For all people, food plays a role in everyday life. While some who are busy may see food as simply a means of subsistence, meals have a deeper meaning in most cultures, including those found in the Bible. Meals can be associated with issues like a deep concern for the poor and the value of community sharing amongst followers of Christ. Another biblical aspect is the use of meals for the purpose of missions. With so much time spent on the repast, it is not a surprise that Jesus used the mealtime—in addition to communion with believers—to transfer the gospel message to unbelievers. Meals are a good way to do evangelism.
Meals are woven into the fabric of life. Every tribe, tongue, and culture dines, with many taking great pride in their native fare. Regardless of national pride, a great amount of time is spent in the shopping, preparing, cooking, eating, and washing of the mealtime experience. If the average person eats three meals a day for a year, that amounts to 1,095 meals per person, and if, hypothetically, the average is one hour of time spent per meal, almost forty-six days of time is devoted in a year just to the event of consumption.
Meals bridge every civilization, offering any individual an instant cultural experience. A meal as a tool of evangelism bridges any cultural gap. While foreigners may not easily share in the customs, celebrations, mores, and language of a new land, they can always share in its food. Since Jesus used the mealtime as a significant aspect of his time on earth, a study of his meals proves fruitful to applied missiological studies. John Koenig writes, “Well before the origin of our Christian Eucharist, Jesus used a meal setting to inspire a vocation for outreach in his followers.” Koenig continues, “My guess—in fact my conviction—is that we have seriously undervalued our church meals, both ritual and informal, as opportunities for missionary discernment, planning, and outreach.”
In particular, the writer of Luke records many of Jesus’s meals—nineteen total and thirteen that are specific to the Gospel. Jesus uses the mealtime as a significant aspect of fulfilling his purpose on earth. Robert Karris writes, “There is considerable truth in what one wag said about Luke’s Gospel: Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal.” Markus Barth writes, “In approximately one-fifth of the sentences in Luke’s Gospel and in Acts, meals play a conspicuous role.” With Jesus’s overall purpose, as stated by Luke, being that he came to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10), the significant attention to Lucan meals would signal a substantial tool in fulfilling this purpose. Whether it was communal sharing, fellowship with believers, discipleship, training, or evangelism/mission, Jesus was very purposeful during the repast. Karris pushes further: “The extent, though, of Luke’s use of the theme of food is appreciated only when the reader realizes that the aroma of food issues forth from each and every chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Food is definitely an important theme and, as such, draws the reader into Luke’s faith-inspiring kerygmatic story. It is a theme which, because of its elemental nature, resonates at the depths of our contingent being.”
Thus, while other helpful resources look at the meaning of Jesus’s meals as a whole, this article will focus on Luke 5:27–32 as a paradigm for making meals a means of evangelism. First, we will note secular research on meals.
Non-Ecclesial Research on Meals
Secular studies demonstrate that meals have a deeper meaning to various groups and cultures. David Bell and Gill Valentine state, “the history of any nation’s diet is the history of the nation itself, with food, fashion, fads and fancies mapping episodes of colonialism and migration, trade and exploration, cultural exchange and boundary-marking.” Food choices driven by culture and forms of consumption ultimately came to be grasped as “distinguishing” citizens and nations. Pamela Kittler and Kathryn Sucher write, “Eating, like dressing in traditional clothing or speaking in a native language, is a daily reaffirmation of cultural identity.” Catherine Palmer adds, “Rituals and practices relating to food consumption are often used to define and maintain boundaries of identity; boundaries that serve to define the identity of a minority ethnic community from the dominant core identity of the nation with which it resides.”
Secular studies have shown that this thought persists today. Bell and Valentine find that food is a mode of communication that “articulates notions of inclusion and exclusion, of national pride and xenophobia.” According to Palmer, “it is the embodiment of such notions in the foods themselves and in the uses to which these foods are put that enables food to act as a boundary-marker between one identity and another.” Paul Fieldhouse finds that “food habits are an integral part of cultural behavior and are often closely identified with particular groups – sometimes in a derogatory or mocking way. So the French are ‘Frogs,’ and the German’s are ‘Krauts,’ the Italians are ‘spaghetti eaters.’ . . . The word ‘Eskimo’ is an Indian word meaning ‘eaters of raw flesh,’ and was originally used to express the revulsion of one group toward the food habits of another.”
