of God to Roman authorities. This infamous member of the Twelve Apostles betrayed his friend for money alone – thirty pieces of silver. Judas arranged a special signal to let the authorities know the identity of Jesus Christ: he would kiss Jesus to identify him. This “Judas kiss” led to the prosecution and death by crucifixion of the Son of God, and puts Judas Iscariot at number one as the most notorious traitor in human history: Judas died shortly after his monumental act of greed.
The first time I ever heard Judas mentioned in a potentially positive light was when I was taking an introductory Second Testament course as a freshman in college. The course was called simply “Jesus,” and many of you have heard me say on more than occasion that it was one of the great courses of my academic career.
Dr. Bill Blevins gave me the tools, the information, and the impetus to start thinking about Jesus as a real person–not, as he said, the stained Jesus. As long as Jesus remained stuck in stained glass, he was the divine prisoner of the church; no one could know him, from those sources, as a real person–human even.
As the course was coming to a close we were concentrating on the passion and execution of Jesus by the Romans, and in the process of going through the events known to us about the last hours of Jesus’ earthly life, Dr. Blevins mentioned that Judas might well have been the one among the 12 closest male followers of Jesus who had the most confidence in Jesus’ ability to overthrow the Romans and give the Jews their freedom. This is what those who entertained messianic notions about Jesus wanted from him.
In recent years this stream of thought has been taken up by some of the Jesus Seminar scholars, notably John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, and what I heard from the gifted Bill Blevins 40 years ago I’m hearing from Jesus scholars today.
The church as a whole has not, by any means, bought into this notion that Judas was a good guy rather than an evil traitor. There are thinking people, though, who believe he was no villian.
Regardless of who believes what about Judas’ role in Jesus’ execution by Rome, Jesus was crucified by Rome. Now, I want to say that I’m a fan of the idea of Judas as a good guy so Jesus’ death was his worst nightmare.
At a meal, Judas finalizes his plans to betray Jesus to the enemy, but much more is going on here than meets the eye. As I mentioned at the beginning today, for something bad or evil to happen in or around a shared meal made it worse, whatever it was. Jesus at that table was celebrating with his closest, dearest, most trusted friends and associates. Certainly all 12 men in the men’s group were there at that meal, and probably also the women, who were very close to Jesus and who were with him as much as their family responsibilities would allow, very likely were there at the Last Supper.
Here’s the twist though. Judas, though he loved Jesus, thought Jesus was too soft, and his proclivity toward pacifism would not let him become aggressive with the Romans. Therefore, Judas came up with this plan to force Jesus to take action, to defend himself and his ministry. Judas believed that if he helped the authorities take custody of Jesus with talk of imprisonment and execution, Jesus would come out swinging. No. It didn’t work. Jesus couldn’t be tricked into being someone other than the person he was.
Worst nightmare. I already said it, and I’ll say it again: Judas’ worst nightmare. In the hands of a handful of Jewish leaders first then Rome, Jesus did not come out swinging. Jesus did not indicate that he wanted to fight the Romans. Jesus did not start trying to put Jewish troops together to take on the mighty Roman Empire. He moved closer by the minute to Calvary and his execution by crucifixion. Once Judas realized how out of control things were, he killed himself. He couldn’t bear to ponder what he had done to the one whom he probably loved and respected more than anyone on earth.
Those who want to keep trying to prove that Judas was the chief of all traitors focus on the payment to Judas for his assistance. Thirty pieces of silver–a pittance. Maybe enough for Judas to buy groceries for a week. That was just a business formality.
As Judas walked toward the place where he would end his earthly life, he remembered that just a few hours earlier he had been with Jesus at table. The men loved each other, just as Jesus loved all of his followers, male and female. This is part of what kept Judas going, part of his reason for being.
Jesus never betrayed a soul, and Judas surely aspired to live like Jesus, with Jesus’ values. Jesus had said so unforgettably, “There is no greater love in the human family than when one person lays down her or his life for someone else.” That kind of ethic leaves no room for betrayal. Someone has pointed out that those “who disliked the inclusiveness of Jesus labeled him ‘a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’ (Lk 7: 34). But, Jesus knew very well the power of inclusiveness, expressed in his table fellowship.”
I’m so glad that I get to sit at table with you frequently–the table of communion and the table of fellowship. Being with you at table reminds me that we will be there for each other no matter what. The affirmation others show us by being at table with us is a major source of strength for the journey.
Pass the bread, please.