The invariably long lines of folks waiting as well as the amount of food consumed at the local BBQ Palaces are familiar sights in the Carolina landscape. While tasty indeed, food does seem piled on the plates more to demonstrate gluttony than to satisfy an honest hunger brought to the family-style tables. Having perpetrated such gluttony myself, I also remember the stupor and dull ache from consuming more food than I or my cholesterol should tolerate. I was not dining – I was bottom-feeding. Sunday’s readings suggest a more gracious, appropriate way to approach the issue of food, and what our time at the dining table can teach us about being God’s people in the world.
Cultural anthropologists tell us that if we wish to understand people, eat with them – better said: dine with them. Dining suggests an awareness of the people with us, an interest in their lives, hopes, and disappointments, the willingness to take the time and enjoy the effort it takes to prepare and present food for those with whom we break bread. Latin scholars also remind us that the desire to share our bread [panis] with [cum] people is the derivation of our word companion [cum + panis]. New Testament professors point out the inordinate time Jesus spends preparing, serving, and eating food with his companions. This seems to be a fundamental characteristic of God’s ways in this world – a world always hungry for a word of grace, a cup of cool water, of food enough that the downtrodden, the poor, the sinful, broken people of God can finally forget that once they were starving. Psalm 145 this Sunday observes:
15The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord, and you give them their food in due season.
16You open wide your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.
Jewish folks, God’s chosen, covenantal people, rehearse and teach their faith frequently at table. The Creation accounts address food not only as sustenance but as bearer of wisdom, health, and understanding. Part of what it means to be human is the cultivation and care of God’s creation. We are called to have dominion which means to treat creation with the same loving care as the Creator of heaven and earth. St. Paul calls that being good stewards, incidentally a culinary term. A steward is one responsible for the smooth unfolding of a banquet, the official bearer of hospitality for the guests, the one responsible for all aspects of the communal gathering. Although Paul is puzzled and saddened by Israel’s reluctance to recognize Jesus as Messiah, Sunday’s second reading [Romans 9:1-5] is a bold affirmation of them as blessed people of the Covenant.
The Passover and its meal on which much of our Easter imagery and vocabulary depends is the remembrance of God’s act of freeing the chosen people from death and bondage, all recited during a holy meal with a specific menu. Jesus himself knows that the Passover meal is central to expressing faith. He will be revealed at table as the embodiment of the Lamb, the Bread, the Cup. No wonder he declares in Luke’s gospel:
14When the hour came, [Jesus] took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. 15He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said… [Luke 22:14ff]
So, it is no surprise that Jesus has deep-felt regard for the people who were drawn to him in numbers rivalling any BBQ establishment. These nameless, wandering followers in Sunday’s gospel [Matthew 14:13-21] are transformed into a community simply by Jesus taking some bread and a few fish. HOW he manages to feed everyone is beside the point, so try not to get distracted. THAT he cares enough to invite them (and us!) to dine with him is the whole point. We become Jesus’ and each other’s companions [bread sharers], friends gathered at table, the microcosm of God’s kingdom:
15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. [John 15:12-15] And Jesus continues to make this known to us, week after week. Creation to Psalm 145 and Isaiah 55, from the Gospels to I Corinthians 11, God’s incessant invitation in Christ remains a holy dinner bell: “Come, all who thirst – and I will give you rest…”