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ESPOSITO Bryan Joseph

Commensality: Jesus’ Meals with Pharisees and their Liturgical Roots
(Lk 7:36-50; 11:37-54; 14:1-24)

Mod.: R.P. Dean Béchard, S.J.

Luke’s presentation of the deeds and words of Jesus features an emphasis on Jesus at table unique among the Synoptic Gospels. One of the most prominent features of this singular focus on meals is the fact that Luke alone portrays Jesus dining in the house of a Pharisee, and he does this on three separate occasions (7:36-50; 11:37-54; 14:1-24). Most exegetes consider these scenes to be structured according to the Hellenistic symposium genre; while such an interpretation is a reasonable possibility, it ignores the fact that Luke employs the meal much as Jesus himself does in his fellowship with tax collectors and sinners: as a message to the Christians who gather together to encounter Jesus by recognizing him in the breaking of the bread (Lk 7:37; 24:31). The Synoptic tradition regarding both meals and the portrayal of the Pharisees is analyzed in order to reveal Luke’s unique treatment of both traditions, which are often woven together in the Third Gospel. In all three meal scenes plus the material around them, the disciples of Jesus are implored to open their table fellowship to whomever is willing to repent. Jesus exhorts them to avoid the trap of the “Pharisaic mindset”, which leads to the exclusion of others (and even auto-exclusion) from the communal meal.

With the three meal scenes in Pharisaic homes and their surrounding narrative context, Luke presents Jesus’ historical practice of commensality [συνεσθίειν] as a model for Christian believers struggling to implement that teaching in the life of their own communities. The meal itself is the message as far both as Jesus and Luke are concerned, since it represents the tangible sign of the Kingdom in that unified community of Jews and Gentiles; even at the textual level, though, it also functions as a reminder of the liturgical and Eucharistic origins of the Gospel pericopal structure itself, and gives those Christians encountering their Lord in the breaking of the bread tangible access to his earthly ministry.

The dissertation concludes with the suggestion that a “Gospel pericopal structure” or “genre of encounter” plays a fundamental role in the formation of the Synoptic pericopes at the oral level. This manner of portraying scenes of Jesus coming, going, and encountering various people in need of healing or salvation has its origin not in any desire to imitate Hellenistic literary genres, but in the liturgical life of the early Christian communities. What is emphasized is the liturgical cradle not simply of the Gospel traditions about Jesus or the Lucan meal scenes, but the very form those traditions take in the written Gospels. This emphasis enables Luke to present meal scenes which speak to the community gathered to recognize Jesus in the breaking of bread and encounter him around their shared table, just as the characters in the written Gospels do.