A Conversation with the Story of the Lord's Supper in Corinth (1 Cor 11:17-34)
Engaging the Scripture Text and the Filipino Christians’ Context
Ma. Marilou S. Ibita, K.U.Leuven
A narrative approach to Sacred Scriptures is not foreign to an Asian context. Documents of
the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences have continuously affirmed the need to
promote this indigenous way of interpreting scriptures to complement the Western methods
of biblical hermeneutics. In the past three decades, a narrative approach to Paul has been
gaining interest in Western scholarship. These two contexts that welcome narrative
hermeneutical approaches are a fertile ground for discovering new insights from the stories in
the letters of Paul.
To start the narrative conversation, we will make use of the latest reports on the hunger
situation in Asia, particularly the Philippines, from the Food and Agriculture Organization of
the United Nations and the latest newspaper reports on the hunger situation in the country.
We will also converse with the Filipino meal culture through the existing literature and our
own experience. As another conversation partner, we will engage the text of the story of the
Lord‟s Supper in Corinth (1 Cor 11:17-34). We follow the narrative-critical methodology of
Norman Petersen in Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul s Narrative 1World. We will apply this methodology to 1 Cor 11:17-34 and focus on the sociology of the
narrative world of 1 Cor 11:17-34. In this paper, we will focus our attention on the plot in the
Lord‟s Supper narrative, highlight the characters involved, study the point of view of Paul as
the letter-sender, and analyze the closural expectations and satisfactions that the text
presupposes. Then, we will attempt to have a narrative conversation between the text and the
contexts, and vice versa on particular issues such as meals and hospitality, patron-client
relationships as well as community conflict and conflict resolution. All of this will have
important implications in the context in which we read 1 Cor 11:17-34. The context of this
paper is the Filipino Catholic Church as a Church of the Poor faced with hunger.
The Life-Context of Lowland Filipino Christians, my Context as Interpreter and 1 Cor 11:17-34 Daily liturgical celebration of the Eucharist continues to be well attended in the Philippines. But it is also a common sight that at the entrance of the church, throughout the day, some people would be sitting there, begging for food or money. While they are sometimes given food or money by the mass goers, one wonders how Christians who celebrate the Eucharist can effectively respond to the injustice of poverty particularly hunger. This is a snapshot of our life-context in which we seek to read the oldest account of the story of the Lord‟s Supper in Corinth in 1 Cor 11:17-34. In this story, Paul critiques the way the
Corinthians celebrate the kuriako.n dei/pnon and called it instead i;dion dei/pnon.
Paul describes what he finds unacceptable in the Corinthian community meal (vv. 17-22) particularly how it has resulted in some getting hungry and some getting drunk (v. 21bc). He, then, counsels the Corinthians to welcome their hungry brothers and sisters in their midst (v. 34a) by appealing to the foundational story of the meal of the Lord which is at the root of their continue celebration (vv.23-26) and its eschatological consequence (vv. 27-34).
To situate us more exactly, the life-context of our narrative approach to 1 Cor 11:17-34, is the present lowland Filipino Christians‟ context. Jose M. de Mesa, a leading Filipino theologian who espouses
Filipino theologizing, describes our geographical as well as the socio-cultural-religious context in the vast archipelago of the Philippines:
…the lowland Christian groups- Cebuano, Tagalog, Ilokano, Ilongo, Bikolano, Waray-Waray,
Pampango and Pangasinan. These form a socio-cultural entity because they share a common
cultural history and a common belief in Roman Catholicism which have reduce their cultural
1Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1985.
differences to a point where they are more than counter-balanced by cultural similarities. The
principal source of cultural differentiation among them is language rather than race, religion, or
social and economic organization. Nine out of every ten Filipinos are Christians, most of whom
are Catholics, and live on lowland coasts and in valleys. Although they exhibit some differences
in diet, dress, and custom, the lowland Christians, as they are collectively known, are remarkably 2homogenous in culture and society and have had a long history of harmonious interrelations.
Our particular lowland Filipino Christian context will include three interrelated aspects: the specific challenge of gutom (hunger) besetting our country today, our deeply-rooted salu-salo (or kainan, meal-
orientedness) and our fondness for kwentuhan (story-telling and conversation). Our fondness for story-
telling is hoped to help us in our hermeneutical task where there is a growing need for inculturated approaches. In this respect, we believe that a narrative approach may be more sensitive to the indigenous approaches of interpretation. Moreover, it relates to the interesting use of the farewell meal story of the Lord which Paul appeals to in correcting the Corinthians (1 Cor 11:23-26). Our deeply-rooted meal-orientedness can serve as the prism in which we can view and engage the story of the Lord‟s Supper and the abuses in Corinth which Paul censures in vv. 17-34. The concrete challenge of hunger in the country today beckons lowland Filipino Christians who continue to tell and celebrate the Lord‟s Supper to 3responsively respond to this injustice as we endeavour to become the Church of the Poor.
