“You are who you eat with.”
He said this to me in the simplest of fashions, as if I should already know this, as if any self-respecting minister of the Word would be well-versed with this idea. And, yes, I should have known it.
“Yeah, that’s what I love about the Gospel of Luke,” he went on, “It’s the gospel of meals.” And then, bit by bit, he began to tick through the scenes, one after another: Peter’s mother-in-law rising up from her fever to make a meal; the scandal of the sinful woman there in Simon the Pharisee’s house; the feeding of the five thousand; the Last Supper; the meal at the end of the walk to Emmaus.
Luke keeps giving us these stories where the central focus is the dinner table and the company we keep. It doesn’t stop after Jesus’ resurrection either. Oh, no. In The Book of Acts, guess where some of the biggest theological arguments and breakthroughs come to a head? Yup, you guessed it. Tables. The tables in the rooms after Pentecost. The tables of the Jewish widows that are being blessed and the Gentile ones that are being neglected. The tables and kitchen where lunch was being prepared downstairs when Peter had his vision of God making the unclean things clean up on the roof. The tables in that church up in Antioch. You know, that church where the Spirit was blowing the place wide open by mixing up races and traditions around tables.
Everything comes back to the table. Meals, like a beautiful thread of gold, are woven through the entire tapestry of good news of Luke’s gospel message.
But, my friend was also pointing out the other obvious thing. In Luke’s world, the tables don’t tell the full story. It’s who is around the table. It’s who is reclining and who is tearing off a piece of bread. It’s who is sitting comfortably and who is dying to have a spot.
That's the obvious point my friend was helping me to see again. When he reminded me that “you are who you eat with,” he was quoting a cultural truism of the world in which Jesus lived. In our world, you are what you do. Think about it. If you meet someone new, the first question they ask you is, “What’s your name?” The second is “What do you do?” Ours is an economy-driven culture. You are what your tax return says. You are what company you work for. But, in Jesus’ day, one’s identity was far more rooted in their family history and social connections.
We still see remnants of this culture right here in Putnam County, don’t we? Talk to the natives here, and you’ll pick up on it. You are who you’re married to, or who your parents were, right? The question isn’t, "What does Jim do?" It's, "Who is he married to?" Or, "Did he graduate from Greencastle around the early 70's?" Identities are located and defined by association and place and family.
This identity-through-family-association was also true in Jesus’ day (see genealogies!), and in such a world, the only way to really improve your status was to find the right table. The only way to climb up the social ladder was to start getting invited to the right dinner parties.
That explains a lot why the Pharisees and other town leaders were so eager to have Jesus in their homes when he came to town. As a rising religious celebrity, Jesus was seen as a quick means to social clout. He was to the Pharisees what the Mercedes is to the business exec. He was bling. Make no mistake. The local leaders didn’t just want to have him over so he could be the honored guest. They wanted his honor to boost their approval ratings, polishing their already cherished egos to even glossier appeal.
Except, of course, Jesus didn’t really care about eating with the big deals and the powerful. He cared nothing about “making it” with the elite. Sure, he accepted their invitations, but he refused to buy into their self-congratulatory ways. In fact, he had this funny habit of ruining their dinner parties. He let that sinful woman and scandalous outsider fall all over him, killing the buzz of the party right when everyone was really beginning to enjoy themselves. The only thing that could have been worse is if he would have had the gall to tell a piercing story about a rich guy living large in this world only to have the tables turned on him at Kingdom-come, only to have to watch the poor man, Lazarus, lapping it up at with Father Abraham in glory-land. Oh, wait. Maybe that was precisely the kind of story he told.
Because who you eat with is who you are.
Tonight, we are starting to eat a meal together here at our church on Wednesday evenings, and what a great thing this is. But, I sure hope this doesn’t just turn into another church meal. Do you get what I’m saying? If this just ends up being another place where we end up gathering around tables to be together as a church family, we aren’t quite yet going the full way with Jesus.
Before I came here, as a church, you decided upon the hope and mission of being a “welcoming family of believers,” and what a great vision that is. But, if the “family” in that vision stops short and only applies to the people who look like us, who act like us, who have the same social status as us, well, we are falling far short of the Jesus-way. We haven’t seen clearly who Jesus is eating with.
The first step is coming to the table together, but the second step is starting to eat with folks different than you. Don’t get me wrong. I love family dinners. In fact, it’s a practice my wife and her family practically insist upon. Not a holiday can go by without some plans being made to get us all around the table – somehow, someway. It’s what we do around here. That’s part of what we appreciate about a place like Putnam County. For all the talk about how our culture has gone to you know where in a hand-basket, the Sunday afternoon family dinner is still alive and well for many here in town.
But, the way of Jesus compels us to go beyond just always getting together with Aunt Jane and Nana and Papa. The way of Jesus invites us to find that perfect stranger not far from us – the international student at DePauw, the single-mother whose son is in our kid’s class – and to eat actual meals with that person.
The first step is coming to the table. It’s the place to start.
But, if we really want to be like Jesus, then we too must be willing to be the friend of sinners. We must go that next step to the place where we aren’t just gathering in our own homes with our own culture. True conversion isn’t just about being baptized and going to church. It’s about who you are eating with. It’s about having the courage to start connecting with “the other” who causes us to feel more uncomfortable than comfortable.
So, how about you?
Who have you been eating with lately?
Anyone scandalous? Anyone who sits on the other side of the political fence from you? Anyone on the other side of that one issue? Anyone who causes a stir when she enters a room?
Anyone that Jesus would be eating with?
May our conversion be not just what we say with our mouths. May it be who is sitting to our right and to our left when we lift the fork to our mouths.