I am realizing more and more how lucky I am to have been raised at the time when families still had a regular pattern of eating together at the kitchen table. Growing up we ate together in the evenings and in my earlier childhood my mother still kept to the custom of Sunday lunch together, although this was something that began to fall by the wayside as my sisters and I grew older. Yet, the template of experience of common meals forms a significant experience in my socialization.
Common to families like mine, at least one parent usually mother, was always anxious to ensure that her children had good table manners and knew how to use a knife and fork properly so that we would neither shame her or ourselves in public. To this day I still cast my eye around restaurants to note how oddly some people manipulate their eating utensils. Traveling this summer with our extended family both Al and I continued to fulfill our grandfatherly role of remonstrating with our 11-year-old granddaughter about the poor quality of her table manners. A common exhortation from us was: Claire, remember spoon to the mouth not mouth to the spoon!
Table fellowship- Pharisees and Jesus
These are the strange associations that come to mind as I hear Luke’s account of Jesus’ behavior at the dinner party of a wealthy and important Pharisee. Jesus seems to have spent a good deal of time attending dinner parties. So much so that it led to the accusation of his being a drunkard. He was much criticized by his Pharisee friends for eating in some unsavory company in the homes of tax collectors, and in the company of prostitutes and other sinners of the like.
Luke is the writer who gives us the clearest picture of the importance of dinner parties, or to use the proper term, table fellowship in Jesus’ ministry. Yet, as well as eating with the socially outcast Jesus also shares table fellowship in the best Pharisee company.
He knew important Pharisees and was welcome in their homes. It seems likely that his own religious formation owed much to the network of Pharisee scribes responsible for much of the education of village boys. It comes as a surprise for us to learn that Jesus and the Pharisees were natural allies. Among the contentious factions of Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, and Herodians that contended for power under the Roman occupation the Pharisees and Jesus shared the same religious and political outlook.
The reality was that the Pharisees and Jesus, both represented a progressive approach to the interpretation of scripture. Both Jesus and the Pharisees believed that under the inspiration of the God’s spirit, the scriptures could be interpreted to speak to new situations unforeseen in the original time the text was written down. Both believed that the primary duty was owed towards God. God remained the primary focus of ultimate allegiance. So long as the legal responsibilities imposed by the foreign occupation, keep the peace and pay your taxes did not directly interfere with the primary allegiance to God, then the maxim render to Caesar etc expressed a tolerable level of practical accommodation. It was among the Pharisees that Jesus may well have encountered the concept of in the world but not of it.
Family disagreements are often the fiercest. Those differences between Jesus and the Pharisees lay in a divergence of interpretation. As the Talmud saying goes: two Jews, three opinions. What lay between Jesus and the Pharisee who had invited him to dinner was a legitimate difference of interpretive vision. This difference in vision led each to different conclusions. For the Pharisees, table fellowship maintained ritual- spiritual purity. In a tainted world of secular and political accommodation and compromise, the purity of table fellowship was a necessary expression of the hope for the coming of God’s kingdom. Pharisees took very seriously their preparedness for the coming of the Messiah. Table fellowship was where they disputed with one another about Torah interpretation, and Jesus seems to have entered into this process with gusto.
For Jesus, table fellowship was an expression of the open-ended inclusiveness that lay at the heart of God’s reign. For Jesus, God’s kingdom was not something to prepare for by remaining careful to guard one’s spiritual identity as a member of a pure Israel. It was rather an invitation to participation. God’s kingdom while still to come was also already here. The realization of the kingdom demanded embracing the prophetic dream of God’s inclusion of all in sundry within the scope of the salvation of Israel. Both Pharisee and Jesus’ interpretations flowed from the richness of Israel’s prophetic tradition. From a common root, different shoots leaf.
We who receive the Gospel in the early decades of the 21st-century need to know that the disputations between Jesus and the Pharisees, in this instance argued out around the dinner table, were during Jesus’ lifetime legitimate interpretive differences within the larger shared and religiously progressive approach that sought to apply Scripture to the needs of everyday life. It is crucial that we also recognize that by Luke’s time such disputations had evolved and escalated into bitter arguments between competing Rabbinic and Christian communities. Paul Hanson notes that:
this transformation of learned disputation into bitter invective and finally unspeakable violence represents one of the most horrific tragedies of human history.
Jesus’ message to his fellow diners is that humility rather than certainty of election is the core attribute required in relationship with God. For Jesus, table fellowship was a place where connection is made, brokenness is healed, and all invited to participate in God’s rich blessings, regardless of the state of their table manners. Je we take our seat at the bottom of the table, here we will find ourselves sitting beside persons who are not like us and whose table manners may well not come up to our standards.
The Contemporary Challenge
In my anecdotal experience, for many today, eating together around the common table with family or friends is no longer a common routine experience. In a world of food quickly prepared and instantly consumed – on the run as it were – eating becomes an individual activity performed while attending to the endless distractions of TV and social networking. The state of one’s table manners ceases to have any social relevance when eating is no longer a shared experience.
One of the most important spiritual disciplines for us to recover in the kind of world in which we live is the discipline of table fellowship. … We need a recovery of the spiritual significance of what we eat, where we eat, and with whom we eat.
The real takeaway for me from our recent family holiday is not the memory of Claire’s sketchy table manners but the experience of our enjoying table fellowship together on a daily basis. After three Sunday’s away it is good for me this morning to be present again within the St Martin’s community of family and friends to participate in our Eucharistic table fellowship together. Eucharist is a continual reminder that table fellowship lies at the heart of our Christian life.
In the story from Luke about Jesus at the dinner party of a notable Pharisee the message for me is this: that although it matters how we eat, the really important emphasis is upon with whom we eat.
An issue for our future centers on whether we become a community where to invite others: friends, neighbors, and colleagues to share Eucharist with us – becomes second nature? For many of us this is a tall ask. Perhaps one way to work towards this is to do what many of us still know how to do best. Before inviting others to Jesus, we should invite them to dinner first.