Brian Zahnd has said, in his amazing work, “Water to Wine,” has said that the New Testament is about tables.
At the calling of Matthew, the tax collector responds by inviting Jesus to his house. He throws a dinner party, and he invites the people he knows: “scum,” according to the New Living Translation. Jesus goes. We can only presume that he sits at tables with these people.
At a table, Jesus dines with another tax collector, Zaccheus. It’s the response of accepting the call to draw closer to someone. In that case and many other, Jesus drew the ire of the “righteous” because he chose to draw close to those who were seen as unworthy.
Jesus told stories about tables. In Luke 14, the table is open to all, but some do not come. Those who choose to be there seem to be the same kind of “scum” that Jesus often spent time with. Maybe those people were more readily available because they understood hunger the most.
There are tables completely unseen. On a hillside, Jesus breaks bread and fish to feed a crowd. The table is not physical, but it is undeniably there. Tables are not just slabs of wood, set out to hold our potato salad and tuna casserole. They’re connections to other human beings, times where we set things aside for a common need. At an actual table with actual potato salad, that need is hunger. At other times, it really is a need to be connected to another person in a real way.
There is a last table that Jesus sets, the last meal he shares with his closest friends. It’s another breaking of bread, but this time it’s not to feed masses. It’s to give those closest to him something even more important: himself. Do you see who he gives it to?
Certainly, his demonstration with Judas is poignant. In Mark 14, Jesus says that Judas has not only shared the table, but a bowl set before him. He knew Judas was going to betray him, and he still chose to be there, close enough to share a bowl.
Judas wasn’t the only one in the room who was completely missing the point. The other disciples were arguing about which one of them was the greatest, not realizing what was about to happen to their little movement. Jesus modeled perfect servanthood in the washing of their feet, but they still looked to elevate themselves. I wonder what was going through Jesus’ mind just then. “Three years, and they still don’t get it?” Then he tells Peter directly that he will betray him.
These are the people that Jesus sat at the table with. People who were about to be entrusted with his message, people who were ridiculously unsuited to the task.
Tables are important because they connect people who might otherwise have no reason to come together. Building walls and drawing lines severs those connections, and I don’t think that’s the way Jesus taught at all. Certainly we need to sit at the table with other believers, that’s the picture of Christian community. But what makes a believer? It seems fairly basic that a believer is someone who believes. But at the last supper, who was a believer? The betrayer? The denier? The rest who sought to elevate themselves? It seems that a list of true believers begins to wane very quickly.
This isn’t cynicism, it’s understanding the activity of the Holy Spirit taking place in everyone, seeing their worth as the imprinted image of God. We build tables with people we feel like are getting it right, scarcely aware of the reality that “getting it right” is impossible. We are all beggars at God’s table, with no rights to send invitations in the first place.
The Christmas table
It’s Christmas. Today is December 21, and despite the fact that Christmas is a holiday that shuts down an entire country for a week, believers are still declaring that Christmas is under attack because of the whole, “Happy Holidays” thing. This is an argument I brace myself for every single year, now. The annual season of giving, pre-empted by people who are planning on going to a church sometimes this month and somehow feel like they own the whole season.
I have a co-worker who is a Muslim. 2016 has been an interesting year working near her, especially when a presidential candidate talked openly about banning people of her faith from entering the country. She was afraid. She said that she consoled herself with the idea that it couldn’t really happen.
One of my officemates didn’t realize she was Muslim, and made a point of telling her, while standing at my office door, “We say Merry Christmas around here.” As the other person walked away, I watched her face. She wasn’t angry, just kind of pensive. “You okay?” I said quietly.
“Yeah,” she replied. “I still like this season. It gives everyone an excuse to be nice.”
An excuse to be nice. We, the self-appointed guardians of the Christmas name and holiday, have blown that big time.
I don’t think there’s any problem with people understanding that it’s an important season to Christians. I can’t imagine anyone living in the United States and somehow missing the connection of Christmas to the church. They get it. What they don’t get is what Christ’s coming did, because we are very busy trying to get everyone to stop using “X” in place of “Christ.”
I wonder if we could come back to a table. I wonder if we could just calm down a little, loosen our grip, and try to make Christmas once more about love being bestowed upon people who don’t deserve it. Can we understand that we are still on that list? I wonder if we could substitute tax collectors and prostitutes, the people with whom Jesus found himself sharing bread, for Muslims and atheists. Haters and cynics. The wounded and weary. Could anything be a better gift this season than undeserved compassion, flowing from a people who finally take seriously the path of their savior?
When we are are the table, we do not all have to eat the same food. Our Jewish brothers and sisters may pass on the ham, and that’s okay. Our vegan neighbors go straight for the veggie tray. It’s okay. We’re at the table now. The important thing isn’t that our plates are identical, but that we have come this close to one another. That’s the message of Christmas: God wanted us to realize that he was closer than we ever imagined, so he made a visible sign: a helpless baby. Is there any creature more approachable?