By Rev. J.C. Austin
There are different rites of passage that mark the transition from childhood toward adulthood in the United States. Some are particular to specific religious groups, like bar or bat mitzvahs for Jewish teens, or quinceañera celebrations for 15 year-old Latina girls. Some are unofficial parts of the general culture, like getting a driver’s license or high school graduation ceremonies.
But there is one grand moment that often gets overlooked: getting promoted from the kids’ table. In many households, the kids’ table gets pulled out at family reunions, holiday feasts, and other such events. As the meal is served, the adults take their seats in beautiful chairs around a polished table in the dining room; the kids take their food to a folding card table set up in the family room, the vinyl top peeling back in a few places, perhaps one leg dangerously close to collapsing.
It’s not so bad when you’re younger, because you can pretty much do what you want instead of having to act like an adult through the whole meal. But if you’re one of the older ones at the kids’ table, it can be a humiliating experience. You’re sitting there trying to eat while one cousin builds a fort out of mashed potatoes, another one tries the beans on as earrings, your younger brother flicks peas at your head when he thinks you’re not looking.
Then one day, out of the blue, you are offered a seat at the adults’ table while the other kids are sent to the family room; suddenly, you’ve been accepted as a full citizen in the adult world of family dining. It’s a big deal to you when you’re young; it’s an affirmation of your maturity, of your ability to conduct yourself appropriately, some of the things that older children crave the most for their parents to recognize.
Inclusion and exclusion, acceptance and rejection, equality and division; there are few places where these extremes are experienced more directly and personally than around a table. It doesn’t get any easier as we get older. Sometimes it’s minor, like deciding whether to make a thing out of a restaurant seating you at a table right next to the swinging door to the kitchen. Sometimes it’s as profound as demanding the recognition of your basic human dignity; it’s not surprising that some of the most pitched battles of the civil rights struggle were over the integration of restaurants and lunch counters. Sharing a meal, a table, even a restaurant is a fundamental affirmation of each other’s acceptability and equality.
There’s no doubt, then, that Jesus is being deliberately and intensely provocative here in the home of this leader of the Pharisees. The significance of a shared meal was even more profound back then. Remember, these are Pharisees he’s talking to; to them, a meal is nothing less than a worship service. It requires ritual preparations beforehand to ensure one’s own purity and therefore the purity of others at the table; it requires specific attention to what’s being eaten and how it is prepared; it involves particular attention to how the meal itself is eaten and conducted.
And of course, the Pharisees weren’t immune to the social and cultural standards of the day. Hosting a meal brought the host great honor when his guests were people of social status. It also ensured that you would be invited to share a meal at their house; this reciprocation affirmed each other’s honor and status, each other’s standing as social equals. In a very real sense, a meal established who you are, both for host and guest; the meal, the host, and the guest list all combined to confirm the honor and status of each of the participants.
So, the stakes are pretty high as the guests accept the invitation, arrive, and begin taking their seats. Standing there in this Pharisee’s home, watching this social drama play itself out around the table, Jesus tosses a bomb amongst them, exploding their understanding of basic social interaction. Jesus, like the Pharisees, believed that a meal was a worship service. But he understood that to mean something very different.
For him, meals aren’t closed ceremonies that divide the clean and the pure from those who are not; meals are times of fellowship, of celebration, of communion between all those who seek to live in response to God’s grace and love. Meals are an opportunity to experience and exhibit the nature of God’s coming kingdom, where all sit together as equals, since all are created in God’s image and redeemed by God’s grace. Jesus is doing nothing less than challenging the concepts of the very identity and behavior of God’s people.
This wasn’t just a challenge to the Pharisees, though. I’ve always found it somewhat comforting that different groups within the early church had trouble getting along, that they fought passionately over ethics and theology, over how to live as faithful Christians; it helps keep the arguments of our own day in perspective. In the early church, the first real test to the unity of the church wasn’t the substance of worship or beliefs of who Christ was; it was how Christians should eat and who they should eat with.
Peter was strongly criticized by Christians who came from Jewish communities when he stayed with Gentile Christians and ate with them. Paul had to defend his own ministry to the Gentiles when Christians in Jerusalem challenged his acceptance of them without making them take up the Jewish dietary practices. The question was not whether Gentiles should be accepted at all, but whether they could be accepted as equals, given a place at the table of all Christians. “You have to draw the line somewhere,” argued those who favored the dietary laws. How far does hospitality have to go?
