A Case Study in Religion: ‘Eat What is Set Before You’
Twinned with the false interpretation of Jesus’s teaching on clean and unclean, and perhaps an outworking of it, is a second food law that religious Christianity has invented and placed upon believers, it is the ‘Eat what is set before you’ law. This novel dietary regulation is found mainly in conservative denominations and creates a false sense of guilt in those who feel inclined to abstain from certain kinds of food. The adherents to this law, which is flatly contradicted in other passages of the New Testament,(35) claim that a passage in Luke is the foundation for their dogma:
After this, the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of Him to every town and place He was about to visit. And He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into His harvest.
Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Carry no purse or bag or sandals. Do not greet anyone along the road.
Whatever house you enter, begin by saying, ‘Peace to this house.’ If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; if not, it will return to you. Stay at the same house, eating and drinking whatever you are offered. For the worker is worthy of his wages. Do not move around from house to house.
If you enter a town and they welcome you, eat whatever is set before you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God is near you.’”(36)
This passage of Scripture, which is very similar to another one in chapter 9 of the same Gospel, talks about how the Lord sent out the seventy-two disciples into the surrounding villages in order to preach the gospel. The main thrust of this section is that the disciples were to feel free to rely on the hospitality that was offered them. This interpretation is also confirmed by a later passage in the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus mentions sending the Apostles without purses, and how this had taught them to rely on God for their daily material needs: ‘Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered.'(37) This was considered legitimate because gospel workers should be repaid for their labours as the passage clearly explains: ‘Stay at the same house, eating and drinking whatever you are offered. For the worker is worthy of his wages’.
The fact that these disciples were not to carry a bag or a purse meant that they were to base themselves entirely on God’s provision. The final verses that contain the famous words “eat what is set before you” should be therefore read in the context of taking advantage of hospitality. The word that is used for the expression ‘is set before’ is paratithēmi παρατίθηµι, which normally has the meaning of place before, lay before, to place by the side of, to deposit, and to entrust. The next chapter after this passage in Luke, chapter 11, gives some insight as to what this expression may have really meant:
Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer [paratithēmi] him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.(38)
The very same verb, paratithēmi, that in our text is translated as “set before you” here is translated as ‘to offer’, in the sense of providing food. The Good News Translation (GNT) of the same verse helps us understand better the sense of the passage with its translation: ‘A friend of mine who is on a trip has just come to my house, and I don’t have any food for him [paratithēmi]!‘ The typical evangelical interpretation instead sees these verses in the context of evangelisation, i.e. the food must be eaten in order not to offend the people involved and thus further the gospel.(39) The problem is that this interpretation in this context simply doesn’t make sense. While Jesus during his ministry at times came into contact with non-Jews, it must be remembered that this initial ministry was taking place almost exclusively within Israel and amongst observant Jews, making the eating of non-kosher food highly unlikely. In fact, Scripture itself specifically tells us that Jesus’s disciples were not going amongst the Gentiles at this time. The main text that we are analysing is chapter 10 of the Gospel of Luke, in the chapter just before it, chapter 9, Jesus sends out the Twelve to preach the gospel, and their instructions were similar:
Then Jesus called the Twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons, and power to cure diseases. And He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. “Take nothing for the journey,” He told them, “no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no second tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that area. If anyone does not welcome you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that town, as a testimony against them.”(40)
The same episode is narrated in the Gospel of Matthew, where we are told that Jesus specifically commanded the Twelve to not go amongst the Gentiles and Samaritans:
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, a drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give. “Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts— no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep. Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave.(41)
In a similar way, just before our passage in the Gospel of Luke we are informed that the Samaritans, who ate kosher food, had actually rejected Jesus’s message: ‘And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.’ (42) The fact that this is mentioned shows that interactions with Samaritans, who adhered to the Law of Moses, but had their own interpretations on various issues, were quite rare and that the Seventy-Two were not going amongst them at this time. Likewise, that a later chapter of Scripture, Acts 10, is entirely dedicated to the problem of Jews interacting with Gentiles and the huge issues this created shows that the idea that these Jewish disciples, at this early stage, were going into non-Jewish homes is to be rejected. But even if for the sake of argument we were to accept that this was truly an evangelistic issue, why is only the verse ‘eat what is set before you’ selected as an immutable law and surgically removed from its context? Why are the other instructions in this passage ignored? Things like not taking a purse, or a bag or not greeting people on the road? Or even healing the sick or not moving from house to house?
Finally, it must be remembered that Jesus himself actually later reversed these instructions, which were probably only a temporary form of training under the safety and supervision of Christ(43) himself and within Israel: ‘He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.”'(44)
Truth be told, the passage we have analysed is used as a pretext to promote a certain view of Scripture, and is at best vaguely linked to the interpretation that is often espoused. Sadly in the place of a living relationship with the Lord a poorly exegeted teaching has been created that is mindlessly repeated and that has brought multitudes into bondage and false guilt.
(35) Romans 14:6 b, 1 Corinthians 8:13.
(36) Luke 10:1-9.
(37) Luke 22:35.
(38) Luke 11:5-8.
(39) While the Lord may have called or call certain people to this in particular situations, for example amongst primitive tribes, it is simply unscriptural to make this into a permanent commandment and it is also debatable whether this is always a good evangelistic strategy. Actually in many cultures worldwide people that are respected and considered spiritually authoritative normally abstain from certain foods..(40) Luke 9:1-5.
(41) Matthew 10:5-11.
(42) Luke 9:52-53.
(43) The disciples were not harmed in any way during Jesus’s earthly ministry. Jesus himself said: “While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me.” John 17:12.
(44) Luke 22:36.
Stay tuned for the conclusion of this series, Part Six, coming mid-week.
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