While these aspects of the lowland Filipino Christians‟ context remain a constant background and horizon 4for my option to converse with the biblical text, my own personal context makes engaging the Bible contextually even more complicated. I am a lowland Filipina Christian myself who has taught biblical classes for three years in seminaries and formation houses in Metro Manila. The reality of people begging for food, especially street children and street families, was a constant challenge in the vicinity of the places where I worked and lived and where Eucharistic celebration is part of daily life. I have been influenced in my study of the Bible by brilliant mentors who were also passionate with social justice. Some are Filipinos who received their doctorate from European universities while some are European and American missionaries who have been in the Philippines even before I was born. Now, I am a doctoral student in Biblical Exegesis in the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, learning western biblical methodologies but always desiring to make my scriptural and theological training relevant to the present day Filipino context that has shaped me and continues to be one of my foremost concerns. While I am aware that there is a debate concerning who can do Asian contextualized theologizing, how it should be done, and where it ought to be discerned and articulated, I believe that Western-schooled Asian scholars
2For a discussion on lowland Filipino Christians, see Jose M. de Mesa, “Providence as God‟s Children for his People in the Lowland Filipino Context: An Attempt at Theological Re-rooting of a Gospel Theme” PhD. Dissertation,
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, 1978, xiii-xiv. He also uses the same description of lowland Filipinos in his follow
up work, And God Said, “Bahala na!”: The Theme of Providence in the Lowland Filipino Context Maryhill Studies
2 (Jose M. de Mesa, 1979), Foreword. Our attempt to specifically mention the lowland Filipino context is meant to respect the meal practices of other Filipinos who live in the mountains and the seas or smaller islands of the archipelago. 3 This is the vision of church set forth in the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines, Acts and Decrees of the
Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (Pasay City: Paulines Publishing House, 1992), nos. 122-136. This is also
one of the visions for the church in Asia, see Final Statement and Recommendations of the Fifth Bishops‟ Institute
for Social Action held in Baguio City, Philippines on 21 May to 1 June 1979 in Gaudencio B. Rosales and C. G. Arevalo, eds. For All the Peoples of Asia: Federation of Asian Bishops‟ Conferences Documents from 1970 to 1991
(Maryknoll, NY: Orbis and Quezon City: Claretian Publications, 1992), 217-221 specifically p.219. Likewise, see Arnel Lagarejos, The Church of the Poor. A Moral-Theological Investigation of its Development and Incedence on the Relations Between Church and State. Excerpta ex Dissertatione ad Doctoratum in Facultae Theologiæ PontificæUniversitatis Gregorianæ (Romæ, 1998). 4 In the lowland Filipino context, “kwentuhan” can both mean conversation and story-telling and conversation itself
can include a lot of story-telling.
have a particular contribution in this worthy endeavour. In this paper we will follow the example of Norman R. Petersen‟s narrative analysis of a Pauline letter, but limit ourselves to a study of the characters
I will also go beyond it because of my contextual concerns that include narrative in 1 Cor 11:17-34. Yet
hermeneutics which is indigenous to Asia and the Philippines, the Filipino meal culture that I continue to have and encounter even outside the Philippines and the challenge of hunger the beset my people, and a million others, even now.
A Closer Look at the Lowland Filipino Christian Context and the Story of the Lord’s Supper in Corinth
As we mentioned in our introduction, there are three aspects of lowland Filipino contexts that will serve as conversation partner of our interpretation of 1 Cor 11:17-34. These aspects include the hunger situation that beset many Filipinos, the meal culture of the lowland Filipino Christians, and the Filipinos‟ penchant for story-telling. These three aspects engage the story of the Lord‟s Supper in Corinth in line with the
text‟s context of famine and the issue of hunger in the Corinthian setting, the abuses at the communal table-fellowship, and the importance of story-telling in correcting the faulty celebration. We will discuss each one of them below.
