Working occasionally among street children with my students has often given me the opportunity to eat together with them. On one such day I took my two-year-old son and let him mingle freely with these children as we gave them baths, clipped their nails, medicated their sores, gave them recycled clothes to wear, played games with them, and finally shared food with them. While we were eating, my son wandered around and finally settled down to eat with one of the kids who was a couple of years older than him. He was not just sitting beside this kid and eating together with him, but my son began to eat the food from the same plate with this street kid! I could simply write this off as a child’s innocence of the joy of eating and sharing food with other fellow children. However, my attention was drawn not by what my son was doing, but by the sheer surprise of some of my students whose gazes were interspersed between my son and me. I could almost sense that some of them were wishing that I would intervene and stop my son from eating from the same plate with the street kid, which I did not. The following week I brought up this particular incident in class as I continued to teach a course on the Gospel of Luke. After listening to the many responses from the students we continued to deliberate about food, eating, and table fellowship in the Gospel of Luke. We ended on a note that posed difficult questions about the theology of the table. Can the table determine the kind of Christian we are?
The Gospel of Luke includes many moments when food and eating become key events in the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus ate with all kinds of people—friends, enemies, tax collectors, sinners, women, Pharisees, disciples—the list goes on. On several occasions, Jesus’ eating habits earned him such labels as “a glutton and a drunkard,” “a friend of tax-collectors and sinners,” one who “welcomes sinners and eats with them,” and “a guest of a sinner” (Luke 7:33-34; 15:2; 19:7). Nonetheless, Jesus welcomed and accepted everyone at the table—friends and enemies alike, but particularly those who were rejected and marginalized in society because of their poverty, disability, gender, unclean professions, sinful lives, and other unacceptable social conditions in the community. In inviting and welcoming all these people to the table, Jesus was extending and living the reality of the kingdom of God: that he came not for the “righteous” but “sinners” (Luke 5:32). Jesus’ table fellowships with these people became life transforming for them, as he welcomed and embraced them and literally made the table the tangible presence of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ table was always an occasion of hospitality to accept, heal, restore, forgive, teach, build relationship, and celebrate salvation that became a present reality—a celebration that will continue in the future messianic banquet when Jesus himself will be the grand host.
Today our fast food, take-away, buffet, and gourmet cultures bring totally different meanings to food, eating, and table fellowship. Nonetheless, eating is a habit that we all engage in daily, primarily for nourishment and sustenance of our bodies, but also for various other reasons—for satisfying our hunger pangs, to relish personal taste buds, to celebrate a life event, to fulfill social obligations, or simply to share and fellowship with family and friends. For some, eating can be a very private matter. Yet when we eat with others we cannot ignore the social ramifications of table fellowship. We like to eat with people who are close or familiar to us—family, friends, classmates, colleagues, and so on. We do not normally eat or share food at the same table with people who are from backgrounds that we are not able to identify as one of “us”—people from a different social location whether that be race, ethnicity, religion, gender, economic status, or perhaps even someone we see as an enemy.
It is not easy to welcome “others,” “enemies,” or “sinners” to our table and fellowship with them over a meal. However, the praxis of table fellowship—the impetus and act of sharing and eating food with “others”—can become conducive contexts for breaking barriers and building relationships. Table fellowship can bring people closer together as we serve one another and share the same meal. It opens up space to communicate, listen, and connect with each other. It can become an occasion to break down prejudices and neutralize tensions between people who have differences. Solutions to conflicts can be found in the conducive ambiance of eating and sharing. Offering hospitality and welcoming one another at the table lead to reconciliation. Enemies become friends. Strangers get to know one another better. The wealthy and the poor are leveled at the table.
Today, if white police officers invite black Americans to sit across the table and eat together with them and vice versa, the simple act of sharing the same food and eating together around the same table might ease tensions, build rapport, develop trust, and restore better relationships. If various religious groups come together not only for mere dialogue but to share table fellowship with one another, our various customs of food and eating can bring empathetic interfaith and cultural understanding. If we Christians invite strangers, the homeless, and the hungry to share our food and table with them, we will only be emulating what Jesus did at the table. The table not only has the potential and power to break barriers, restore relationships, deliver forgiveness, and bring healing in society, it can also be salvific! It matters practically for all Christians: what we eat, where we eat, and with whom we eat can determine the kind of faith we practice.
James Longkumer is associate professor of New Testament interpretation at Oriental Theological Seminary in Nagaland, India. He is currently studying table theology in the Gospel of Luke as a GRI Scholar in Fuller’s School of Intercultural Studies.
For more information on the School of Intercultural Studies postdoctoral program, the Global Research Institute (GRI), check out our website here