Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
The Corinthians failed to practice the Lord’s Supper correctly.1
Though this failure was detrimental to the edification of First Church Corinth, it is fortunate for us, since 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 is the only place where Paul discusses the Eucharist. It seems that the Corinthians were partaking the bread and the cup regularly, but their behavior at the table caused the apostle to question whether what they were doing could rightly be called the “Lord’s Supper.” Although their words may have recalled the night of Jesus’ death, their actions were preaching a different story.
Immediately prior to verses 23-26, Paul reveals that the Corinthians’ table etiquette was not even recognizable as the Lord’s Table. In verse 17-22, the reader learns that some have plenty of food and drink while others have little. Some are drunk before their brothers and sisters even arrive. Clearly, some of the Corinthians are more affluent than others. They can afford more food and, because they do not have to work all day, can begin fellowship earlier. These folks, Paul says, have homes in which they could eat and drink before coming to the assembly.
It appears from the apostle’s description of their “table” that some of the Corinthians are allowing their social distinctions to dictate their behavior to one another rather allowing Christ’s behavior to be their guide.
Paul has dire admonition for the Corinthians’ table practice. In 11:17, the apostle claims that their Lord’s Supper celebration is actually doing more harm than good to the community. Paul accuses the sated and drunk of despising God’s church and shaming those who have nothing (11:22).
Before we are too critical of these wealthy believers, though, we should remember that they are behaving according to acceptable social norms. It was expected that those who had more money and power would display their wealth by consuming more food (and better food at that) and by enjoying certain benefits of their status, like gathering for fellowship with those of their same social class. In fact, to maintain one’s status in the upper echelon required displaying wealth and catering to others with whom an alliance could secure honor for one’s household.
The Corinthian believers who have the means to get drunk, to eat their fill, and to live in their own homes are behaving no differently than anyone else in their same social position. And that is the problem.
They have joined a community in which the scandal of the cross has reconfigured the social barriers between slave and free, advantaged and disadvantaged. They profess faith in a Lord, who, though having status equal to God, chose to serve all — even those who have nothing. At the communion table, they have been called to remember the Lord’s actions by doing likewise.
In verses 23-26, Paul counters the Corinthians’ behavior by reminding them of the story enacted at the Lord’s Table. This story, Paul warns, is not something that he has concocted, but rather a tradition that he has received “from the Lord” (11:23).
It is significant that this tradition begins not with the prayer and the breaking of the bread, but a step earlier in the story. Most English translations of verse 23 depict the setting of the story as follows: “on the night when he was betrayed he took bread.” The verb rendered here as “betrayed” is paradidomi. The verb simply means to hand over or to pass on, as it does in 11:2 with the passing on of traditions. Because the verb can also be used in the context of being handed over to the authorities, it can connote being arrested. The common English translation of this text recalls the night when Judas handed Jesus over, thus, betraying him.
Paul uses the term paradidomi in reference to Jesus’ death elsewhere. According to Romans 4:25, Jesus was “handed over for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Furthermore, the apostle claims that God did not spare his own Son but gave him up (paradidomi) for us all (Romans 8:32). In Romans, it is clear that God is the one who is giving Jesus over to death.
In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Richard Hays links Paul’s use of the term paradidomi to Isaiah.2 In the Greek version called the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX), Isaiah 53:6 LXX reads, “and the Lord gave him up for our sins.” Likewise Isaiah 53:12b LXX, “and he bore the sins of many, and on account of their iniquities he was handed over.” Paul’s language, according to Hays, deliberately echoes God’s actions toward the suffering servant.
Beginning the story in 1 Corinthians 11:23 with this language should not serve as a reminder that Jesus was handed over by Judas — a tradition that Paul does not cite elsewhere — but as a reminder that Jesus was handed over by God for our sins. To echo Paul’s language in Romans, a better interpretation of this opening phrase might be, “on the night on which God handed Jesus over for our sins.”3 God is an active character in this cosmic drama. The same God who called this motley crew to be a church is the God who did not spare his own Son (Romans 8:32).
Apparently, the Corinthians have believed that Christ died for their sins (15:1-2). There is every reason to believe that they are also recalling the words of 11:23-25 when they partake the bread and the cup in the midst of their fellowship meal together. Their behavior, which has reinforced society’s social distinctions in the body of Christ, has demonstrated that the believers are not modeling their actions on the obedience of Jesus, who was obedient unto death (cf. Philippians 2:1-11).
Jesus’ words include the phrase, “Do this in remembrance of me.” “Do this.” Remembering Jesus rightly demands a willingness to relinquish one’s high status to stand in solidarity with those who have nothing.
Rather than reinforcing social distinctions, following Jesus debunks them. Any celebration of the Lord’s Supper that fails to exemplify the scandalous message of the cross is not the Lord’s Table at all.
Finally, Paul reminds the audience in verse 26 that their actions at the table are an act of proclamation. The act of all coming to the table — without social class or other distinctions — is a scandalous act. The witness of the Lord’s Table is a tableau of what the cross makes possible. The church is called to this proclamation “until he comes.”
As the church today collectively remembers the death of Jesus, we should also examine our table practices and ask ourselves whether what we are practicing is indeed the Lord’s Table — a table where all are welcomed and our fellowship proclaims the scandalous message of God’s grace.
1 This commentary was first published on this site on March 28, 2013.
2 Richard B. Hays, 1 Corinthians (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997).
March 28, 2013