God cares for us. God nourishes us. God nurtures us. God gives us gifts. God gives us manna and whole cakes of grain. God feeds us. Food and water give life. God gifts us with life and whatever we need to have life in abundance. God gifts all—not just industrious entrepreneurs.
Food and nourishment are so central to our lives that meals become focal points. Meals bring us into community. We think at first blush that the story of the Prodigal Son is a wonderful story about a loving father welcoming home a wayward son. And it is. But it is much more. Look at the context. Jesus tells the story because the religious leaders have attacked him for welcoming sinners and eating with them. Jesus ate with tax collectors, prostitutes and other undesirables in society. Jesus welcomed all to his table. Jesus today welcomes all to his table.
Sometimes we overlook the reaction of the older son. He has done everything he needed to do in faithful service to his father. He had earned his place at the banquet table but, alas, the father never threw a party for him. The father ran out to welcome the son. He replaced his rags with fine clothes. Then, the father killed the fatted calf and threw a party when this wastrel bum brother comes home with his head between his legs.
The religious leaders and the older son are very much like religious leaders today. Religious leaders and some of their faithful followers are into command and control. They use doctrine and patriarchal notions to define who is welcome at the table. Their decrees of excommunication from the table are like unto the grumblings of the elder son.
God calls each and every person to the table. The religious leaders’ complaint was that Jesus welcomed sinners and partied with them. And indeed he did. Jesus is saying, “Let them come to the table. Let them feast on the choicest meats and the finest wines. We will worry about issues later.”
This does not settle well with those of us who were brought up to think that we had to earn God’s favor. We were raised like the older son. Do your duty and earn your salvation. We were boy and girl scouts earning our merit badges. We were little children making sure that Santa Claus would treat us nice. Guilt and fear were the control mechanisms in a patriarchal church.
Then there was a new awakening. God’s love is unconditional. We do not have to earn a place at the table. In fact, by our own effort and dint we CANNOT earn a place at the table. God gifts us and welcomes us. God goes out into the highways and byways to track us down and bring us to the banquet. God feeds and nurtures us so that, like Jesus the Christ, we can grow in wisdom, age and grace. God gives us manna so that our pilgrimage will lead us to life in the Kin-dom.
Table fellowship is the ultimate symbol of the Kin-dom. The Eucharistic banquets prepare us for the “heavenly” banquet. Eucharist brings us into communion so that we light live life fully. Merton also reminds us that Eucharistic liturgy prepares us for contemplation—prepares us to rest in God’s presence.
The hierarchy and those who align with them should reexamine their concept of table fellowship. So much of what they do is exclusionary in nature. They are so busy figuring out who cannot come to the table that they miss the point. Jesus loves people into life. He never sanctions them into death. Jesus has a parable for anal retentive, patriarchal religious leaders and followers. It is the parable of the Prodigal Son.
As I write this I cannot help but think of a movie—Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Sidney Portier stared in the film. He was the African American who was coming to the previously exclusive white banquet table. When we understand that table fellowship is inclusive then we know that all can come to the table. We welcome Jews and Greeks, male and female (even welcome females to preside over the banquet), gays and straights, saints and sinners. We are all on pilgrimage. We all need the manna from the Divine.