Meals’ Deeper Biblical Concept
Eating together is more than just filling up on food; in Biblical times, it represented an association and acceptance of the individual(s) with whom one was dining. Dennis E. Smith adds: “Table fellowship is a symbol of community fellowship. The table designates a special relationship between those who sit at the same table. Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors (Luke 5:27–32; 7:34; 15:2). He goes to the house of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–9). The table is for the oppressed, handicapped and disenfranchised (Luke 7:22; 14:12–14).”
According to Jeremias:
In Judaism . . . table-fellowship means fellowship before God, for the eating of a piece of broken bread by everyone who shares in the meal brings out the fact that they all have a share in the blessing which the master of the house had spoken over the unbroken bread. Thus, Jesus’ meals with the publicans and sinners . . . are not only events on a social level but had an even deeper significance. . . . The inclusion of sinners into the community of salvation, achieved in table-fellowship, is the most meaningful expression of the message of the redeeming love of God.
Meals carry a deeper meaning than just repast consumption. The Scriptures communicate a social, spiritual, and communal dimension. Reta Halteman Finger especially emphasizes the intense communal sharing of goods as a significant aspect of biblical meal and argues that much of this has been lost in interpretations of texts like Acts 2:42–47. Finger adds, “Luke’s description is so simple in Acts 2:42–47. The believers were united spiritually and shared material possessions so that none were in need, and they ate together every day with joy. . . . Faith, work, family relationships—Luke presents a seamless whole in the daily lives of people in a subsistence economy struggling to keep themselves and each other alive and thriving.” Finger’s research portrays the biblical meal as not just a time of sustenance but of community survival and sharing in which each member looked at another as part of a community that lived and depended on one another. Yet, Fingers is realistic when applying the meal of the New Testament times to today: “Anyone with historical and cultural sensitivity knows that social practices cannot be imported whole from an earlier time and place to our present modern and postmodern societies. . . . Even if this practice was tried with great effort, the theological meaning of those meals might change or look forced.”
Though the intense communal meal and sharing aspects of Finger’s research may not be easy to apply to today’s situations, using the meal as a tool for evangelism will be. The rest of the article will focus on how Jesus used the meal as a means to add people to this fellowship of communal sharing.
Luke 5:27–32: Meals as a Means of Evangelism
One of the best examples of Jesus using meals as a means for missions is the story of his disciple Levi, also known as Matthew (Luke 6:15). When Luke introduces this character, he makes it clear that Levi is a “tax collector” and not a disciple of Jesus. His conversion does not occur until Jesus approaches him and says simply: “follow me.” At this request, the text reads that Levi left his tax booth, leaving behind his vocation to follow Jesus, becoming his disciple. According to Morris, “Matthew must have been the richest of the apostles. . . . When Levi walked out of his job he was through. They would surely never take back a man who had simply abandoned his tax office. His following Jesus was a final commitment.”
The next scene is Levi holding a banquet for Jesus in his home. The guests are highlighted. Though Jesus’s disciples are present, they are not the invitees who are emphasized. Joel Green adds, “In this pericope . . . the disciples of Jesus are again present, but they are only indirectly developed. . . . At this juncture they remain only stage props, so to speak.”
The crowd is fellow tax collectors and “others” who the Pharisees later designate as “sinners.” These guests of Levi, with whom Jesus is dining, are scandalous in the eyes of the religious leaders.
The Pharisees, mentioning tax collectors and sinners together, are in fact communicating that these two groups are conceptually unified. Tax collector would be another way of identifying a sinner. Robert Stein writes, “ Tax collectors . . . were dishonest and practiced distortion (cf. Luke 5:32). Note the advice of John the Baptist to them in 3:12–13, which assumes dishonesty, and Zacchaeus’s behavior in 19:8–9.” Therefore, tax collector and sinner would be one unified concept.
