Eat the Fat, Drink the Wine

Week of Monday, July 2, 2001

This week I received a letter from a friend that contained an exhortation that was rather strange but entirely Biblical. It comes right out of Nehemiah 8:10: “Eat the fat, drink the wine.” A few years ago my friend had suffered through a divorce and the complex consequences that almost always result—sadness, anger, pain, confusion, depression, weight loss and the like. But now he has met a woman he plans to marry; and now, he said, it was time to move beyond sin, grief and despair to celebration and joy. It was time to eat the fat and drink the wine. I could only “rejoice with those who rejoice” (Romans 12:15).

Our world is so full of evil. Often our lives are full of disappointments, failures of various kinds, and all sorts of brokenness. It can feel almost sacrilegious to be joyful. But there is a time, says Nehemiah, to eat the fat and drink the wine.

The story of Nehemiah follows the destruction of Jerusalem and the survival of a demoralized remnant. To this story of “great distress and reproach” Nehemiah could only weep, mourn, fast and pray for days on end (1:3–4). But he also took action to rebuild the fallen walls of Jerusalem. Once rebuilt, the people gathered in the public square as God's community to hear Ezra read the law of Moses. Overcome with emotion, the people began to weep.

Then Nehemiah said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go, eat of the fat, drink of the wine, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” And all the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival. (8:9–12)
Yes, there was a proper time to grieve the devastation of Jerusalem; but there was also a time to move on and to rejoice, however modest the circumstances compared to former times and expectations. There was and is a time to eat the fat and drink the wine.

My friend's use of this text reminded me of two other stories in the Bible where we witness outrageous celebration that is commended. In Deuteronomy 14:22–26 the Hebrews are commanded to tithe of their agricultural produce by eating it in the presence of the Lord at a precise time and place. But what if someone was just too far away for this to be practical, but still wanted to remain faithful to the command?

Then you shall exchange your produce for money, and bind the money in your hand, and spend the money for whatever your heart desires; and there you shall eat in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household. (Deuteronomy 14:24–26).
In other words, to fulfill God's command to tithe, throw a party. Eat the fat and drink the wine.

Then there is the story of Mary in John 12:1–8. At a dinner to honor Jesus, Martha busied herself with the details of the banquet. But Mary worshipped Jesus with an extravagantly expensive gesture. She poured a pint of perfume on Jesus's feet, then wiped his feet with her hair. The text tells us that the perfume was worth a year's wages, and the reaction of the disciples was predictable. What is going on?! We should have sold that perfume and given the money to the poor! In my mind I wonder what my Christian friends would think if I “wasted” an entire year's salary on a single act of worshipful celebration. Mary knew there was a time to eat the fat, drink the wine, and pour the perfume.

In our self-indulgent world where greed is a virtue, modesty and frugality are to be commended. But there is also a place for extravagance in the Biblical scheme of things. After all, as Jesus said in his rebuke to the disciples, if you really love the poor, you will have ample opportunities throughout your life to prove that. In our world of failure, sin, and shame, sorrow, tears and repentance are likewise to be commended. But there is also a time to move forward and to celebrate.

Sometimes it is more difficult to drink “the best wine” than the cheap wine (John 2:10), more awkward to be content with plenty than with want (Philippians 4:12). But when the opportunity presents itself as divinely appointed, with my friend who is about to remarry, with Nehemiah and Mary, I say, eat the fat and drink the wine.

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.