I am reading Tim Chester’s book A Meal With Jesus, and it is giving me a lot to chew on. Chester takes as his source material the meals of Jesus in the gospel of Luke. A Meal With Jesus is a short and powerful book.
I’m not finished with the book, but here is one of my initial impressions: A shared meal is powerful. Chester draws this out of Jesus’s interactions with the Pharisees, tax collectors, and sinners in Luke’s gospel. I was surprised and affected by the implications Chester draws about providing food as a ministry. Please permit an extended quotation.
We’re called to follow Christ into a broken world. Simply writing a check keeps the poor at a distance. But Jesus was the friend of sinners. As we learned in chapter 2, to invite someone for a meal in Jesus’s time was an expression of identification. That’s why Jesus’s habit of eating with tax collectors and sinners was so scandalous. He was saying, “These are my sort of people.” Christine Pohl says:
Often we maintain significant boundaries when offering help to persons in need. Many churches prepare and serve meals to hungry neighbors, but few church members find it easy to sit and eat with those who need the meal. When people are very different from ourselves, we often find it more comfortable to cook and clean for them than to share in a meal and conversation. We are familiar with roles as helpers but are less certain about being equals eating together. Many of us struggle with simply being present with people in need; our helping roles give definition to the relationship but they also keep it decidedly hierarchical.
We think we’re enacting grace if we provide for the poor. But we’re only halfway there. We’ve missed the social dynamics. What we communicate is that we’re able and you’re unable. “I can do something for you, but you can do nothing for me. I’m superior to you.” We cloak our superiority in compassion, but superiority cloaked in compassion is patronizing.
Think how different the dynamic is when we sit and eat with someone. We meet as equals. We share together. We affirm one another and enjoy one another. A woman once told me: “I know people do a lot to help me. But what I want is for someone to be my friend.” People don’t want to be projects. The poor need a welcome to replace their marginalization, inclusion to replace their exclusion, a place where they matter to replace their powerlessness. They need community. They need the Christian community.
If you tell someone he’s a sinner who needs God while you’re handing him a cup of soup, then he’ll hear you saying he’s a loser who should become like you. But when you eat together as friends and you tell him what a messed up person you are, then you can tell him about sin and grace. Jim Petersen writes: “I know of no more effective environment for initiating evangelism than a dinner at home or in a quiet restaurant.” (Chester, pages 82–83)
Isn’t it true? Sharing a meal brings everyone to the same level—we all need sustenance, we all gather around the same table, we all eat the same food. There’s no superiority when you pass the potatoes back and forth. Rubbing elbows and serving beans means that we are in the same boat. God meets us all here at the table together. We have things to offer each other, and when we share a meal together we have a chance to offer each other what God offers us in the gospel.
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