Jesus was vilified because of his seemingly-indiscriminate eating habits. One issue was what he was eating, and whether this compromised the Jewish dietary laws. More significant was with whom he was eating: with everyone. Though I don’t think Jesus was “a glutton and drunkard,” as he was branded by his detractors, he did not spurn a feast. Jesus shared many-a-meal, and used the occasions of feeding and feasting, of gardening and farming, as venues and symbols for much of his teaching.
If you read the scriptures with an eye for food, drink, and feasts, you will hardly miss a page. The scriptures begin in the garden of Eden, full of “plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind” (Genesis 1:11). The Scriptures end with the promise of a banquet in heaven (Isaiah 25:6; Luke 14:15). In between the beginning and the end are countless stories about people hungering, panting after, thirsting, longing for both the food of this earth and what Jesus calls “the bread of heaven,” food that will last forever. We often have a taste of both from the same table.
The Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all have stories of Jesus feeding a multitude of people. These miraculous accounts of Jesus feeding the crowds with bread and fish come after he has fed their souls. The reason the multitudes had gathered in the first place was because of their hunger for healing, and help, and hope … and they also turn out to have hungry tummies. Jesus addresses the hunger on both planes. In the Gospel of John we learn of Jesus’ meeting up with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. The woman is quite literally thirsty for water; however Jesus also speaks to her, metaphorically, about “living water,” and she is thirsty for that, too. This mutual longing of body and soul is inseparable. What makes for a meaningful dinner party is not just the delicious food, but also the conviviality of the shared conversation. One without the other will not completely sate our longings.
In our world today – just as in Jesus’ day – “sitting at table” with someone, sharing food or drink, makes a social statement about yourself and your guest. Eating and drinking is our most basic human need, one that is shared across gender, race, culture, language, orientation, religion, education, or age. While the need to eat is universal, we most often tend to sate that need in closed groups. Perhaps you once experienced the proverbial high school lunch room, with its highly defined and stratified groups, each sitting at their own table. In our grown-up lives, the groupings might be less obvious, but can be no less present. We eat within family groups, friend groups, work groups. Eating together solidifies our bond with those with whom we are familiar.
But the invitation of the table can invite us beyond our boundaries. To share food is an experience of being one with another. This opens a possibility to find commonality with those with whom we might disagree. To sit at table with others is to experience the humanity that we share, even with those whom we might consider as “other.” A conversation at table can be a disarming, delightful venue for meeting our neighbors. We are all neighbors to one another. At table with one another, we begin from a point of unity: our common need for our thirst to be quenched and our hunger to be satisfied. I remember sharing tea with someone with whom I had had an adversarial relationship. In the course of tea, the way opened for us to share life together, respectfully, thankfully, hopefully. It was the lemon pound cake. The first forkful did it for both of us. We both hummed with delight. It was so delicious. And with a twinkle in our eyes and smile on our faces, we began our conversation from a common vantage point.
We may not find ourselves very articulate about what all we believe – and why – about so many topics that are the currency of life. On some themes I find myself quite clear; on other themes I often stumble and sometimes find myself greatly puzzled. Perhaps you, also? What about sharing a drink or sharing a meal? With whom? People you know well, and those whom you do not. With the people very familiar to you, you may know their biases, their priorities, their reactions, their beliefs, their politics. Whatever. You know them so well, you’ve got them in a box you could label. And then there are people in your life whom you don’t know well.
So many people navigate their days having to engage in or to avoid a tyranny of small talk. A space in which to share conversation with someone on substantial matters can be so satisfying. It’s not unlike the difference between fast food eaten on the run, and a proper dinner that is shared. I have often found it an amazing experience to meet with someone at table, a kind of “level ground.” A shared meal or drink can quite literally open a portal of discovery, as we meet one another in our full humanity. Enter those conversations as a learner, especially when this person is someone you might call “other” from yourself. Ask inviting questions, such as:
- When you were growing up, what were you taught was most important?
- Who are your heroes?
- How do you celebrate?
- Where have you discovered beauty?
These moments we share with one another “at table” can be such tangible experiences of oneness. The goal is not to agree, but to find the freedom, welcome, and delight in making space for one another in our hearts, which is surely an anticipation of the hope of heaven.