Jesus does it again. His direct action campaign, as Ched Myers describes it, now focuses on the Pharisees and table fellowship. According to the puritanical Pharisees, table fellowship was restricted. As John Dominic Crossan teaches us commensality—all are welcome at the table— was a key plank in Jesus’ Gospel platform. The story of Levi illustrates that Jesus welcomed all to the table. He dined with outcasts, sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes and was often condemned for so doing. He welcomes lepers and poor people who had lost their land to the rich and powerful.
Dining and eating is a social function that carries great significance in all societies. I was intrigued when I read that the development of table manners was a purposeful design to limit who could come to the table. I, for one, still do not know what to do with all the forks, knives, and spoons that accompany a formal banquet. Work from the outside in is advice that has helped me save social face on more than one occasion.
Who comes to the table? Who is welcome at the table? Jesus welcomed all but some of the churches that claim loyalty to Jesus do not practice open table fellowship. We might get a better idea if we ask, “Who is not welcome at the table?” In many fundamentalist churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, gays and lesbians are often not welcome. Pastors who have tried to follow Jesus’ example by welcoming them have been disciplined and even removed from their posts. Divorced people are shunned. Politicians who support a woman’s right to choice are denied communion at the table. Some Catholic pastors are quick to remind non-Catholics at funerals that the church does not welcome all to the table.
Commensality is so important to the message of Jesus. Jesus never said that people had to jump through doctrinal or moral hoops to dine with him. Jesus’ message in Southernese was, “C’mon down!” Jesus realized that the sick need the healing embrace of table fellowship and Eucharist if they are to be healed. Fellowship and communion heals. Exclusion denigrates and destroys.
Having to be ritually and doctrinally pure to approach Jesus is an absurdity. Churches that limit coming to the table need to re-examine their roots. Are they part of the Jesus movement or are they part of a patriarchal club? Are they inclusive or exclusive? Do they welcome or do they dominate?
In political society, there are many barriers to commensality. The current election campaign is teaching us that the 1% do not really welcome the 99% who need to get a bath and a job in order to come to the table. Undocumented people who are searching for a livelihood are not welcome at the table. Socialists, whatever they are, are not welcome at most tables. Poor people who lack the essentials of life, including Reagan’s “welfare queens,” are not welcome at the table. I could elaborate further but the list goes on and on. The basic fact is that our society and political structures are entities that exclude. The American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is not open to all.
Our educational system is a sorting system which determines who gets to come to the table. When I was an educator, I remember bitter school rezoning battles where people openly stated that they did not want children from their subdivision being zoned into schools with children from trailer parks. In schools with diverse populations, parents of privilege would request that their students be placed in advanced classes for which they were not academically prepared because they then would be in classes with children who looked like them.
Society operates by the same exclusive norms. I remember years ago that a person told me they did not want rapid transit coming to the county because “they” would come out to our county. “They” was a code word for people of color.
The Gospel is and always has been inclusive. The people of Israel had to come to the understanding that the Living God was not their tribal god. The Living God was the God of all people. The Living God created every human being and loves each person.
By inviting Levi, the penitent woman, a reformed Zacchaeus and others to the table, Jesus was teaching us that he came for all. In our society and churches, we need to jettison the salvation hoops we have created and welcome all as brothers and sisters.