We all know the legendary story of the first Thanksgiving. Those Pilgrims became friends with Native Americans. And those native to this land taught the newcomers how to grow food in their new home. Finally, when the crops came in, they all sat down at the same table to eat together. Those who were once suspicious of one another found friendship around a table.
History has proven time and time again that relationships are healed when people eat together. Because to share a meal with someone around the table signifies that you accept them. I know this may come as a shock to some of you husbands, but there was a time when your in-laws weren’t too sure about you! But a long time ago, someone decided the best way to build that relationship between those two families was through a meal. So, the night before every wedding, there is a meal. It brings together two families, of the bride and of the groom. Its aim is to make two families into one. By sharing in that “rehearsal meal” together, the bride’s family is saying to the groom and his family: “We accept you into our family.” The groom’s family, likewise, makes the same promise to the bride’s family. Relationships are healed when people eat together!
You see this same table significance throughout scripture. One of the earliest places is in Genesis 26. Isaac is traveling through a foreign land, and he has a run-in with Abimilech, King of the Philistines. The Lord was blessing Isaac and his family, and the Philistines became envious. Conflict ensued between Isaac’s family and Abimilech’s people. But finally, in a way to make peace with Isaac, Abimilech invited him to a table. The text says, “They made an oath together. … They ate and drank together at the feast.”
You know, a feast with which Christians are very familiar has the same meaning. When we gather around the Lord’s Table, Paul says we have κοινονια (koinonia) with the body and blood of Christ. That word, κοινονια, means fellowship or communion. This meal that we share each week with each other is also shared with Christ. And by inviting us to His table, Jesus is taking us into His family. He is restoring relationship with us, a relationship that was broken during the Fall. Because, you see, God knows that relationships are healed when people eat together!
The Table can be a delightful place—a place to restore relationships, a place to make two families into one. But that is not the only way the table has been used.
Just as a table has the power to include someone into the family, it also has the power to exclude! The table has the power to designate who is in and who is out. In the first century, particular Jewish sects held feasts among themselves. It was their way to determine who was one of them and who was not. It was a boundary marker, between us and them. Periodically the Pharisees in Jerusalem would host a feast, and only other Pharisees received an invitation in the mail! If you were a Pharisee, you were invited. But if you were not, you were excluded.
Paul understood this custom in his own culture so well that he used it to show how God had finally accepted Gentiles into God’s family. Galatians 2–3 tell of a time when Paul was in Antioch with some other Jews. As the Gentiles made their way into the dining hall, Paul picked up his tray and sat down at their table to eat. Now we might not think that is such a big deal. We have potlucks at Glenwood every so often. It’s not uncommon to see someone, a visitor, sitting with some of us who’ve been here for years. But not in Antioch! When Paul pulled his folding chair over to the Gentile table, he was committing a tremendous social and religious taboo. And he did so intentionally! Paul used a table to make a theological point! He was saying to the Gentiles, “You are my family.” He was saying to the Jews who were over there, “These people are our brothers and sisters!”
Read Mark 2:13–17 NRSV.
Understanding the ways in which the table could include and exclude is important in understanding this text. After Jesus calls Levi to “follow Me,” Jesus follows Levi to his house. And once they arrive, Jesus joins Levi and other tax collectors and sinners for dinner at one big table. Sinners and tax collectors had at least one thing in common, they were outcasts. In fact, throughout the gospels, this phrase, “sinners and tax collectors,” is just a short hand way of saying “outcast.” Jesus was sitting in the home of an outcast, eating at a table full of outcasts. And that was just more than the pious religious folks could take. “Proper religious folk don’t share a table with outcasts.” “Jewish teachers like Jesus shouldn’t be eating with those people.” But there He was in plain view, eating with outcasts. And by eating with them, accepting them. Declaring to anyone who might see: “These are my brothers and sisters.” “This is my family!”
You know, church, outcasts come in many shapes and sizes. Often times we read this text, and our minds immediately jump to people who are very much unlike us. So, if you are rich, you think of sitting at a table filled with poor people. If you are poor, you think of the wealthy. If you are a Republican, you may think Democrats bear a striking resemblance to outcasts. If you are a conservative Christian, you may picture the most progressive, liberal person in your mind when you read this text. But I find that those who are most unlike me are sometimes easier to accept than my own brothers and sisters. Outcast brothers and sisters, now there is a group that has a hard time finding a seat at the table. I think it was even that way when Jesus visited Levi’s house. I think those Pharisees would have sooner sat at the table of Caesar than to eat with Levi. Levi was a Jew, like they were! But Levi had offended them. I have found that it is easier to accept a stranger than it is to forgive a brother or sister. I’ve noticed (maybe you have too) that outcasts are often created by our inability or unwillingness to forgive. Until forgiveness is given to him, until forgiveness is extended to her, they will remain outcasts to us. And they will continue to stand in the corner of the room, unable to sit at our table of fellowship.
There was a time when he was loved and respected by the entire family. He was the model of integrity. But he made a mistake, a horrible mistake. The family, as you might expect, has had great difficulty forgetting or forgiving. Now, he just stands while everyone else sits around the table. It wasn’t too long ago that she was welcome everywhere she went, especially among her family, the church. It doesn’t take much, you know: one wrong word, one regrettable action. Now, her relationship with them has become so strained that she has difficulty even coming to worship anymore. Because, you see, it’s difficult to come to worship when there is no place for you to sit. The outcast who is also a brother or sister, now there is a person that has a hard time finding a seat at our table. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ, allowing yourself to be apprenticed by Him, means that you follow Him even when He takes you to difficult destinations. Forgiveness and acceptance, these things do not come easy! But who wants to live a life of unforgiveness? Carlo Carretto, in a recent article in Christianity Today wrote:
We are not happy because we are unforgiving, and we are unforgiving because we feel superior to others.The Gospel story is one about a superior Being who gave His life for inferior people. Another way of telling that story: God invited us to His table. Even when we didn’t deserve a seat! Brothers and sisters, who are you not allowing to sit at your table? Do you need to forgive someone this morning? Do you need to ask for the forgiveness of someone?
There is room at Jesus’ table for everyone. The rich and poor, the old and young, the righteous and the sinner. As a disciple of Jesus, allow me invite you to His Table—because you are welcome here. Everyone is. And while you are here, maybe now is a good time and place to forgive. Maybe now is a good time and place to ask for forgiveness. Because I have become convinced of something: relationships are healed when people eat together.