In my previous post I began looking at all the meals Jesus attended in Luke’s Gospel with a view to distilling some ‘rules’ for dinner church leaders. In that post I looked at five dinners shared by Jesus and came up with the following five lessons:
- Feel Free to Eat with the “Wrong People” (Luke 5:27-32)
- See Social Faux Pas as Opportunities for Ministry (Luke 7:36-50)
- Feed Everyone Who Turns Up (Luke 9:10-17)
- Make Time to Be with Jesus (Luke 10:38-42)
- Piss Off Self-Righteous People (Luke 11:37-53)
Now, let’s look at the other five meals from Luke. If Jesus ran a dinner church, I think he would do the following:
6. Give Special Honor to the Lowly (Luke 14:1-14)
The picture above is from a tapestry of the Last Supper, not the meal mentioned in Luke 14. It depicts Jesus and the Twelve reclining at a triclinium (three sided) table. I share it here because it illustrates what feasts looked like in Jesus’ time. People reclined on cushions on their left elbow with their feet stretched away from the table and ate with their right hand. The host would sit at the most prominent place (at a triclinium that would be in the middle of the center table) and guests would be ranked according to their status from nearest to furthest from him. Everyone knew their place. No one would attempt to move closer to the host if they weren’t of an appropriate level of status.
In Western contexts, this is unheard of. When guests gather at our homes we tell them to sit anywhere they want. If we can, we like to sit at a round table so there is no head. But even today in non-Western cultures, the ordering of dinner guests still occurs. I was once the guest of honor at a banquet in Seoul, South Korea. The meal was served at an extraordinarily long table in the private room of a restaurant and I was instructed to sit at the center of the table opposite my host. My translator whispered to me to watch what the other guests did next. Very subtlely, almost imperceptibly, they positioned themselves in order of age and social rank. If someone sat a seat or two further from the host than they should others would usher them forward. Only when they were all satisfied with their order did they sit for the meal.
Jesus picks up on this convention while attending a dinner at a Pharisee’s home. He describes a situation where a guest positions themself close to the honored guest only to have a person of higher status arrive and bump them down the table. Nothing could be more embarrassing! It would involve such a loss of face. Instead, Jesus says, “When you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (v10-11). But this isn’t just advice about good etiquette. He is reiterating a principle he makes many times — in his kingdom the last will be first and the first will be last.
What has prompted this conversation is the fact that Jesus had healed a man on his way to the meal. It was the Sabbath. And the Pharisees grumble about him breaking the Law of Moses by “working” on a day of rest. This becomes a primary point of contention for the religious leaders because Jesus appeared to openly flout the law, regularly healing people on the Sabbath. When questioned about it at the meal, Jesus refers to a loophole in the law, replying, “If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?” (v5) The Law of Moses allowed for such work to occur on the Sabbath in cases where there was a risk to life or limb. His detractors fall silent. They know that the law allows them the discretion to rescue a trapped animal on the Sabbath and if they continue to object to Jesus healing people on that day they would appear to be valuing the sick less than an ox.
Jesus then offers his host some advice for future dinners parties, telling him to not just invite his friends or family or rich neighbors who can reciprocate with a return invitation, but to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed” (v13-14).
In Jesus was running a dinner church, I think all the people who are usually invisible in other churches — the physically disabled, the intellectually challenged, the elderly, the untalented, the shy, the fearful, the uncertain — would be given pride of place.
7. Let Food and Drink Be the Lubricants of True Repentance (Luke 19:1-10)
In my previous post I mentioned how unpopular tax collectors were in Jesus’ time. They were considered collaborators with the Roman occupation. So, when Jesus arrives in Jericho and a local tax collector named Zacchaeus climbs a sycamore tree in order to catch a glimpse of him, I wonder whether it wasn’t just Zacchaeus’ height that was a factor. Tax collectors weren’t safe in crowds. Zealots and other patriots were known to slip stiletto blades between the ribs of Romans and their collaborators whenever the opportunity arose. But far from being inconspicuous up in that tree, Zacchaeus becomes the object of everyone’s attention when Jesus points him out and invites himself to the tax collector’s home.
The scene here in Luke 19 resembles the dinner Jesus shared at Levi the tax collector’s home back in Luke 5 (see the previous post). Like the earlier scene, people mutter about Jesus fraternizing with a “sinner” here too. But back in chapter 5, Jesus defended his behavior this way: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (v31-32). Now, here in Zacchaeus’ home that starts to look like a prophecy, because Zacchaeus does indeed repent and dramatically so, promising, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (v8).
The proviso, “if I have cheated anybody out of anything” is hardly necessary. All tax collectors gouged their clients for their own reward. Paying everyone back fourfold would surely ruin him. Zacchaeus’ act of repentance is lavish and heartfelt. But note that it occurs while Jesus is in his home. In the act of hospitality and shared life, Zacchaeus comes to his senses and responds to the transforming grace of God through Christ. Rarely do people repent when they hear a street preacher with a bullhorn screaming at them to do so. Owning our sin, confessing our love of money or power or pleasure, bearing our souls — these things are best done in the safety and gentleness of deep community.