1. Hunger in the Philippines and Hunger in 1 Cor 11:21bc
The first aspect of the current Filipino context that needs to be considered in view of our dialogue with the story of the Lord‟s Supper in 1 Cor 11:17-34, particularly vv.21bc, 33-34a, is the problem of hunger
besetting the country today. We recognize that the issue of hunger, its cause, effect and possible solution, 5is complicated. I have also spoken about my face to face encounter with hungry people especially those who constantly beg at the door of the churches and those who knock at convent doors. When seen in the larger perspective the picture is even more disturbing. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the one billion mark of people suffering hunger has been 6reached as the economic situation worldwide has worsened. Twenty-five countries in Asia, including the 7Philippines, are considered Low-Income Food Deficit Countries by the FAO and according to the 2009
Millennium Development Goals report cites that 21% of the population in Southern Asia in 2008 is 8undernourished. The current situation in our country presents an impoverished nation with a good 9number of its almost 92 million people suffering hunger everyday. The recent survey of the Social
Weather Station (SWS) in the Philippines reports the following:
The June 2009 survey also found that 39% of Filipino families (est. 7.2 million) consider
themselves as Food-Poor, 33% put themselves on the Food-Borderline, and 28% consider
themselves as Not Food-Poor. Self-Rated Food Poverty has been volatile at 49% in June 2008,
5 We cannot pinpoint just one cause of hunger or only one way to solve this problem. Modern hunger situation is related to poverty, land rights and ownership, diversion of land use to non-productive use, increasing emphasis on export-oriented agriculture, inefficient agricultural practices, war, famine, drought, over-fishing, poor crop yield, lack of democracy and rights and many others. See the relevant materials available from
http://www.wfp.org/hunger/causes (accessed 28 September 2009). 6 This recent development is one of the important background and agenda of the coming World Summit on Food Security in Rome on 16-18 November, 2009 in Rome. For more details see http://www.fao.org/wsfs/world-
summit/en/ (accessed 19 September 2009). 7 Information available from http://www.fao.org/countryprofiles/lifdc.asp?lang=en (access 20 September 2009) 8 See The Millennium Development Goals Report 2009 (New York: United Nations, 2009), 11 available from
http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/pdf/MDG_Report_2009_ENG.pdf (accessed 20 September 2009). 9 The projected Philippine population in 2009 is 92.23 million according to the National Statistics Office available from http://www.census.gov.ph/ (17 September 2009).
38% in September 2008, 42% in December 2008, 36% in February 2009, and 39% in June 102009.
In a related report, the SWS made known that in the second quarter of 2009, overall hunger in the country rose to 5%. The change is particularly due to the increase of people experiencing “moderate hunger” which includes Filipinos experiencing involuntary hunger “only once” or “a few times.” The increase in the last three months involves an estimated 2.0 million Filipino families (11.1%) to about 2.9 million families (16%) and is 7 points above the average of those experiencing “Moderate Hunger” in the last ten 11years. The report concerning those who experience “Severe Hunger,” i.e. those who experience hunger "Often" or "Always" in the last three months, declined a bit from 4.4% (about 810,000 families) in the month of February to 4.3% (estimated 790,000 families) in June of this year. In comparison to the past ten 12years, this result is only just a point above the average “Severe Hunger” rate of 3.4%. Since June 2004,
surveys on hunger in the country have been in double-digits consistently. The mere fact that hunger surveys and hunger reports are nuanced already indicates the severity of the problem. 2. Filipino Meal–Orientedness (Pagsasalu-salo) and 1 Cor 11:17-34
One wonders how this above-mentioned challenge of hunger can be responded to individually and communally in a nation where daily and Sunday Eucharistic celebrations remain very well attended and that has a deeply rooted meal culture. While the issue of hunger and proposed solution to it are highly complex, in this present study we would like to examine how a more conscious remembering of the kuriako.n deipnon augmented by sensitivity to the Filipino meal culture (pagsasalu-salo)
particularly the value of hating-kapatid can be potentially effective. Both of these factors can make
lowland Filipino Christians today realize their common identity as people and as Christians for an attitude that could lead to a reconsideration of how our culture and faith celebration embodied in the Eucharist can potentially enhance diverse effective communal response to the issue of hunger. This insight finds expression in the Filipinos‟ popular but inadequately unarticulated Christological image of Jesus Christ at 13table.
Our lowland Filipino food culture is best summarized by one of the most common greeting: “Kain tayo!"
or "Salo na!" ("Come, let us eat!"). This greeting is usually spoken by someone who has food or someone who has prepared the food to those surrounding him or her, whether they are friends or strangers and can result in food sharing and story-telling. This practice points to our food and narrative culture.
We Filipinos are meal-oriented (salu-salo, kainan). Because Filipinos consider almost everyone
as part of their family (parang pamilya), we are known for being gracious hosts and grateful
guests. Serving our guest with the best we have is an inborn value to Filipinos, rich and poor alike.
We love to celebrate any and all events with a special meal. Even with unexpected guests, we
10 See 04 August 2009 report entitled, “Second Quarter 2009 Social Weather Survey: Self-Rated Poverty is 50%;
Self-Rated Food Poverty is 39%” available from http://www.sws.org.ph/ (accessed 16 September 2009). 11 See 27 July 2009 “Second Quarter 2009 Social Weather Survey: Hunger rises to 20.3% of families; Moderate Hunger is 16.0%, Severe Hunger is 4.3%” available from http://www.sws.org.ph/ (accessed 16 September 2009). 12 Ibid. 13 One of the most common expressions is the presence of a depiction of the Last Supper in Filipino dining rooms. While most of the images still bear the European model, local representations are multiplying. See also José M. de Mesa and Lode Wostyn, Doing Christology: The Reappropriation of a Tradition (Quezon City: Claretians, 1989),
128-133 and José M. de Mesa, “Ang Eukaristiya: Bagong Ugnayan” in Solidarity with Culture: Studies in
Theological Re-rooting. <