Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
A friend of mine in seminary told me about one Sunday in his church when they read from the second chapter of Ruth.
In the middle of the reading were the words, “The Lord be with you” (Ruth 2:4). The congregation, trained as they were in liturgical language, immediately interrupted the reading with the unison, “And also with you.” They had only ever heard the words, “The Lord be with you,” as a liturgical call that demanded a response, which they provided.
The epistle lesson for Maundy Thursday, the “words of institution” for the Eucharist, contains words that people hear whenever the Eucharist is served. So, it may surprise them that these words actually come from a New Testament text! The words were well known even in Paul’s day. His introduction, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,” (1 Corinthians 11:23) are oral tradition words.
Paul had learned these words from Christians before him (who had received them ultimately from the Lord) and was in turn passing them on to the Corinthians. If you compare this passage with the passages detailing the Last Supper in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20), you will see that the Synoptic evangelists also received the same tradition Paul had.
What gets missed in this lectionary reading is the literary context in which these words appear. In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, Paul criticizes the Corinthians for problems associated with their practice of the Lord’s Supper. The Corinthians, it seems, were allowing the divisions that characterized their culture to shape the way they celebrated their common meal. Paul was not happy about it.
Greco-Roman culture was socially stratified, meaning that the population was divided into social levels or strata. Status is always relative: my high status only has meaning when juxtaposed to your low status (or the other way around). People in the Greco-Roman world always knew their status relative to others in the social pecking order. Locating themselves on the relative-status continuum was as natural as breathing.
Virtually all social interaction was shaped by this hierarchy of status. The church at Corinth had members of relatively high status, with the power and wealth that went along with such position, as well as people of relatively low status. This mixing of social strata then posed challenges for the Christians at Corinth.
Relative status in the Greco-Roman world showed itself in ways that might shock modern sensibilities. For instance, if a host had guests for dinner, it was common for guests of high status to be served more and better food and drink than others, and for guests of lower status to be served less food and drink of poorer quality. Differences in status resulted in (many would have said “necessitated”) differences in treatment. While not everyone was happy with these differences, most accepted them as a part of how the world worked.
Social stratification was so taken for granted that it shaped the practice of celebrating the Lord’s Supper at Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 11:17-22, Paul takes the Corinthians to task for what was happening when they met for the Lord’s Supper. The Corinthians observed the Eucharist in conjunction with a common meal, and at that meal social divisions were visible in a way that Paul believed compromised the Gospel. “For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk” (1 Corinthians 11:21).
Different sorts of people (i.e., people of higher or lower status) received different amounts and qualities of food and drink at these common meals. Unless Paul is exaggerating (and he may have been for effect), some people had so much wine that they were drunk, while others had to be content with so little food that they remained hungry.
While this way of behaving might have been “normal” in the culture of Corinth, for Paul it is unacceptable, especially since the Lord’s Supper was intended to demonstrate the unity of the church in the mutual dependence on the grace of God shown in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Paul’s response to this situation was not to abolish social stratification. That task would have been impossible and ultimately out of the control of the Christians at Corinth. Rather, he instructs the Corinthians to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a way that doesn’t marginalize (Paul uses the word “humiliate” 1 Corinthians 11:22) the poor among them. Paul argues that it’s better to eat at home before coming to the common meal than to humiliate the poorer members of the community by eating your fill in front of them.
Instead of turning the Lord’s Supper into an occasion to exhibit social distinctions, the Corinthians needed to be reminded of what the Eucharist is for: remembering Jesus and proclaiming his death until he comes. They ought to partake in the Lord’s Supper in a way that demonstrates their unity rather than their divisions.
Maundy Thursday derives its name from a word in the Latin version of a verse from the Gospel reading for today, John 13:34; “A new commandment (mandatum) I give to you, that you love one another.” This “new commandment” comes at the end of a narrative about Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet; itself a lovely story about how Jesus put himself at the same level (or below) as his disciples.
Whatever else Maundy Thursday is for, it is meant to remind us of our common dependence on God and of our common task of remembering Jesus’ work on our behalf. Distinctions among us, where some of us are deemed to be better or more important than others, are not appropriate to the people of God.
The last verse of today’s passage is cast in the second person plural, emphasizing what we do together when we celebrate the Eucharist: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).
April 9, 2009