This article probes into what Paul addressed in Corinth, particularly in regard to the contempt believers had for one another. This contempt was manifested in many ways (just peruse through 1 Corinthians) but a central element designed to cause appreciation, acceptance, healing and promotion, was being eliminated by the Corinthians’ contempt for one another.
First, why do we think they had contempt for one another? Reading 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 we find Paul asking what seems to be a semi-rhetorical question, “Do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” Like any culture there are wealthy and poor. Often, wealthy people can make it clear that they feel superior to others. I have seen this wherever I’ve lived, whether it was on either coast of the United States, whether it was in the Southwest or even the Midwest. I’ve also seen it overseas as well. This behavior shouldn’t be unfamiliar to any of us. Wealthy people have ways of showing contempt for those less fortunate. Of course, not all wealthy people are like this but the Corinthian believers had their fair share of wealthy who manifested contempt for the less fortunate believers at a key time.
The Lord’s Supper (Eucharist, the Table of the Lord) was that key time. This is when the believers all came together to celebrate the reality of Jesus, the risen King. This would be an appropriate time to recall that the apostle Paul also told the Corinthians that Jesus, “though he was rich, yet for your sake became poor.” The Lord’s Supper, if celebrated properly, is designed to be inclusive of all. Jesus, through his death and resurrection, has created a new people who share the most important bond of all, life in the King. This new bond and new life transcends the juvenile cultural boundaries that the world insists on imposing.
So, we’ve made our point about the wealthy having contempt for the poor there in Corinth. What could the ugly behavior have looked like if we were a fly on the Corinthian marble wall? The wealthy had homes large enough to host many people at one time. However, there were often main dining areas demarcating a more private and intimate location. These areas were reserved for the closest of friends, family and acquaintances. Naturally, the notion of loosening the ties between those people, even on the Lord’s Day, could possibly seem threatening. Many of us today, find it difficult to leave our comfort zones when attending services. Meeting new people, especially those who appear different from ourselves, can become uncomfortable. The wealthy Corinthian hosts at times went a step further. They were preparing restaurant quality meals for themselves and leaving the rest of the believers to fend for themselves after they arrived from work, often late, and often long after the idle rich were satiated with their delicacies and on to the wine course.
In all of this, the poor believers were despised and humiliated. Even though the wealthy broke bread and sipped the fruit of the vine together, it was done in a spirit of betrayal. No wonder Paul will mention the night of Jesus’ arrest, and how Jesus dipped the bread in the cup and extended it Judas, a sign of brotherly connection. Then, Judas refuses and leaves, calculating the moments until he’ll return to Jesus with a kiss, not of brotherly connection, but of betrayal.
Kenneth Bailey uses the analogy of Lazarus and the rich man. Lazarus, he says, was in anguish not because of his pain or hunger but because the rich man prepared a daily a banquet to be entirely consumed by family and friends. Lazarus’ anguish was so close to the resources he needed and they were denied over and over again. We find Jesus’ story locating Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom being comforted and the rich man in torment, after both had passed away. The roles were reversed. What about the Corinthians? Were they doing the same thing as the rich man? Would their fate eventually be reversed?
It was somewhat worse for the poor believers in Corinth. Unlike Lazarus, they were allowed into the presence of the rich but the banquet was already consumed. The poor must have felt like fools, or worse yet, betrayed.
The ugliest aspect of it all was that the rich didn’t care. Ironically, their elitist and entitled mentalities penetrated the air of the house more like excrement than that of fine perfumes.
This is how the Lord’s Supper was “not being eaten” or being eaten in an “unworthy manner.” The Jesus’ meal passed on from Paul was intended to create the opposite effect. The Meal should’ve united those disalike, whether financially or culturally. The Meal spoke of what God intended for His kingdom to be on earth as it was in heaven. Jesus was left out of the Corinthians’ partaking of the Meal whether or not Jesus’ name was mentioned. The mode or purpose of the Lord’s Supper was being eliminated by the manner in which they thought they consumed the bread and wine.
Paul didn’t want to eliminate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Paul wanted the believers to celebrate one another, share struggles and joys, hopes and dreams, sorrows and grief. They could change their perspectives and then the Lord’s Supper would cause healing, reconciliation and renewal.
Today many church assemblies do not involve meals. A token of the Lord’s Supper is typically taken and the symbolic meaning is extrapolated from a worship leader. In Middle Eastern culture hospitality is legendary. It would be unthinkable for a hungry person to be in the presence of a village and not be offered food and drink. Think of Abraham and Sarah being visited by the three men in Genesis 18. However, it was not altogether uncommon for many rich to puff themselves up by showing hospitality to those less well off. They could often do this in ways that robbed the poor of their dignity, leaving them feel ashamed.
There are likely ways our assemblies might parallel that of the Corinthians. For those with creative minds and tender hearts, what can we do to ensure that everyone feels included and dignified? What can we do to communicate the significance of the Lord’s Supper? How can we continually recognize Jesus as the one who was rich, yet became poor for everyone, and cast Him in fresh and meaningful light? The Supper is central to the unity the Lord gave us in Him. We must work hard to preserve that unity.