The final post in Rory Shiner’s four-part Advent series offering a biblical theology of food and eating

When it came to eating and drinking, Jesus had a problem.

His enemies accused him of being a drunkard and a glutton and a friend of the Wrong Sort of People (Matthew 11:19).

His friends didn’t help. The Gospels, written by people who were decidedly pro-Jesus, present to us a Jesus who was forever at parties. As someone has pointed out, through the entire Gospel of Luke, Jesus is seemingly either going to a party, at a party, or having just left a party. Jesus himself seems to own it, too. Describing his own life and work, he says, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking” (Luke 7:34).

The universal consensus is that Jesus had a thing about parties. He ate and drank. He feasted. And he feasted in bad company.

The universal consensus is that Jesus had a thing about parties. He ate and drank. He feasted. And he feasted in bad company.

Which leaves us with only two options. Either he lacked judgement: he was guilty of these things—or at least guilty of failing to distance himself from these things. Or, he was trying to tell us something by his feasting and his partying. I’m going for the second.

What is a Feast

Jesus came feasting. But, what defines a feast? I think you need three basic elements.

  • First, you need lots of food. Feasting is about having a surplus, an abundance, a riot of food. Often feast food is food not otherwise part of your staple daily diet. Think of Christmas, with its turkey, glazed ham, and (gross) fruit puddings. Part of the point is that we don’t eat these things at other times.
  • Second, feasting involves lots of people. If you are sitting down to a heaving table of exotic meats and rich puddings, but you are alone on a Friday night watching Netflix, well, there’s a name for that, but it’s not feasting. Feasting is communal. It involves other people.
  • Third, feasting involves celebration. You feast for something: A wedding, a birthday, a religious celebration. Feasting names an occasion.

Feasting in Scripture

The Old Testament was full of feasting. There were several formal, God-ordained feasts each year. And there are accounts of many spontaneous feasts as the people come into good fortune and favour.

Feasting is associated with God’s blessing, his forgiveness, and the abundance of his love, just as fasting is associated with sorrow, with guilt, and with atonement.

In times of exile and judgement, feasting was not possible. Through the prophet Amos God says, “…you will be among the first to go into exile; your feasting and lounging will end.” Exile, the time of judgement, is the end of feasting.

And salvation is pictured as a feast in the presence of God. Isaiah says:

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare

a feast of rich food for all peoples,

a banquet of aged wine—

the best of meats and the finest of wines

(Isaiah 25:6)

When Aristotle dreamt, he dreamt of reason and restraint. The Buddha dreamed of the end of desire and the dissolution of personality. But when Israel dreamt, they dreamt of rich food, big crowds, and fine wine—a feast before the Lord.


Jesus came eating and drinking. He did not do so in a vacuum. Feasting meant favour. It meant the forgiveness of God.

The problem with Jesus was focussed on whom he feasted with. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2). Eating is an act of fellowship. The root of the word “companion” comes from the Latin, meaning literally to “bread together”. A companion is one with whom you break bread. Which is what Jesus is doing with sinners.

Our current, twenty-first century sensibilities find this attractive. But think of it from the Pharisees’ point of view.

The Pharisees were the most morally impressive, religiously devout, biblically literate people of their generation. They were the welcome party for the kingdom of God. The ones with the signs saying “We Welcome God’s Rule Here.”

And Jesus comes. And he walks straight past them, and spends all of his time with people who had not lifted a finger to help usher the kingdom of God.

The problem with Jesus was focussed on whom he feasted with. ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

It is kind of unfair. How does Jesus explain that?

He tells stories.

A shepherd has a hundred sheep. He loses one. What does he do? He leaves the ninety-nine non-lost sheep and goes searching for the one. And he finds the lost sheep, he brings it home, and he celebrates. A woman has ten coins and loses one. She spends the whole day turning the house upside-down until she finds the lost coin. And when she finds it, she calls her friends together and celebrates.

What do these stories have in common? In each, something is lost. The lost thing attracts almost all the of the attention of its owner until it is found. In each, there is celebration when it’s found. And in each, the non-lost items (the ninety-nine sheep, the ten coins), just have to accept that.

Which seems unfair.

The ninety-nine sheep were doing what they were supposed to be doing. They were in the field, eating their grass, growing their wool, and being generally sheepy. The nine coins were where they were supposed to be.

And yet the lost item gets all the attention. Ninety-nine sheep is still a decent flock. Nine coins are only ten percent less that ten coins. It’s all so disproportionate. So borderline irrational. But love for lost things is like that. It brings out in us an irrational, laser like focus. It throws everything out of proportion. We become all about the thing we have lost. And, when we find it, we love it with a whole new intensity.

