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True Religion

All four Gospel writers seem to agree on at least two things. First, whenever Jesus wanted to emphasize something important about his ministry, he almost always turned to table fellowship to do so. And second, when he wanted to underscore the importance of table fellowship, he usually talked about weddings.

He did both of those things in what many church-goers heard yesterday from Luke’s account of the Gospel (14:1, 7-14). So why did this matter so much to Jesus and to the gospel writers?

“Table Fellowship,” Sieger Koder

Let’s start with food: first-century rules and expectations for sharing food at a common table were rather complex, not just for Israelites but for the whole ancient Mediterranean world. Family, ethnicity, economic class, religious observance—those are just a few of the components that well-behaved members of respectable society would take into account very carefully when gathering for table fellowship.

This is why the Gospel writers tell us frequently that Jesus was constantly getting into trouble for eating with the wrong people. The commonly used collective label for them was “prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners.”

I know this sounds odd and probably far removed from our own day. But consider the arc from “Downton Abbey” on television to the White House in the news and whatever the fanciest restaurant might be where you live: it matters who sits at all those tables and how they are arranged; that’s how the very structure of a society is made visible; it’s how we know where power and influence reside; the table reflects in microcosm a well-ordered world.

This is why Luke introduces yesterday’s passage about a dinner party by noting that the religious leaders who had gathered at the party were “watching Jesus closely.” They were monitoring how well Jesus would conform, if at all, to the expectations of table fellowship. Luke confirms this when he tells us that Jesus noticed, right away, that some of the other guests at this party chose to sit in places of honor.

Jesus himself is quick to acknowledge the complex social game unfolding at the party. “You know,” he says, “everyone invites friends, family, and rich neighbors to dinner parties.”

And why exactly is that the case? Because they can return the favor. This was one of the primary criteria for good table fellowship—reciprocity. The ones you invite to dinner are the ones who can pay you back.

Good dinner parties, in other words, happen around tables where everyone is just like you. That’s just good manners in a well-structured society; it’s also precisely not how Jesus would have us behave.

The Kingdom of God, he says, happens around dinner tables with “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

Those aren’t just random categories. Those were the standard first-century ways to describe people on the margins, the ones left out, the forgotten and displaced, those who had no social or political capital whatsoever and therefore could never repay any favor or act of kindness—and those are the ones, Jesus says, that you should invite to dinner.

“Invitation to the Feast,” Eugene Burnand (17th century)

It’s not just any kind of dinner party that Jesus usually has in mind; here and in so many other places in the Gospels, he means especially wedding feasts.

Now, to talk about weddings in these Gospel passages, we need to talk about sex, and that’s surprisingly easy to do. There’s really just one thing, and it’s the most important thing, to understand about sex in the ancient Mediterranean world, namely, power.

In those ancient societies socially appropriate sex always involved inequality: one partner had more power than the other, and that’s what made the relationship acceptable. Curiously enough from our modern vantage point, gender didn’t actually matter much in those ancient assessments of what makes sex good and proper, except insofar as gender itself was about power—who had it and who didn’t.

Here again, this can sound like I’m describing some exotic culture from long ago and far away—until we recall the “#MeToo” cultural moment from just a few years ago. Let us not sweep that moment under the rug; remember, a wave of brave women spoke their truth about sexual harassment and ended the careers of more than 200 socially and economically prominent men.

Along with many other men—and I’m embarrassed to admit this—I was truly shocked to watch the flood of “MeToo” stories on social media. I suddenly realized what I should have known back then but didn’t: nearly every woman I know, just about every woman I ever meet, has experienced sexual harassment, abuse, or violence—all manifestations of male power.

First-century readers of the gospel accounts would have known all this whenever Jesus talked about “table fellowship” and “weddings.” We modern Western folks, by contrast, need explicit reminders: the issue of power sits right at the heart of the Gospel.

I could stop right there and create a “to-do” list about how to unmask and dismantle the corrosive forms of patriarchal power in our world today—and we should do that! But I worry that in doing so we will miss the life-changing invitation of the Gospel.

In addition to the passage from Luke, Episcopalians also heard a Collect yesterday from the Prayer Book, right at the beginning of the liturgy. We prayed that God would “increase in us true religion.”

Whatever else “true religion” may be, I am convinced it inspired Jesus to engage frequently in table fellowship and to talk often about weddings. The essence of Christianity blossoms around the Eucharistic Table, where everyone is just as precious as everyone else. And this is so because we encounter the God who made us at that Table and who longs for us, as a Lover longs for the Beloved.

I want to urge and beg everyone to reflect for a long time on that last phrase: the God who made us longs for us as a Lover longs for the Beloved.

That’s why Jesus talked so often about weddings, and that kind of love will change your life. It keeps on changing mine as I realize in ever deeper ways that “true religion” makes me vulnerable to love; helps me be grasped by it; to be undone because of it; to give myself over to it; and to be remade in it.

True religion will usher in that day when we yearn to see those on the margins joining us at the table; that day when we are so happy to welcome the forgotten and displaced among us; that day when we realize to our shock and unending joy that we have been embraced by those who are most different from us.

We will yearn and we will be happy and we will sing with joy about all these things on that day because of love. (I urge you to watch the short video about the making of the mural below, “The Banquet,” by Hyatt Moore; the link is provided beneath the image.)

That’s what makes religion “true” and what creates the only kind of community I can imagine for healing our violent and divided world.

So let’s get on with it.

“The Banquet,” Hyatt Moore
(see this mural being made)

Comments

  1. Beautiful, Jay. I hadn’t considered the wedding context before. Sounds very much like Rumi. 🧡

  2. The video is also wonderful.

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