My family did life around the table. It was a small table in a small 1100 square foot cape cod house ,yet it was where everyone gathered – and I do mean everyone. Us five kids, my mom and dad, another kid that lived with the neighbor kids, the farm help and us. It wasn’t unusual to walk into our kitchen to find the table full with others sitting on countertops and others yet standing while eating. The table was a central place in our home. It was a place where we learned about our family’s values – norms (and southern etiquette wasn’t one of them).
Historically the table has always been a place where society communicated its values, norms and social status. That’s the topic I brought to the table, so to speak, a few weeks ago at Laity Lodge. I opened the retreat by sharing my family’s table story and others shared theirs. Not everyone had fond memories around the table – some are down right painful. But the point made was, regardless of what kind of table you grew up around, to some extent, it communicated your family’s norms, values and social hierarchy.
I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed how many times Jesus taught while sitting at “the table.” He used the understanding of the table to subversively flip society on its head. In order to understand how subversive Jesus was at the table one must understand first century table culture.
Mark Moore does a great job explaining:
Eating at the table supported kinship – to create solidarity. One ate with the clan and by doing so established the boundaries of who was “in” and who was “out.” Meals reminded the household where their loyalties lay. The concentric rings of table fellowship were: extended family, household servants or hired workers, and members of your social class (those who could reciprocate), who were invited to special banquets.
Eating at the table enforced boundaries – hierarchy, status, and gender – especially through seating arrangements. During these meals the social group was reminded who sat at the head of the table and who was at the foot (or in their case, who washed the feet). Women’s roles and paternal hegemony were reinforced.
This is the world in which Jesus lived. Yet he didn’t abide by its rules. In fact, he used meals as a means of disrupting social values and overturning normal standards of behavior and honor. (Moore, Mark E. Mark Moore Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2013. http://markmoore.org/resources/essays/loc/tablefellowship.pdf)
While at Laity Lodge we looked at four New Testament narratives where food was central to the story:
Feeding of the 5,000 – Mary and Martha – Wedding at Cana – Women at Simon’s House
With each story Jesus’ disrupted social values and overturned normal standards of behavior and honor. I can’t go into the deductions of each passage but I want to share what one man said at the end of our time engaging Luke 7:36-50 through the means of Ignatius imaginary prayer. Imaginary prayer is simply a way to find yourself in the narrative. I read the passage four times, each time asking the attendees to visualize, feel, smell, and hear the scene. On the fourth reading I asked them to place themselves in the scene and then to imagine themselves walking up to Jesus and listening to what he had to say to them. Afterwards I asked the men and women to share what they experienced during the reading of the passage. Fred, an older man, said he stayed away from the woman weeping at Jesus’ feet. Her pain made him uncomfortable. Then he said he realized she was a woman of great courage.
“I figure Jesus was not sitting by the door because everyone knows not to sit with your back to the door. And what I saw was this courageous woman working her way through the displeased crowd to get to Jesus.”
It was his comment and the gleanings from Mary and Martha, stories I’ve taught several times, that Jesus used to remind me “It’s going to take courage, Jackie – if you are going to align yourself with me, it will take guts. You will have to push against the social, traditional norms to follow me.” Every retreat I teach has a theme, one concept that stands out, sometimes it’s infidelity, others it’s abuse, this time it was courage to cross any and all boundaries (cultural, social, financial, traditional, familial, etc.) to get to Jesus. To be near him. To hang out with him. To walk with him.
The truth is, sometimes I get tired of pushing through the crowds – the obstacles. We have them don’t we? Family obligations or expectations. Cultural expectations. Obstacles like finances or education. Traditions can get in the way of truly following Jesus. I could go on and on, but the one I think keeps me from pushing through is rejection. Not from Jesus. But from you and you and you. As a sister in Christ, I may not express my faith like you or we may differ theologically, and I know you might reject (perhaps even be unkind) to me because of it. Rejection can hold me from doing whatever it takes to walk with Jesus as he sees fit.
What makes you stay on the outside rather than push your way in to get to Jesus?
I can’t end this post with out a shout out to the others who “taught” us over the weekend. Thank you Nathan Tasker and Gabe Scott for leading us in music. And Gabe, I love that you taught us how to make an amazing pie. And Susie helping us makes fabulous flower arrangements (peonies and hydrangea’s are my favorite!) And Sally Lloyd Jones reading your children’s books with that beautiful British accent was wondrous. And my mother would have died to have you teach her how to “have a proper cup of tea.” And Robert, your imagination demands our attention. You took our words and crafted a living art installation for us to see what was heard. Finally, Max McLean your ever-lingering performance of C.S. Lewis’ “Weight of Glory” was moving and transformative. I’m grateful for your work that invited us to the table.