Jesus eating with such a group communicates to the Pharisees that Jesus accepts them as people but in no way endorses their lifestyle; it is clear Jesus’s purpose is mission. According to Darrell Bock, “Jesus reclines with them in meal fellowship. In doing so, he is carrying out his ministry to the spiritually needy. At the same time, Jesus offends the separatism of the Pharisees, who would have never shared a meal with such rabble.” Bock goes on to write:
The problem in their view is not mere contact with sinners, but table fellowship that seeks out and welcomes these people. As Jesus’ reply in 5:32 makes clear . . . sinners . . . refers to a wide group of people, including the potentially impious, like tax collectors. In other words, it refers to any who need to be healed and not only to the worst sinners in the harshest possible sense. . . . The Pharisees regard the disciples and Jesus’ association with such people as inappropriate for any religious leader.
Conflict arises between Jesus and the Pharisees regarding his associations. Jesus knows, just as the Pharisees that he dines with “sinners” but it is precisely their state that makes them a priority to associate with. Jesus can free the sinner with the gospel message. Jesus makes his intentions clear in 5:31–32: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (ESV). Luke develops the issue of repentance more deeply than either Mark or Matthew with the understanding that repentance is “leaving all and following Jesus.” Jesus’s eating a meal with Levi’s guests is his way of trying to reach them with the message of the kingdom, and uses the mealtime as an opportunity to communicate the gospel to those who are “sick.” Jesus knows that during the meal there will be opportunities to talk and given the fact that news about Jesus began to spread (see Luke 5:15), those dining with him could possess knowledge that he could be Messiah and ask him questions related to his messianic position.
But Jesus’s decision to share meals goes deeper than ministry efficiency—he also is making a theological point. He is modeling the need to share meals with the “sinners,” for it is clear that the religious leaders of the day discouraged meals with “sinners”. Finger writes, “Rather than excluding people, Jesus especially welcomed those who could not or did not meet Pharisaic regulations. This strongly suggests that Jesus’s open table fellowship was a strategy used to challenge social and religious exclusivism wherever it was officially sanctioned or accepted as normal.” Jesus models to the religious leaders and those present that dining with those who need repentance is crucial. Because meals are such an important aspect of every culture, Jesus’s example is crucial for people in his day and today to follow.
With such a heavy emphasis on meals in Luke, it is clear that the writer is trying to communicate that the mealtime can be used for the purpose of seeking and saving the lost (Luke 19:10). Luke 5:27–32 shows that meals communicate the worth and acceptance of a person as an individual by spending time with them over food, allowing a chance to communicate the gospel of the kingdom of God. Since Jesus used mealtime so purposefully, the church should take the meal as a means of evangelism. Meals offer a time of relaxation, enjoyment, and instant cultural engagement, an ideal milieu for discussing spiritual topics, particularly the gospel. Jesus clearly had this as one of his goals for dining with unbelieving people and Luke 5:27–32 offers one such glimpse in how he did it.
Michael Chung has taught New Testament and Christian Formation at Fuller Theological Seminary–Texas, Biblical and Theological Studies at Houston Baptist University, and is visiting faculty to Calvary Theological Seminary in Indonesia. He was a missionary to Asia and served CRU from 1997 to 2005. He has published in journals from North America, Europe, and Asia and is the author of the forthcoming book The Last King of Israel: Lessons from Jesus’s Final Ten Days.
1 A good overview of Jesus’s acts and sayings related to meals, see John Koenig, New Testament Hospitality: Partnership with Strangers as Promise and Mission (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2001), 15–51.
2 John Koenig, Soul Banquets: How Meals Become Mission in the Local Congregation (Harrisburg, NY: Church Publishing, 2007), 7.
3 Ibid., 9.
4 Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 158. See also Jerome H. Neyrey, “Ceremonies in Luke-Acts: The Case of Meals and Table Fellowship,” in The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models of Interpretation, ed. Jerome H. Neyrey (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), 361–87; Robert L. Kelley, “Meals with Jesus in Luke’s Gospel,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 17 (1995):123–31; Dennis E. Smith, “Table Fellowship as a Literary Motif in the Gospel of Luke,” Journal of Biblical Literature 106, no. 4 (December 1987): 613–38.
5 Robert J. Karris, Luke: Artist and Theologian: Luke’s Passion Account as Literature (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1985), 47.
6 Markus Barth, Rediscovering The Lord’s Supper (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2006), 71.
7 Karris, 47.
8 Meal scenes with missiological aspects are found in Luke 7:36–50; 9:10–17; 14:1–24; 19:1–10. Jesus also used meals for discipleship, see: Luke 10:38–42; 11:37–54; 22:7–38; 24:13–35; 24:36–53.
