Thursday, March 22, 2012

Global table fellowship

The word 'table' is mentioned 22 times in the Gospels. There is the overturning of the tables at the Temple, the times that Jesus was reclining at a table or came to eat at someone's table and the woman who said the dogs eat the crumbs from their master's table. It's probably hard for us to really see the word 'table' in the same way that the original audience did. We don't have the same ideas about hospitality and eating together. And half the time we eat our meals in front of the TV rather than around a table. We simply cannot understand table fellowship in the same way first century Jews did.

This is not a post about eating around a table, though. It is about justice and sharing and distribution. When Jesus talked about how we were to fellowship with other people and how we were to share our food, he was not just concerned about eating. For the way we shared food and fellowshipped together said something about our heart. Therefore it should not be limited to the dining room table and forgotten the minute we do the washing up. His words about meals and fellowship are to guide the way we live our lives.

But we also need a broader definition of table. When Jesus says neighbour, he does not just mean the people who live on either side of us. And when Jesus says table he doesn't just mean the people we may be likely to share a meal with. God's love is global. It is not limited to one country, one race or even one species. Therefore how we think about table fellowship must be global too.

One of the most memorable passages about the 'table' comes in Luke 14:7-14:

When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honour at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honour, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honoured in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

This is one of my favourite passages in the bible. It says so much about humility and generosity. If everyone lived by this passage, I think the world would be a much better place.

But it has some very important things to say to us if we consider the table as the world. Do people in first world countries give themselves the place of honour? That's undoubtedly a yes. If we consider the world's resources as a meal, who gets invited? The poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind? Or the rich neighbours living in first world countries? And what about other non-human species? They very rarely get invited to the meal at all. Instead of inviting the people that Jesus tells us to invite, we first world countries sit inside while the rest of the world is lucky to get our crumbs.

The rest of the world is a bit like Lazarus, wanting to eat what fell from the rich man's table:

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. (Luke 16:19-21)

Most will know the story ends with Lazarus in Heaven and the rich man in Hell, begging Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool his tongue, because he is in agony.

How many are by our gates, begging for what falls from our table? Whenever I think of the inequality between first world and third world countries, Lazarus comes to mind. The rich man probably didn't even know that Lazarus was by his gate. He was too far beneath the rich man's notice. Not knowing the inequality in the way the world's resources are distributed is no excuse.

We can also imagine Lazarus as future generations, sitting by our gates, begging us to leave some of the world's resources for them, instead of using it all up ourselves before they are even born.

And of course, one of the most memorable events to ever happen at a table was when Jesus held the Last Supper. In Jesus and the Earth (2003), James Jones discusses this event in relation to the inequality in the world's consumption:

He gave us an activity by which to remember him and invoke his presence. It was and is an act of consumption - eating and drinking, bread and wine. Imagine around that table of 13 people if only four were allowed to partake and nine were excluded. Such an act of greedy consumption on the part of the four simply would not have been tolerated by the son of man who in Matthew 25 chides those who ignore the needs and rights of others to consume.

Jesus broke all the rules when it came to table fellowship. He ate with sinners, tax-collectors and prostitutes. But if we take his words about table fellowship and think we're following them because we've invited a few poor people to a meal, we're missing the point. Table fellowship is about so much more than just a meal. It is about how we share and distribute what we have. It's about what's in our heart.

The world is a table. Some get invited to the meal. Some get excluded. Some have all the fancy food. Some get nothing but crumbs. For Jesus' last meal, he didn't even exclude the one who would betray him. Exclusion from a meal just wasn't part of who he was. As Christ-followers, we should do all we can to include everyone at our table too. We must also ensure that everyone gets a place at the global table of the world's resources. 

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