I’m working on my sermon for Sunday. The Gospel is Mark 6:1-13. The passage includes Jesus’ visit to his hometown where he was unable to do any “deeds of power” but did heal some people. It also includes Mark’s version of the sending out of the twelve. Jesus instructs them on how to receive hospitality and how to respond if they are not welcomed in a village.
“Hospitality” is one of the key values of contemporary progressive Christianity, especially as mainline, mainly-white churches seek to welcome and include people of color, members of the LGBT community, as well as people of different socio-economic background. Often, such praiseworthy goals are connected with Jesus’ own practice of radical inclusion. Progressive Christians love to say things like, “Jesus practiced radical hospitality” or “Jesus welcomed all to the table.” Such arguments are made not just in our efforts toward great diversity and inclusivity, but also in the Episcopal Church in the ongoing controversy over inviting the unbaptized to receive communion.
Such statements may reflect central values in contemporary progressive worship and theology but as Andrew McGowan notes in a blog post, they don’t correspond to the gospel records of Jesus.
the welcoming, inclusive, festive Jesus may be a common feature of many scholarly portraits; he is not, however, a strongly-based historical one. Jesus was most clearly someone willing to eat with diverse company, less an inclusive host than an undiscriminating guest. Jesus appears as host only in quite different and more historically contentious material, relative to that where he is depicted as keeping bad company or being a wine-bibber. The “guest” traditions about him are generally defensible; the “host” traditions tend to be more influenced by later reflection than material that scholars in general would actually attribute to the historical Jesus.
Meals were important to ancient Mediterranean society, Jewish and Greco-Roman alike, as venues for the expression and creation of social relationships—not just among families, but for professional guilds, interest groups and, of course, for religious purposes, too. Meals were venues for politics as well as piety, business as well as pleasure.
It is hardly surprising that we find Jesus actively participating in this meal-culture. It was the most obvious means for many types of social interaction, and the carefully-crafted Gospel pictures of Jesus sharing others’ tables certainly have a reliable core.
Nor should we forget the even more basic reality of physical need. Jesus was apparently an itinerant without direct means of support, and his willingness or even desire to be included indiscriminately is not really so surprising in itself. Hunger makes for interesting and diverse table fellowship.
In our gospel for this week, Jesus’ instructions to the disciples help them to receive hospitality, not give it. In many ways, that is more difficult for us. Offering hospitality, especially in the Church, comes from a place of privilege. Receiving hospitality requires vulnerability. That’s true in our worship and in our outreach programs.