The Economics of the Eucharist: What the Bible Really Says About Communing Unworthily

Perhaps no other passage of Scripture has contributed more to pious anxiety than what Paul wrote about the Eucharist in his first letter to the Corinthians, "For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment upon himself..." (1 Cor. 11.29). But what does this mean? Paul writes, "let a man examine himself" prior to Communion, so as not to partake unworthily (28). Thus we focus on personal spiritual practices, like confession, prayer, and fasting, which are all well and good. But in Scripture, the Eucharist is a collective, and especially economic, act.

In chapter 11 Paul defines eating unworthily as failing to discern the Lord's body (29). The question is: which body? Our Bibles have chapters, verses, and often even subject headings, so it can be easy to miss how 1 Corinthians 11.27-34 picks up on a theme that appears at least as early as chapter 6 and continues into chapter 12. In chapter 6, Paul argues that the Corinthian who sleeps with a prostitute somehow unites the whole church to her. He asks, "Shall I...take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not!" (15). A person who sins with a prostitute sins "against his own body." This implies, at first glance, that he harms himself individually, but such a conclusion makes little sense in light of Paul's point about uniting the prostitute with the whole church. Thus he asks, "Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?" (18-19). Paul chose to use the Greek plural "you." It is like Paul was saying, "Or do you not know that [y'all's] body is the temple of the Holy Spirit...?" He was not saying that our bodies are individual temples. Rather, he was letting the Corinthians know that they were one body, and that one body was the Holy Spirit's temple. Thus in chapter 11, Paul is picking up a thread he started in chapter 6, and will make explicit in chapter 12 (verse 27), when he writes, "Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually."

In that case, it seems unlikely that Paul had personal worthiness in mind when he wrote about the Eucharist in chapter 11. While the body the Corinthians were to "discern" in 11.29 is certainly the body of the "historic" Jesus, made present in the bread and wine, for Paul the historic body of Christ could not be separated from the ecclesial body of Christ--the church. Thus the body of Christ the Corinthians have failed to discern is themselves. They failed to see how they were the body of which they were to partake in the Eucharist. The sin that nullified Communion--that made it "not...the Lord's Supper"--was about the way the body of Christ treated its members, in particular the poor (11.21).

Paul writes, "[T]here are divisions among you" (11.18). Unlike in previous chapters, these divisions have nothing to do with who baptized, who is sleeping with, or who is suing whom. Rather, these divisions are socio-economic. "[O] ne is hungry and another is drunk." Modern biblical scholars have surmised that at this point in church history, when the Eucharist was part of a larger meal that usually took place in the evenings, it was difficult for poor laborers to make it to church on time. When they finally arrived, they found that the wealthy, who did not have to work long hours, had already eaten all the food. As a result, the poor left church still hungry after a long day's work. The rich left drunk. So if Paul equated unworthy Communion with a lack of individual, spiritual preparation, either he says nothing about it, or whatever he did say the church did not deem important enough to include in the New Testament. For him, to say the church is the body of Christ is no metaphor. The body of Christ that ascended into heaven is extended into this world through the church. Thus Paul expected the Corinthians to embody the new economic order of the Kingdom Christ lived and proclaimed.

The coming reign of God was a concept that predated the earthly ministry of Jesus and implied the establishment of a new order characterized by social and economic justice. Thus the prophet Amos condemned the "religious feasts" and "assemblies" of the "house of Israel," and instead said, "But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream" (Amos 5.21-25). The Gospel of Luke (which, it is interesting to note, tradition says was written by the physician-disciple of Paul) regularly accentuates the theme of poverty. When Mary had conceived by the Holy Spirit, she understood what was happening to her fundamentally in economic terms. She "magnifies the Lord" because "He has put down the mighty from their thrones, // And exalted the lowly. // He has filled the hungry with good things, // And the rich he has sent away empty" (Luke 1.46, 52-53). The Incarnation of the Word was to turn the world upside down. The lower classes would reign over those who made their wealth off their labor. Mary's song surely includes Jesus himself, whose poverty Luke also takes pains to stress. When Mary made her way to the Temple for the dedication of her Son, and to make an offering for her "cleansing" in keeping with the Levitical code, she offered the sacrifice for poor people, "A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons" (Luke 2.24; Lev. 12.8).

Jesus was a poor man, who preached to the poor, and identified with them. He told parables about physical labor, of sowing, harvesting, and herding, about a woman who turned her house upside down to find just one lost coin, of a beggar whose wounds the dogs licked, and of man with more debt than he could ever hope to repay. Jesus was an itinerant preacher, which really means he was homeless, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head" (Luke 9.58). And this, Jesus said, is what the Kingdom of God looks like. It belongs to the poor (Luke 6.20). It is recognized where the sick are healed (Luke 10.9) and where demons are cast out (Luke 11.20). The Kingdom of God goes where Jesus goes. Thus Christ admonished his disciples not to look for the Kingdom of God here and there but within themselves--"For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17.21). The Greek we translate "within" is more properly rendered "in the midst of" or "among." The Kingdom of God is not "inside" each individual, but in the midst of us, wherever "two or three are gathered" (Matt 18.20). The kingdom of God happens in the church.

For Jesus's earliest followers, the Kingdom of God was being pre-established in the church. The Eucharist was the Sacrament of the church's constitution as a sign of God's Kingdom. Paul expected an economic reordering of the Corinthian's assembly because economic justice is what the Kingdom of God is all about. Communion calls a new world order to happen in the midst of us by making present him who is the fulfillment of that Kingdom of God as us, the body of Christ. If we preserve the economic divisions that characterize this fallen world, we violate the communion that Communion is all about.

This has implications for what we understand "unworthiness" to mean. Note that Paul did not condemn the Corinthians because they showed contempt for the poor. That would be too easy. He condemned them for doing to the poor what we do all the time: just not thinking about them. The Corinthians were being inconsiderate.

We commune unworthily when our Communion does not consider the poor and make them a priority. We cannot feast with Christ, yet allow our sister or brother to starve at home. The poor must be specifically invited to share in the abundance of God's Kingdom; otherwise we eat and drink judgment upon ourselves.

None of this is to minimize the importance of personal preparation. We must still confess, pray, and fast, but maybe we should do those things a little bit differently. Maybe we should confess our apathy and pray for deliverance from it. We must ask God to make us see the poor among us and then to act upon that revelation. And when we fast? Perhaps we should fast in the most ancient way--the way recommended by the pastor of Hermas--to take what we have too much of and share it with those who have too little. A fast is not a fast when the poor are hungry. Thus when it comes to preparing for Communion, let us heed the prophet Isaiah (58.6-7).

Is this not the fast that I have share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?

The above has been adapted from an essay available here.