Terrible Table Manners
Enrollment is up at many charm schools, these institutions of polish and posture that rehearse life in high society. Ladies want instruction on accessorizing their look- pearl placement, eye shadow application, teeth whitening- to court a mate. Gentlemen want coaching on executing the handshake, fleshy enough to communicate warmth but firm enough to mean business.
While the soft skills of upward mobility get practiced in the parlor room, the living room, and the board room, every finishing school ultimately ends up in the dining room. Because mastering mealtime etiquette is a prerequisite for graduation, students perfect how to drink from the stemware without leaving a lipstick mark and keep the pinky finger in while sipping tea.
Miles and miles away from the Jerusalem elite, peasants came running as word leaked Jesus was nearby. When the hungry masses found him on the shoreline, he was looking for a box of tissues and a darkened corner to grieve the beheading of his dear mentor. The disciples, overwhelmed by the impossibility of feeding twenty-five thousand, point people towards the exits.
But Jesus, even more heart-wrenched by the crowd’s starvation, commands the twelve to collect their heels of Wonder Bread and tins of sardines. Gathering it all up, Jesus says grace and hands the offering of bread and fish back to the disciples to pass out. Even though the details differ on how the multiplication occurs, this is the only miracle story recorded in all four Gospels. Considering the centrality of the table, according to Matthew’s version, what do we learn about Jesus as dinner host?
Matthew 14:13-21 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
That all are welcome at God’s table.
He believes in our potential for miraculous ministry more than we do.
There’s not just enough to go around but more than enough.
The racist cop slapped his nightstick behind their necks; the manager of Woolworths demanded the students get out; the clerk made clear your kind could only purchase items off the menu to-go. Still, the Greensboro Four sat down at the counter, emboldened by the Freedom Riders, resolute on their stainless-steel stools, politely ordering lunch, repeatedly denied service, unprovoked despite the threats, prepared to die like Emmett Till for the cause. On February 1, 1960, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr., and David Richmond, all freshmen at North Carolina A&T University, refused to stand up from their sit-in, taking their protest to the stronghold of Jim Crow: the table.
Painfully, the South wasn’t the first place to legislate segregation. Before America invented race, ancient Jewish society, as defined by the self-righteous, divided human beings into pious and profane, the chosen people and everyone else. Nowhere was this more pronounced than at mealtimes: the kosher and clean found their names on the guest list, while the dirty and defiled didn’t get an invite. For a respectable person of faith, defying the religious order and raising a glass among bad company was unconscionable.
Knowing every inch of the dinner table is contested territory, Jesus undermines the segregationists by welcoming the non-observant Jew and the brown Palestinian, the unbelieving man and the adulterous woman, the swindling tax collector and the whining toddler all to dine with him. In fellowship, he prepares his banquet without a seating chart, instructs the mixed crowd to recline in the green grass, asks the disciples to pass out loaf and fish equally, and urges everyone to satisfy their hunger and more.
As dinner host of the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus is no southern gentleman steeped in social graces but rather a Messiah with terrible table manners. Jesus is a Messiah with terrible table manners. As if this miracle wasn’t enough, he eats his way through the entire Gospel: pita sandwiches with Levi, hummus dip with Zacchaeus, the wedding reception in Cana, the Last Supper, and Easter brunch on the beach. He’s a glutton of commensality, unrolling his silverware on nearly fifty occasions.
Because of the crumbs in his beard, Jesus never graduated from charm school and doesn’t care if we confuse the soup and dessert spoons. But he does care who we slide into the booth beside. Thankfully, there are three meals a day, twenty-one chances a week, and one thousand and ninety-five opportunities a year to practice Christianity’s deplorable decorum.
The table is ready. All that’s left is sitting down to eat with the wrong people.