Exhortation for January 11:

In the sermon text this morning, we see that Jesus is establishing and organizing His kingdom by changing practices at the table. This seems to be an odd way to establish a kingdom. We think of kingdoms being established through conquest, war, palace coups, or popular revolutions and uprisings. But that’s not the case. Profound revolutions in human history do not occur in palaces. Emperors and kings rise and fall; regimes organize and collapse, yet the daily lives of people go on much as they have. Deep revolutions occur when there is a change in table manners and guest lists. Vote in a new President, and you decide who gets to fly Air Force One; change table manners and you change the world. Set up a new constitution, and you are playing on the surface of life. Set up a new arrangement at the table, and you begin to form a new human race.

This was especially true in the Greco-Roman world where Christianity first appeared. Roman society was built on patronage and mutual exchanges of gifts and honors. It was a system of this for that, a system based on the still-common principle of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” And Roman order was expressed in table customs: in who invited whom to dinner, who sat where at the table, who ate what and how the meal was conducted. At a stroke, Jesus rejects and undermines the whole system. He sets up a new boundary between those who are “in” and those who are “out,” and commends new ways of behaving at dinner. Jesus is establishing a new empire, where there’s a different standard of inclusion and where everyone gives without expectation of return.

To put this negatively: If you want to understand the pathologies of a society or a group, you find them most clearly exposed at the dinner table. As Rev. Rich Bledoe has perceptively commented, Jesus confronts the Pharisees and scribes at the table because he is “entering the turf of ?Ehe enemy’?” We see a reflection of the centrality of the table in the astonishing explosion of eating disorders. This is not about food; it about what happens at the table. Bledsoe comments, “It is commonly noted that the more dysfunctional a family is, the more meal times are times of acrimony, anger, accusation. They become the daily place of ‘holy war.’ One of the sources of eating disorders (bulimia, anorexia) is the memory of years of warfare at the dinner table . . . .the obese do almost all of their bingeing alone. It is only alone, and apart from the battle field of family fights that food has any comforting quality . . . .If you want on the inside of a sick system, join it at meal time.”

Jesus teaches two particular things about the table here, and implies some specific direction for us at our dinner tables. First, the table is the first place where children can learn Christian discipleship, the way of life required by Jesus. Table manners are not morally indifferent or neutral. Rather, our table manners express our love or our contempt of others. A pig is a pig whether he’s at the table or not; but he shows his piggishness most clearly when he comes to the table.

Table manners are all about the second great commandment. Training your children in table manners means training them to be attentive to the needs of others, to put others before themselves, to share of their abundance, to listen and be orderly, to restrain their appetites in deference to others, to exercise self-control. Training your children at the table means training them in the BEAUTY of discipleship. A well-set table with rich food can turn into a horror; better a crust of bread in an attic than a feast in a house of strife. But a well-set table that is surrounded by love and generosity is a display of the harmony of God. This is what the church is all about: The whole point of worship is to learn proper etiquette, the etiquette of the kingdom.

The other thing that Jesus emphasizes in the sermon text is that the table is a place of ministry. Jesus teaches at the table, but the fact that He sits at table with sinners, and heals the sick during Sabbath meals, shows that the table is a place where His work is going on. So it is for us: Our dinner tables should be places of ministry. Train your children at the table. Teach your children at the table. Show hospitality to strangers and to brothers and sisters at the table. God has opened His table to you. Go and do likewise.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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