The Lost Son

Jesus’ most famous story, the story of the lost son, is his answer to his critics on his habit of feasting with sinners. The story takes the emotion of the first two stories and turns it up to 11.

The story is more food-focussed that I remembered. The younger son (the one who takes half the estate of the father and spends it on wild living) runs out of food, experienced a famine, and longs to eat the food of pigs. His reason for coming home is that his father’s hired servants have “food to spare” (Luke 15:17). He comes home, knowing that he can no longer be a son. But he could at least eat the food of the servants.

The father’s response is equally food oriented. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.” The son, who came home hoping for servants’ food, is given a feast.

Now remember: In the context of Luke 15, Jesus is not speaking to “younger sons”. The “younger sons” (the prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners) are pretty happy with Jesus’ party policy. It’s working for them just fine. It’s the Pharisees, the “older sons”, who have raised the issue. They are the ninety-nine sheep, the nine coins, the older son.

Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing… (Luke 15:25)

Think about that. The older son comes in from the fields to hear what? That his rat-bag younger brother is on the receiving end of an elaborate, expensive, celebratory feast. His achievement?  Squandering half the estate on wild living, getting desperate, and them coming home because he is hungry. Cue sarcastic slow-clap.

What was the uncelebrated older son doing that whole time? He was at home, working hard, doing exactly what the father told him to do.

The father’s answer to the older son’s concerns is both tender and resolute:

“My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:31-32)

Tender: “All that I have is yours.” And resolute: “we had to celebrate.”

Jesus Feasting with Sinners

Jesus is accused of feasting with sinners. Of lavishing love on those who deserve it least. He appeals to the irrational, over the top, disproportionate nature of love for lost things. He doesn’t say sorry. He invites them to join the party.

Is that a good answer? It depends. If you want the kingdom of God to be fair, to be measured, to be proportionate, sensible, merit-based, and predicable, then it’s a terrible answer. The only way it could be a good answer is if you make peace with God’s over-the-top generosity to sinners, put your dignity to one side, and get your butt on the dance floor.

The younger son had to repent of his sinfulness; the older son had to repent of his self-righteousness. There’s a party going on. It’s called “the kingdom of God”. The sinners and the righteous are invited. But the party is happening on God’s terms. And God’s terms are the terms of grace.

Babette’s Feast

The film Babette’s Feast tells the story of a strict, joyless religious community in eighteenth-century Demark. They are an austere, frugal, and restrained. They are severe, religious, and joyless.

Babette is a refugee from Paris who come to live there. For twelve years she serves as a housekeeper, cooking the village the plain food that is their preference.

But Babette one day hears she has won ten thousand francs in the Paris lottery. Every year a friend renewed her ticket, and this year her number came up.

What do you do if you are a French refugee housekeeper suddenly coming into money?

You cook a banquet.

Babette cooks this abundant, opulent, over the top feast for the village. A seven course meal of Turtle soup, buckwheat pancakes with caviar and sour cream, champagne, quail in puff pastry, with foie gras and truffle sauce. Endive salad, paired with Pinot Noir. Rum-soaked sponge cake with figs and cherries. Cheese and fruit and cognac. It’s a riot of colour, of flavour, of excess, and abundance. It is a feast.

The community sits down to this meal. At first, they are very cautious.

The extravagance, the expense, the amount—it represents everything they are not. But slowly, over the course of this meal, the community begins to be overcome by joy. One by one, they start smiling. And laughing.

The begin to put aside old animosities. They confess sins to one another. They experience reconciliation. The evening ends with the community hand-in-hand around the village fountain singing and celebrating.

The community is transformed by the undeserved abundance of the feast. They are transformed by grace.

Grace is what the younger son experienced when he came home. Grace is what Jesus was teaching us in his feasting. Jesus feasted with sinners because Jesus believed and taught that the kingdom of God was a party of abundant grace to which we are all invited.

The Cost of Free Grace

Grace is free to the one who received it, but costly to the one who gives it. Always.

Grace cost the father half his estate, most of his dignity, and potentially his relationship with his older son. If the older son enters the party, it will cost him h is right to justice and a merit-based relationship with his father. If the Pharisees join Jesus, it will cost them their hard-fought social purity.

Grace is free to the one who received it, but costly to the one who gives it. Always. For Jesus, grace will cost him his life.

For Jesus, grace will cost him his life. What will be free to us will cost him everything.

In Babette’s Feast, two sisters run into the kitchen and find Babette cooking.

“We will all remember this evening when you have gone back to Paris,” they say.

But Babette does not go back to Paris. She cannot go back to Paris, because the meal she cooked—this abundant meal which transformed the community from one of judgement and restraint into one of joy and celebration cost Babette everything she won in the lottery. The whole ten thousand francs.

Because it was a feast of grace.