David Ford: The ethics of feasting

Jesus went to meals, weddings and parties and had a feast-centred ethic. The images are vivid: water turned into wine; guests jockeying for places at table and being told to aim for the lower places; the invitation of a life-time refused because of being too busy with work or family; Jesus challenging conceptions of God’s acceptance by eating with the outcast and marginalised; Dives feasting while Lazarus starves at his gate; children eating messily to the delight of the dogs; a woman sinner shocking the company by anointing Jesus and being forgiven by him; the reversal of expectations as the poor, handicapped and outsiders of all sorts are welcomed at the feast of the Kingdom of God while those who thought themselves sure of a place are left out ....

As millions starve, ought anyone to be feasting? Ought there not to be a long detour of working to feed everyone, postponing the feasting till that has been achieved? Or should we keep alive the hope of food for all by working for justice and, if we have food, simultaneously celebrating the goodness of God? Can we even sustain work of compassion and justice in the right spirit if we are not also having some celebratory foretaste of the Kingdom of God? Or, looking at the story of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles, in the light of the explosion of joy and gratitude that followed the resurrection and Pentecost is it not the most obvious thing in the world both to share with those in need and also to celebrate with them?

That combination of sharing and celebrating is, perhaps, the most radical of all the implications of the teaching and practice of Jesus. Feeding the hungry is not a matter of the well-fed offering handouts and getting on with their private feasting: the vision is of everyone around the same table, face to face. Even to imagine sitting together like that gently but inexorably exposes injustice, exploitation, sexism, hard-heartedness, and the multiple ways of rejecting the appeal in the face of the other. Once we have started doing it in little ways, the implications for politics, economics and church life never cease ramifying. Remission of actual debt becomes inseparable from the forgiveness of sins, and idolatry of money is seen as an inhibitor of everyone’s joy.

Finally, what about the ethics of exclusion? … The feast of the Kingdom of God is described (and acted out) by [Jesus] as generously inclusive beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. That is the main point: the free, surprising love of a God who can be utterly trusted to judge truthfully and then decide far more compassionately than any of the rest of us. There is also a sharp note of exclusion, but it is one that follows from the inclusiveness. The excluded are those who cannot bear God’s generosity and will not imitate it. The Prodigal Son’s older brother is the archetype, complaining against his father welcoming his brother home with a party, and perhaps (the ending is significantly left open) refusing to join in the celebrations. He is matched by those who complain about Jesus eating with tax-collectors and sinners, by those who presume to know where God draws lines between the invited and uninvited or the acceptable and unacceptable, and by those who harden their hearts against the poor, sick, handicapped, hungry, prisoners, children, and others in need. These poor, sick, and needy are at the centre of the feast as the honoured guests, and to reject them is to exclude oneself from their host’s presence. The other side of this is that to seek them out is to relate to their host too, as the parable of the sheep and the goats says (Matthew chapter 25).

Of contemporary issues of exclusion, one of the most sensitive for Christians is that of other religions. It is not possible to do more than touch interrogatively on this vast, many-sided topic, but it is an appropriate conclusion for a mediation on the ethic of feasting before the face of Christ.

What does it mean to realise that those of other faiths (and none) are before the face of Christ? Christians have no overview of how the relationship with them is carried on, or what happens from either side. This ethic therefore begins in agnosticism. Yet Christians need to try to imagine what the implications might be of Jesus being guest as well as host in relation to Mohammed, the Buddha and other founders and their followers. What might be involved in hospitality between religious communities that might give substance to such imagining? What are appropriate anticipations of the feasting of the Kingdom of God? What ethic of communication of the gospel is in line with the face on the cross? How can conversations engaging with crucial matters of meaning, truth and practice be sustained? What new shapes of Christian and other communities might there be if imaginative hospitality helped to generate honest confrontations and new understanding? Where do Christians fall into the temptation of being less generously welcoming than God? How can they come to realise their Christian self ‘as another’ – Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist or whatever? And what happens when guests and hosts become friends?

—David Ford, Self and Salvation: Being Transformed, pp. 269-70