I remember back in my 20s I was invited to an engagement party for one of my best friends from college. We were living several hours’ drive from one another, but we hadn’t seen each other in a while at that point, and he swore that other college friends would be there, so we made the drive to the house that was hosting. Walking down the steps into the backyard where the party was, we saw a classic backyard Southern picnic written large: mountains of barbeque, potato salad, and cole slaw; piles of corn on the cob; cold beer and sweet tea; pecan pie and banana pudding; the works. There must have been at least a hundred people there, standing around in circles laughing, or roaming the grounds shaking hands and slapping each other on the back.
And we didn’t know a single one of them. His family was part of the town society scene, and they, unlike my college friends, had turned out in droves. So it quickly turned into one of those kind of parties. You’ve probably been to at least one: standing by yourself, knowing nobody, conducting a thorough inspection of your glass while looking around to see if there’s a circle of people with a gap big enough to squeeze into, and not quite finding it. People weren’t exactly rude: they smiled at us, recommended we try the pie, exchanged a few warm words at the food table. But we were still outsiders, still people that didn’t really register on the social radar there, and so they moved on quickly to people they knew, people they were comfortable with, people who had something to offer in return.
Hospitality to those you know, those you are comfortable with, those who can benefit you, those who are just like you, isn’t hospitality at all, Jesus is telling us and the Pharisees. Hospitality that expects reciprocation, that is given in order to get something back, that welcomes certain kinds of people and merely tolerates or ignores others has nothing to do with the kingdom of God. The fact is that being shut out of an engagement party is uncomfortable, even humiliating, but it’s nothing close to being turned away from the table of God’s people. The simple answer is we don’t get to draw the line anywhere; Jesus is the one who re-draws the line to include anyone who comes to the table seeking him. Jesus continually re-drew the line to include those whom society rejected; he was constantly getting in trouble for eating with the sick, with the poor, with sinners.
When Jesus calls us to follow him, he calls us to a life of giving dangerously: not simply giving our sympathy, or our money, or our services, or our time to those in need. These are all ways of giving safely; they can accomplish a lot of good, but they can also keep divisions and barriers between us and others firmly in place by designating our roles: giver and receiver, helper and helped. Jesus calls us to a life of giving dangerously by giving ourselves, welcoming others to share our lives as equals.
We are called to be Christ’s unexpected hosts by welcoming Christ’s unexpected guests, by making a special point to include in our fellowship those who are often made to feel unwelcome by the world. Being an unexpected host is an act of humility rather than philanthropy, because it recognizes that, in this passage, we are all guests at Christ’s table. We don’t choose who gets the places of honor; we are blessed just to have a seat. Our joy is, surprisingly, unexpectedly, that we get to play host on Christ’s behalf, welcoming those whom the world rejects or ignores, but whom Christ affirms as honored guests.
I remember once, as a young child, my mother talking to me about the importance of good table manners, how they communicated something about who I was and how I related to other people. I remember saying, “So then I should pack them up and save them for a special occasion, like the good silverware, right?” It seemed logical to me at the time; you don’t want to waste them on any old meal, right? But my mom sort of laughed and said, “No, that’s why you want to use them every meal, so they become a natural part of how you act. Then you’ll be comfortable and you won’t feel awkward and out of place on a special occasion.”
Jesus’ teachings here are about proper table manners in the kingdom of God. Worship is where we learn our manners: it’s where we learn about praise; about confession, repentance, and forgiveness; about hearing God’s Word and responding to it by offering ourselves. It’s where we realize that each of us is given a place at Christ’s table, including those who are very different from us, and the joy of having that place is enough. The word liturgy, which means our order of worship, comes from a word that means, “work of the people.” What we do in worship each Sunday is work in the best possible sense: serving God and one another through our praise, our prayers, our offerings, and proclamation. That’s why we call it a worship service, not a worship event or show.
Worship is where we learn our table manners, but if we are really going to live into our calling as unexpected hosts, we practice them every day in in every corner of our lives. Jesus taught that not only meals but every aspect of life is a worship service, and that’s more important than ever to remember in these polarized and conflicted time. We have the opportunity, and blessing, and calling for our words and actions to be a living liturgy or praise and thanksgiving wherever we find ourselves and whomever we find ourselves with, serving the one who invites us and welcomes us to his table, offers us a place of honor, feeds and renews our souls, and says to us, “Friend, move up higher.” Because there is always enough room for us near Jesus.