Recently, I came across JJ Heller’s song “At my Table.” I like to entertain, and a well-set table is my favourite centerpiece for inviting friends over. The song speaks to the unconditional and open invitation to dine and enjoy friendship and love around the table. It makes me think of the prostitutes, tax collectors and other “sinners” Jesus visited while he was on earth. Like the “powerless, wounded and weak” Heller sings about, Jesus sought out those who were ignored, rejected and scorned.
I love what the table represented in Biblical times. It was a social experience with the added luxury of a good meal. We see Jesus eating at the wedding feast (John 2:2), being served dinner by Martha while her sister Mary listened to his teachings (Luke 10:40). Jesus tells his disciples they will dine with him at his table in his Kingdom (Luke 22:30) while he eats his last supper with them before he is crucified (Luke 22:15). Jesus ate, taught and celebrated around a table. Now, I enjoy setting my table as if I’m about to have a fancy dinner with fancy people. It’s entirely for show and is completely impractical for eating. When my dinner guests arrive it has to be dismantled and reset to get everyone around it.
I know we use our tables for more than just eating. We study, work, craft. Just as God’s human canvas contains a multitude of colours, our tables represent our varied personalities, priorities and life-phases. When my kids were little (before I got fancy) my table would be a collection of cereal bowls, finger-paint art and sticky with jelly. These days my centerpiece is a computer and journals sit where dinner plates once marked place holders. Even so, the purpose doesn’t really change, does it? Should someone sit down, we would be free to engage in conversation. I think the idea behind the table is who is around it, not what is on it. It kind of puts us on an even playing field. Short, tall, rich, poor, any race, at a table we’re eyeball to eyeball. Could be tea for two or dinner for 20. There’s something unique about eating around a table. It’s not so much the eating. We can do that in front of the television. The invention of the T.V. tray is a shining example of that pastime. We can share a meal at the park. Jesus hosted the largest picnic ever, with an endless supply of fish and chips (or bread.) Nor is it even about the activity. Jesus taught in the temple, conversed on the roadside, and performed miracles on the water. I think the magic at the table is both food and activity. There’s something vulnerable, special, intimate about sharing a meal in a setting meant for conversation. There’s someone who serves the meal and someone who is served.
Jesus, watching the dinner guests jockey for prime seating, tells his dinner host in Luke 14:12-13 he should invite the poor, crippled, lame and blind rather than friends and relatives. I have to admit, when I throw a dinner party my first instinct isn’t to even reach out beyond my circle. I don’t really think to seek out those who are “on the outside looking in and have no place of their own” as Heller sings. But I want to be that person. Not just at my table, but at my church, in my neighborhood and my city. After giving his wisdom to the host, Jesus goes on to tell one of my favourite parables: The parable of the Great Feast. A man throwing a party, Jesus says, “was furious” when his friends were too busy to attend. So he sent invitations to poor, crippled, the blind and the lame. Just as Heller sings “If the ground beneath your feet feels unstable, there’s a place for you at my table.” When there was still more room the man sent his servant to invite anyone “on the country lane and behind the hedges!” Basically, whoever wanted to come. It was an open invitation.
“So his master said, ‘Go out into the country lanes and behind the hedges and urge anyone you find to come, so that the house will be full.” -Luke 14:23
Going back to my fancy table: Part of the problem, especially for those who like to play host, is the risk of enjoying the praise we get from the fancy people. Then we get invited to their fancy parties. And we forget there are so many people not invited to anything. And here’s the thing: No matter how fancy we think we are, we can identify with feeling left out and forgotten. Not only have I thrown a party where no one showed, I’ve had the lonely position of being left off the invitation list.
Let’s step away from the table for a moment and explore what Jesus was really talking about. While Jesus was practical, he always had a message that struck the heart and moved us from the physical to the spiritual realm. God is throwing a party to outshine all parties. It makes the royal wedding look like a fast-food drive thru. God’s first invitation was sent to the Jewish people, but they declined. He sent his servant Jesus to search high and low, the oppressed, poor, addicted, lost and depressed, to come and dine. Then Jesus sent his disciples to invite all those willing to come. We now continue that tradition. No matter what is on your table, make room for the woman who just found out about her unfaithful husband. Or the teen who has found themselves flirting with drugs and alcohol. Welcome in the executive who lost his job, the grandmother raising her grandkids, the struggling, the poor, the ignored.
Ultimately we are all invited. We don’t have to get fixed up to come. Because the Host is most gracious and the food is amazing.