Dinner churches shouldn’t just be about conviviality and joy. They should also allow space for vulnerability and honesty, for soul-searching and repentance. The shared table is a perfect forum for that and good food and drink are the perfect lubricants for confession and repentance.
8. Look Back, Look Around, and Look Forward (Luke 22:14-38)
There is so much we can say about this meal! It can barely be addressed in a couple of paragraphs. As we saw in the previous post, Paul recommended that the Corinthian church re-enact this meal in the middle of their regular love feast. Today, all Christian traditions do so, whether they call it the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion. It’s a celebration and a commemoration all in one. By re-enacting it, we do three things simultaneously.
Firstly, we look back to Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, breaking bread as his body was broken and pouring wine as his blood was poured out. We say, “This actually happened! Jesus suffered and died for our sins.” We remember. And like all deathly events we remember with solemnity and respect. This is also what Jesus was doing during this meal. It was the Passover meal and he and his disciples were looking back to God’s liberation of Israel from the oppression of Egypt. In our current time, when we are so focused on the here and now, this meal insists we stop, look back, and give thanks.
Secondly, we look around. We take in the faces of those who share this table with us, and we dare to believe that Jesus is still at work in each of us this very day. We hold fast to his promise that when two or three gather in his name, he is there in the midst. This happened at the meal in Luke 22 as well, but not in an entirely good way. It turns out that at this most holy of moments, the disciples began arguing about which of them was considered to be greatest. They were looking around alright, but in order to compare themselves with each other. Jesus’ advice is to look around to see the upside-down way God works through our community. He puts it this way, “The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (v26-27).
Theologian Letty Russell was famous for saying that church should be like a round table, but she explained further that she actually meant it should be like three round tables: “The metaphor of the church as a round table speaks of people gathered around the table and in the world in order to connect faith and life in action/reflection (the round table), work for justice in solidarity with those at the margins of society (the kitchen table), and to welcome everyone as partners in God’s world house (the welcome table).” Looking around requires us to acknowledge the other and to accept the gifts God brings to us through them.
And thirdly, we look forward. Several times in this meal, Jesus mentions the imminent coming of the kingdom. This meal is one of holy anticipation. Likewise for us, we should ensure our dinner churches leave us dissatisfied with the ways of the world and hungering for the fulfilment of all Christ’s promises, yearning for the restoration of all things, eating and drinking this meal “until he comes.”
9. Let Learning Happen on a Full Stomach (Luke 24:28-32)
Two men were walking the seven miles to Emmaus, talking excitedly about the events that had just occurred in Jerusalem culminating with the execution of Jesus and rumors of his missing body. A third man, a stranger to them, falls in step with them and asks what they are discussing with such agitation. The two men, astonished that this stranger could be so oblivious to the events that have inflamed the whole city, recount the story moment by moment, only to have the stranger help them make sense of it all. He takes them through all the messianic prophesies of Scripture and shows how they have all been fulfilled in the events they have just described. Delighted by his knowledge of the Scriptures they invite the stranger to join them for a meal when they arrive in Emmaus.
As the story goes, as soon as the stranger broke bread at the table of his hosts they saw for the first time it was Jesus. How fitting that the man often accused of being a drunken and a glutton should be recognized by the action of sharing bread during a meal. All that he had taught them along the road made their hearts sing, but it was at the meal table that it all made sense at last. The penny dropped, as we say. Every culture knows that the best learning happens over food. We see things and understand things over a meal that a lecture or a speech alone can’t quite convey.
10. Serve Comfort Food When People Are Uneasy (Luke 24:36-43)
The resurrected Jesus was scary. And confusing. And troubling and delightful and, well, weird. His friends simply had no frame of reference by which to make sense of it. They were uneasy.
You can see this in John’s retelling of the events after the resurrection, where the disciples return from fishing on the Sea of Galilee one morning to find Jesus frying fish for breakfast. Nervous about his presence, they initially dare not ask his name, but after a hot breakfast things are clearer and eventually Jesus and Peter are reunited (John 21:9-19). Here, in Luke’s account of a different incident, there’s also hot fish involved. Jesus appears before the disciples (and the two he met on the road to Emmaus) and they are filled with dread. They think he’s an apparition, but he shows them his scarred body in order to allay their fears. It might not have occurred to Jesus that the whole concept of a resurrected dead man was just as scary as a ghost! Luke writes, “They still did not believe it because of joy and amazement.”
Joy, fear, amazement, uncertainty. It’s all too much to take it. Showing them his nail-pierced hands didn’t work, so Jesus tries a different tack. He asks them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” (v41) And they give him a piece of broiled fish. In the context of their concerns about him being a ghost, eating something makes sense. It proves he is a physical being, not a spirit. But in light of the Emmaus incident and the beachside breakfast in John 21, it builds the case that when people saw the resurrected Jesus eat they relaxed and believed.
Like the successful Snickers campaign, “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” people aren’t themselves when they feel uneasy too. It interests me that when people turn up to a standard church service, feeling uncomfortable, not knowing anyone, they’re asked to take a seat and face the front. In a dinner church we thrust a drink into their hand. We give them a plate. We usher them to the head of the line. We feed them.
And when fed, they relax and open themselves to what God has in store.