All of this has had me gravitating in a more general way this fall to gospel texts about “Table Talk,” that is, stories in which Jesus shares meals, or has conversations about food. We actually find these kinds of stories scattered throughout the four gospels, but our focus this fall will be the gospel of Luke, as we begin a new sermon series entitled “Dinner with Jesus.”
Admittedly such a series has comic potential. When our Music Director, John Obourn, heard what I was planning, he tossed out suggestions like “Dinner with Jesus: Quick Meals for 12” and “Dinner with Jesus: the Mustard Seed Recipes.” (If I thought I had any future as a stand up comic, then trust me, John, I’d have been off and running with those suggestions!)
But it truly has been fascinating to read through Luke again with this focus on shared meals. We learn an awful lot about Jesus from looking closely at where, and with whom, he eats as he makes his way from town to town. Teaching and healing were, in a sense, his day job. But even as the Son of God, Jesus’ humanity also required rest and nutrition. So where did he kick back, and with whom did he choose to dine?
Even the actual menu choices can sometimes be instructive. Take our second text for this morning, for instance. Grains of wheat plucked on the Sabbath may not fall into the same category as a great banquet at a wealthy tax collector’s home. But what was at stake there, in that bit of Sabbath snacking? Harvesting grain was forbidden on the Sabbath in Jewish law (though there is some debate over whether plucking grain by hand counts; Exodus and Deuteronomy are divided on this issue, cf. Ex 34:21 but Deut 23:25). Still, itinerant preachers in the first century, moving constantly from place to place, probably did have a bit of trouble finding food on occasion. There was a strong culture of hospitality – we see this in many other stories about Jesus and his disciples being offered meals in people’s homes – but every now and then, surely, it was hard to catch a bite to eat while moving from point A to point B. So the disciples grab a small snack on the road, as they walk through this grain field, … and then are immediately called on it. In Luke chapter 6, Jesus is still in the early stages of his ministry, but we see how closely he and his followers are already being watched here. “Hey, don’t you know that’s forbidden on the Sabbath?”
Notice the story Jesus invokes to excuse their grazing on that wheat: a story of King David who, in a time of emergency, ate bread that was set aside in the tabernacle, and reserved only for the priests. Desperate times call for desperate measures, Jesus seems to say, and not only does the need to address human hunger trump certain rules, but “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” As if to say, those rules you want us to follow? I’m the one who made them in the first place, and I know their real purpose is to help, not to harm. What seems at first to be a story about rule breaking in a wheat field by some hungry followers of Jesus, turns into a clear assertion of Jesus’ authority and identity, as the Son of God.
Meanwhile, returning to our first reading for today, we find a kind of “Table Talk” in Luke chapter 5 that will become quite familiar as we make our way through this gospel. Jesus, you see, doesn’t seem to care who he eats dinner with! Or, to be more accurate, he seems to show a decided preference for dining with those that one really oughtn’t, you know, to be giving the time of day, as a member of polite society. In this particular case dinner is at the home of his newest disciple, Levi the tax collector. Bad enough that Levi invites Jesus home – tax collectors being absolutely despised in that day for their cooperation with an oppressive Roman government – but then Levi goes and makes it a giant office party. Tax collectors everywhere! And the Pharisees are simply disgusted.
I think it’s important in these kinds of stories to give the Pharisees some credit. They were fine, upstanding citizens, many of them. God-fearing, law-abiding Jewish leaders. They knew right from wrong, and sincerely tried to do what was right, and here went Jesus completely upending their expectations of what a respected rabbi was supposed to be doing. He mixed with the wrong set of people and didn’t seem to care nearly enough about the rules around which they had oriented their entire lives. No wonder they were upset.
But as Jesus points out, he was primarily in the business of healing the sick, so he needed to focus on those who didn’t have their lives together. “I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31) Elsewhere in the gospels we will find Jesus calling out the Pharisees for their sins too, but here I think he’s simply saying: “it’s great that you guys are doing so well. Let me concentrate on those who aren’t, the ones who can really use some extra attention and help.”
The final element of “Table Talk” in today’s gospel texts has to do with the question of when to fast, and when to eat. John’s disciples, the Pharisees point out, seem to be all about fasting and praying, but every time they see Jesus and his crowd, they’re eating and drinking! Where is their sense of propriety?
Jesus answers with this analogy of the bridegroom and the wedding guests. The time to fast isn’t when you’re in the middle of a wedding celebration. However important fasting may be to you as a spiritual discipline, Jesus seems to say, do it some other time. When the bridegroom is with you, you are in a season of celebration! That season won’t last forever, Jesus explains; someday the bridegroom will be taken away from you. But while he’s here – absolutely, it’s time to eat and drink!
It actually reminds me of the text from Ecclesiastes we read at Albert and Nikole’s wedding here yesterday. “There is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” (Ecc 3:4) While Jesus was with his disciples, it was time for laughter and food and fellowship. As we read through the gospels with an eye on Jesus at dinnertime, it’s clear he knew how to enjoy a good meal, and that he encouraged his followers to do likewise.
First, that Jesus will prioritize people over propriety, regularly choosing to dine with those who may be shunned by others.
Secondly, that Jesus will prioritize people over the strict interpretation of Sabbath rules, addressing physical needs like hunger and healing without concern for what day of the week those needs may arise.
And finally, that Jesus’ followers should in turn prioritize their time with him, eating and drinking with the bridegroom while he is with them, saving their fasting for another day.
Not everyone would get it, obviously, and that will become another major element of the plot as the gospel of Luke unfolds. But Jesus’ disciples were at least beginning to catch on, simply by following him around and listening to his “table talk.” Jesus reached out to everyone, they quickly learned. And he cared about their most basic needs.
Sadly, he wouldn’t always be physically present to dine with them. But in the meantime, while he was still roaming around Galilee with his friends and followers, whom might he eat with next?