Dining at God's table

12 December, 2021 3rd Sunday Advent, Year C

I was surprised recently to hear one of my students describe Jesus as a “wowser” and Christianity as the world’s foremost proponent of “wowserism”. While I might be able to understand why a young person might express the latter sentiment (albeit unjustly), I find it difficult to see how anyone could accuse Jesus of being a “wowser”.

In the popular imagination, the term “wowser” has become synonymous with “bible-basher” and “God botherer”. Religious devotees are often dismissed as wowsers because there is a popular perception that they are narrow-minded, forthright and censorious fanatics who disapprove of people partying and enjoying life. Something of the forthright “God botherer” is seen in the figure of John the Baptist in today’s Gospel warning that the coming of the Messiah will be like a “winnowing fan” on the “threshing floor” sorting the wheat from the chaff.

However, a counterpoint to these dire predictions of punishment in the “unquenchable flame” is found in the exhortation of Paul to the Philippians to “rejoice always” as the Lord’s return is near. Joy and exaltation at the coming of the Messiah is a feature of the reading from Isaiah as well, who proclaimed with delight that “the Holy One of Israel” is in our midst.

This party atmosphere is one that pervades much of the story of Jesus. The Gospels tell of many occasions when Jesus celebrated with friends and acquaintances at weddings, bar mitzvahs, sabbaths, and other Jewish religious festivals.

There were certainly times when Jesus could get angry and express moral outrage. In Matthew’s well-known “sermon on the mount” Jesus calls for a higher standard in moral behaviour that goes beyond the mere observance of law. But Jesus also enjoyed life immensely. He was someone who rarely refused a dinner invitation.

Both Luke (7:24) and Matthew (11:19) record that Jesus’ opponents accused him of being a “drunkard and a glutton”. Elsewhere Jesus is rebuked by John’s disciples for not insisting his disciples fast and do penance (Mk 2:18; Matt 9:14; Lk 5:33). Jesus’ reply is telling. He equates his circle of disciples with guests at a wedding feast, and he goes on to suggest that through his ministry God is doing something “new”, which requires his followers to rejoice and feast together around a common table.

Scholars argue that Jesus used the practice of table fellowship to signal the message that the world as he and his contemporaries knew it was at an end. A new era was dawning when God would reign upon earth and all the sinners, the poor, the marginalised and oppressed, and even the God botherers and bible bashers, would dine at God’s table.

Jesus was no wowser. Even though he did call on people to live morally good lives, Jesus believed that no one was ultimately beyond redemption.  This message is the source of the joy that lays at the heart of the Christian story. All are welcome to the feast. The Holy One of Israel is in our midst, rejoice!

Ian J Elmer

© Majellan Media 2021