“But we had to celebrate and rejoice…”
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
March 29, 2019, Words By: Fred Laceda, Image By: Used with permission CC by www.FMSC.org (license)
I have seen first-hand how eating together creates a community. We Filipinos like to eat together. Common meals are easily transformed into festive celebrations. In the Philippines, a church that eats together is a vivid image of the church truly becoming a community of faith. I suppose this is true everywhere. There is something in sharing a meal that breaks barriers, heals deep hurts, and wipes away hidden animosities.
I spent time in a camp with Muslim and tribal kids from the Southern part of the Philippines. Because the society there has a functioning hierarchy or a caste system, one does not easily dine with a fellow from a lower rank class. These divisions typically persist after people become Christians: separate worship services are gathered, maintaining the divisions of those already divided by the social hierarchy.
Local leaders challenged these deep-seated and long-standing practice of social exclusion by hosting a camp for kids coming from different groups—and let them eat together. It is a powerful image to behold, children from the most conflict-ridden places in the southern Philippines, different tribal and caste groups dining together, without a care for where each “belongs.” This is a foretaste of God’s grace and generosity, children typically barred by tradition and socio-religious constraints, dining together.
The Prodigal Son
These stories exemplify the intertwined themes of our passage: the radical effects of Jesus’ practice of eating with those considered as outsiders or sinners in their society.
Our passage is one of the most identifiable texts in the Bible—the parable of the prodigal son. It is typically read as the paradigmatic text of God’s capacity to embrace sinners. That reading is immortalized by Rembrandt’s vivid painting of the son kneeling in front of his loving and forgiving father. What is often forgotten, however, is the larger canvass where this picture is painted. This story is part of a group of parables in Luke 15. The occasion that generated these parables is Jesus’ penchant to dine with tax collectors and sinners. This provoked the religious sensibilities of the scribes and Pharisees, and perhaps it provokes us too if we are honest.
I read this parable from the vantage point of the oikos. The Greek word oikos can mean “the family, its property, and the household.” The relationship of the two sons with their father is tied up in the wealth of their oikos. The younger son requests his inheritance while their father is still alive, while the older responds bitterly to the party thrown at his younger brother and reveals the source of his resentment: the fattened calf.
Jesus’ practice of eating with those who are considered sinners scandalized his contemporaries. Yet there is a protracted development in the Christian faith that views salvation as devoid of any socio-economic dimension. This is contrary to the context of Jesus and the first Christians where the table or the oikos is the locus of God’s salvation. In Michel Foucault’s genealogical study of pastoral power he argues that “salvation” originally meant subsistence.
Transgressing Social Divisions
In Luke’s gospel in particular there are several instances where Jesus’ conflict with the religious authorities are generated by his penchant to dine with sinners. This is not mere annoyance on the part of the religious leaders. Jesus is transgressing a social and religious code by dining with a group of people that are considered as outsiders, which threatens the coherence of their society.
These mundane acts of eating together recreate community. It extends grace to those whom our society—religious or otherwise—called outsiders or sinners. This is most clearly shown in Jesus’ parable of the messianic banquet in Luke 14:15–24. It is fitting that the image of the age to come is a table fellowship! One of Christianity’s central symbols, the communion, is proleptic image and a foretaste of God’s remaking of a community. This message is particularly apt in the Philippines, where violence and scarcity are daily staples.
One final example of a renewed community comes from Penuel School of Theology where I teach. Penuel started as a Bible study for household workers in the mid-1980s. Thus when it later became a formal training institution for marginalized workers, many of our students were household workers and “day laborers.” Instead of sulking with the injustices—economic or otherwise—Penuel provides students and faculty a space for reflection; but more importantly, it provides a space to be a genuine community. Thus our classes are a constant reminder and re-enactment of the communion, sharing not just the meals but also hope.
Fred Laceda lives with his wife and two children in Manila, Philippines. He teaches at Penuel School of Theology, under the direction Nestor Ravilas, which provides theological education to grassroots leaders at the margins. Penuel is an emerging training hub in our network and Fred who holds an M.A. in Theological Studies from Asian Theological Seminary is a brilliant young leader in our network creatively addressing the issue of violence and injustice in his city.