In the ancient world, and in many cultures still today, the table is not merely a piece of furniture or an instrument of utility. The table is synonymous with fellowship, and not merely any fellowship. The table is the place where family and close friends assemble to eat safely, relax, swap stories, drink some wine, and enjoy one another’s company.
In the Gospel Reading from the Mass this weekend, we hear a lot about table fellowship. As it was a prominent experience in the cultures of Saint Luke’s day, it’s no surprise that it would be a principal theme in his gospel account.
In Luke’s gospel, some of the Lord Jesus’ most tender moments and pivotal teaching opportunities occur during table fellowship.
For example, the Lord welcomed and reconciled the tax collector Levi and attended a banquet afterwards, he absolved the sins and expressed compassion and gratitude to the sinful woman during dinner at Simon the Pharisee’s home, and he had compassion on the crowd of 5,000 and hosted one of the largest fish fries in local history.
In addition, the Lord accepted the invitation to dinner at Martha and Mary’s home and affirmed the primacy of prayer, he shared table fellowship with a group of Pharisees and issued his infamous “woes” against their hypocrisy, he had another dinner with Pharisees where he taught about the Sabbath and charity (during which, true to form, he also gave the Parable of the Great Banquet), and he forgave the tax collector Zacchaeus and accepted the invitation to dinner at his home.
Of course, all of these occurrences of table fellowship are preambles and point to the ultimate fellowship between the Lord Jesus and his apostles in the Upper Room. The Last Supper is seen as the summation and summit of all fellowship. In fulfilling the Passover of the Old Covenant by his own Passion, Death, and Resurrection, the Lord Jesus is removing the barrier between God and humanity and is welcoming all people as family and inviting them to sit at the table, whose Host and Food is the Lord himself.
Since Saint Luke was not an original disciple, and it is generally believed that he did not meet the Lord Jesus in this life, the reality of the table fellowship born from the Lord’s Paschal Mystery was a crucial and indispensable part of his own discipleship.
It was only through the enduring table fellowship, issued from the new and eternal sacrifice, that Luke could encounter and fully know the Lord. It was only through the Breaking of the Bread that Saint Luke, a Gentile, could claim regular status as a member of God’s Chosen People.
While this weekend’s Gospel Reading is not an account of table fellowship per se, the Lord Jesus does use the motif in his teachings. And his teachings could just as well be described with the famed movie title, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” as well as a creative sequel, “Guess Who’s Disinvited to Dinner?”
The original listeners of today’s gospel account assumed that, merely because they had the right pedigree, background, and social status, they were set. Even though they had eaten at the table, it didn’t make any difference in their lives. The table experience was merely pro forma, and not of the heart.
As such, the Lord Jesus called them out. Since they were no longer acting like family, he disinvited them.
Meanwhile, there were others who desired to be at the table. They showed by their heartfelt longing that they could belong to the family of God. The Lord Jesus observes: “And people will come from the east and the west, and from the north and the south, and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.”
Without question, the Lord is speaking of the Gentiles peoples. He is recalling the prophecies that showed Israel as a light that would draw all the nations into fellowship with the living God. And so, in the gospel account today, the Lord readily invites the uncircumcised to the table.
With this perspective in mind, we can perhaps see a different, more personal reason as to why the table fellowship would be so fundamental to Saint Luke’s version of the gospel. As a Gentile himself, he would have clearly understood the radical importance of table fellowship, especially as the means of acceptance and thriving as a member of the Chosen People in Jesus Christ.
As believers today, do we value the table fellowship that is offered to us? Has it changed us and led us into a deeper relationship with God?
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