9 David Bell and Gill Valentine, Consuming Geographies: We Are Where We Eat (London: Routledge, 1997), 168.
10 So is the premise of Reay Tannahill, Food in History (New York: Random House, 1988).
11 Pamela Goyan Kittler and Kathryn P. Sucher, Food and Culture in America (New York: Van Rostrand Reinhold, 1989), 5. See also Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and The Cooked, vol. 1 of Mythologiques, trans. John Weightman and Doreen Weightman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).
12 Catherine Palmer, “From Theory to Practice: Experiencing the Nation in Everyday Life,” Journal of Material Culture 3, no. 2 (July 1998): 194. Her thoughts have been a good guide to the secular aspect of meals as deeper than just consumption for sustenance.
13 Bell and Valentine, 168.
14 Palmer, 195.
15 Paul Fieldhouse, Food and Nutrition: Customs and Culture (London: Croom Helm, 1986), 41.
16 Smith, 614.
17 Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology: The Proclamation of Jesus (New York: Scribner’s, 1971), 115–16. Also, David W. Pao, “Waiters or Preachers: Acts 6:1–7 and The Lukan Table Fellowship Motif,” Journal of Biblical Literature 130, no. 1, (Spring 2011): 133, writes, “In the Greco-Roman world, banquet and symposium are often instruments through which fictive-kinship groups are defined; for Jews, rules surrounding meals are particularly important in delineating God’s people from the Gentiles.”
18 Reta Halteman Finger, Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 1–47.
19 Ibid., 48.
20 Ibid., 280.
21 Leon L. Morris, Luke, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008), 139–40.
22 For other Lukan dinner scenes, see: 7:36; 9:12 ff.; 10:38 ff.; 11:37; 14:1; 19:7; 22:14; 24:30, 41 ff.; and Morris, 140.
23 At this point, all of the twelve disciples have not been announced. It is uncertain whether the disciples mentioned here are the twelve, who are not listed until Luke 6:12–16 or just Peter, James, and John mentioned in Luke 5:1–11. Chronology was not very important in ancient writings so this could very well be a reference to the twelve.
24 Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 245.
25 Robert H. Stein, Luke: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, The New American Commentary (Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 1992), 182.
26 Ibid. Also, Green, 247, adds, “In the hands of the Pharisees, ‘sinner’ demarcates those who associate with toll collectors as persons living outside faithfulness to God. By means of vituperative apposition, then, toll collectors are dismissed, along with sinners.” In Greek, the definite article in 5:30 modifies both tax collectors and sinners (τῶν τελωνῶν καὶ ἁμαρτωλῶν). Granville Sharp’s rule of the definite article would state that this communicates conceptual unity because the definite article τῶν modifies both τελωνῶν and ἁμαρτωλῶν. See C. F. D. Moule, An Idiom-Book of New Testament Greek, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1959), 109–10, and Maximilian Zerwick, Biblical Greek: Illustrated by Examples, trans. Joseph Smith (Rome: Scripta Pontificii Instituti Biblici, 1963), 184–85. Though, Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 278, challenges grammarians’ usage of Sharp’s rule to plural substantives, he does state on p. 280 that this above example would fall under the classification of the “first group subset of second.” Though the reference is Matthew 9:11 in Wallace, it is the exact same words used in Luke 5:30. Wallace, 270, writes, “In Greek, when two nouns are connected by καὶ and the article precedes only the first noun, there is a close connection between the two. That connection always indicates at least some sort of unity. At a higher level, it may connote equality. At the highest level it may indicate identity.”
27 Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994), 495.
28 Ibid., 496.
29 See also Dwayne H. Adams, The Sinner in Luke, Evangelical Theological Society Monograph Series 8 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2008), 133–34.
30 Stein, 183. μετάνοια appears in Luke 3:3, 8; 5:32; 15:7; 24:47; as well as six times in Acts. The verb form appears in Luke 10:13; 11:32; 13:3, 5; 15:7, 10; 16:30; and 17:3, 4. Smith, 636, argues that although “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” appears in all three Synoptic traditions, Luke expands the theme beyond the other two Synoptics.
31 Finger, 184.