Guess who’s coming to dinner

I was raised at the time when families still had a regular pattern of eating together at the kitchen or dining table. Growing up we ate together in the evenings and in my earlier childhood my mother still, kept to the custom of a roast Sunday lunch, although this was something that began to fall by the wayside as my sisters and I grew older. Yet, the experience of family meals forms a significant template in my upbringing.

It was important for my mother that her children had good table manners and knew how to use a knife and fork properly so that we would neither shame her nor ourselves in public.  Recognizing differences in national custom – for instance- in British table etiquette we use both knife and fork together, placing the knife to one side only to invert the fork and transfer it to the right hand for foods that require scooping rather than spearing. But I notice among Americans the knife is only used for cutting and then placed aside to use the fork alone. 

In the lexicon of tongue-in-cheek Episcopalian jokes there’s the one about the rabbi, the RC priest and the Episcopal priest confessing dietary transgressions. The rabbi can’t resist the smell of fried bacon. The RC priest secretly eats meat on Friday. But the Episcopalian confesses having been mortified when he inadvertently found himself using his salad fork while eating his entree.

To this day I can’t resist casting my eye around restaurants to note how oddly some people manipulate their eating utensils. Al and I took on the heavy responsibility of ensuring our granddaughter would know how to avoid public shame at the dinner table. Among many other injunctions was the oft repeated grandfatherly exhortation: Claire, remember spoon to the mouth not mouth to the spoon!

These are the strange associations that come to mind as I hear Luke’s account of Jesus’ behavior at the dinner party of an important Pharisee. Luke reports that

as Jesus was going to the house of a leading Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

It seems that at these dinner parties, Jesus was subjected to close surveillance. As someone who always feels my table manners are under scrutiny, I know the feeling. However, here the close surveillance seems to have been two-way. With a critical eye Jesus was also watching the host and other guests closely – noticing how the dinner party was used as an occasion to reflect and reinforce the inequalities built into wider social values. 

Luke is the writer who gives us the clearest picture of the importance of table fellowship in Jesus’ ministry. For Jesus, eating together was never about the food or the wine – it was not about what you ate, but who you ate with. Who we eat with and who we would not be seen dead eating with, reveals much about our social values. Social values lay at the heart of Paul’s accusation against the Corinthians, among whom the Eucharist had degenerated into an occasion that reinforced factionalism and the importance of wealth and prestige. In 1 Cor 11:21-22 he writes:

So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry, and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

Worship table manners are a distinguishing characteristic of Episcopalian life. For well over 100 years now, the Episcopal Church has tortured itself with its ambivalence to social status. While the church of the privileged struggled hard to expand inclusion and to champion the processes of social and political reform in American society, it nevertheless secretly, and at times not so secretly, re enforced the boundaries of its elite exclusivity. Today, all Episcopal Churches display the sign: The Episcopal Church welcomes you! At one level the message is sincere. At another level there’s an unstated proviso – hidden in the need to make such a bold proclamation in the first place. The Episcopal Church welcomes you –as long as you are one of us.

There’s nothing like complex table manners to communicate social inclusion and reenforce social exclusion. The message is – only those who know the rules of the table will feel comfortable eating together. That the eucharist lies at the heart of Episcopal-Anglican worship of God is one of our strengths.

The complexity of our Eucharistic table manners – the how we celebrate the Eucharist – is another matter entirely. You see the how, dictates the who – meaning, the way we celebrate the Eucharist is not unconnected to who we would rather, or rather not, share it with.

Jesus was welcome to break bread in Pharisee homes. It seems likely that his own religious formation owed much to the network of Pharisee scribes responsible for the education of village boys.

The anti-Pharisee polemic of the gospel writers is indicative of a later worsening of relations between church and synagogue. Therefore, it comes as a surprise for us to learn that at the time of his ministry, Jesus and the Pharisees were natural if at times contentious, allies. Among the competing factions of Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, and Herodians that contended for power under the Roman occupation – the Pharisees and Jesus broadly shared a religious and political worldview. Jesus was welcome at their tables because – at one level he was almost one of them. He knew the rules of good Pharisee table etiquette. What made the Pharisees nervous however, was that Jesus knowing the rules was as likely to break them as to follow them.

The Talmud saying goes: two Jews, three opinions. Family disagreements are often the fiercest around the dinner table. That Jesus ate with Pharisees and that they welcomed him to their tables reveals that more was shared between them than divided them.

For the Pharisees, table fellowship was a way to maintain ritual-spiritual exclusivity. In a tainted world of secular and political accommodation and compromise, the exclusivity of table fellowship offered a place to share the hope for the coming of God’s kingdom. Table fellowship was where they disputed with one another about textual interpretation, and Jesus seems to have entered into this process with gusto.

What aroused Pharisee suspicion of Jesus was that for him, table fellowship expressed the open-ended inclusive invitation at the heart of the kingdom’s coming. For Jesus, God’s kingdom was not something to prepare for through guarding one’s spiritual identity as a member of a pure Israel. It was rather an invitation to welcome a wider inclusion. The kingdom’s coming demanded embracing the prophetic dream of God’s inclusion of all-in sundry within the scope of Israel’s salvation.

Despite all they shared, the central point of contention between Jesus and the Pharisees revolves around the issues of who’s welcome and who is not. It’s not just who is included and who is not but what are the terms for inclusion? Who will and who will not get an invitation to dinner? This is a universal tension – resurfacing again and again throughout religious history. It remains a tension we are still contending with today.

Jesus’ message to his fellow diners is that humility rather than certainty; a tolerance for diversity rather than a need for uniformity is what should shape our attitudes to table fellowship with one another and with God.

For Jesus, table fellowship is a place where connection is forged, brokenness is healed, and all are invited to participate in God’s rich blessings, regardless of the state of their table manners.

Jesus encourages us to take our seat at the bottom of the table, where we will find ourselves sitting beside persons who are not like us and whose table manners may well not come up to our standards, but with whom we have the potential to be surprised by the richness of new connection.

We now find ourselves in a society where eating together around the common table with family or friends is an increasingly unfamiliar experience. In a world of fast food instantly consumed on the run as it were – table fellowship withers as eating becomes an individual activity performed while attending to the endlessness of other demands. Despite the many alures of social networking, table fellowship is not among them.

For Christians and especially for Episcopalians, the Eucharist is the primary expression of our need for table fellowship with one another. Luke’s story about Jesus at the dinner party of a notable Pharisee spotlights the issue of who do we eat with and who do we never eat with? To become a community where Eucharistic table fellowship becomes the place where connection is forged, brokenness is healed, and all are invited to participate in God’s rich blessings, regardless of the state of their table manners, requires more from us than placing a sign outside proclaiming an invitation to dine in the vaguest of terms. For the way we celebrate may be saying more than we care to admit about the who it is we want to invite.

If all of this has your head spinning, then maybe we should return to basics and value what many of us still know how to do best. Before inviting others to Jesus, we should invite them to dinner first.

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