The question is whether it is fitting, and in keeping with God’s intention for the table, to keep these good things to ourselves. It reminds me of the four lepers in 2 Kings 7 who are living just outside the city gates while Arameans beseige Samaria in order to capture Elisha, the prophet. The city is delivered when the Lord causes them to hear the sound of chariots, horses and an approaching army, causing them to flee and fear. But the people hiding behind the gates do not know this. The lepers discover the flight when they decide to risk death to plead for food from the Arameans and discover no one there. They find tents full of food, clothing, and treasure that they accumulate until they conclude that this is too good to keep to themselves but ought to be shared with the rest of the city.
Truth is that we often don’t want our others to come to our table, for fear that we might lose the intimacy we enjoy. To welcome others to our tables will change everything, we fear. And of course we are right. To welcome others to our table, and particularly those not like us will take us out of our comfort zone. Yet just like cardio exercises strengthen our hearts, so also the hard work of welcoming the stranger will strengthen our capacities to love with the heart of God. Learning to love those different from us (and really that is just about anyone) reminds us that we were once strangers both to God and his people.
When we unintentionally, or sometimes intentionally fail to welcome the other to our table, particularly those who differ in some way the world reckons difference–race, economic status, or even church denomination–we deny the power of the saving work of Jesus. In Galatians 2, when Peter was with Paul in Antioch, he joined in table fellowship with Gentile believers until a group of Jews associated with James came from Jerusalem. Peter, the other Jews with him, and even Paul’s companion Barnabas stepped back. Paul harshly rebukes Peter publicly, not for a social faux pas, but because “they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). The great scandal of naming the name of Christ while advocating racial supremacy of one race, or simply justifying segregated tables, and other arrangements is that we hollow out the gospel message of its power to bring together people across these divides.
So a question I encourage the communities I work with to wrestle with regularly is that of who is not at our tables? In the world I work in, this can include those from ethnic minorities, academic departments that are not represented in our group, particular national groups represented on our campus but not among us. It might include those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans-gendered. It might include people from Muslim countries studying in the U.S.
It might be that our first step is not inviting them to our tables, but rather spending some time at theirs. I can’t think of a time in scripture when Jesus turns down an invitation to someone’s table–tax collectors, “sinners,” and teachers of the law and Pharisees, unattached women like Mary and Martha, and others. Once, Jesus even invited himself to the home of the most notorious tax collector in town–Zacchaeus. To accept hospitality, to be the guest and not in control, to be the one on the outside coming in both prepares us to be better, more sensitive hosts, and may open the hearts of our hosts.
Another step is that of making room at our tables. If we have just enough chairs for those who always come, it is awkward if our guests are left standing. Or maybe our tables are crowded and we need to add tables (and make sure to mix up who sits at them!). The physical instances of this are the most easily remedied. The structural and cultural ones may be harder. If we only sing Hillsongs, and only in English, what does this say to those from other countries and backgrounds? Does our conversation divide the world into “us” and “them,” or reflect our conviction that Jesus is making one new humanity. Greg Coles, in Single, Gay, Christian speaks of how weird it can be as a celibate, gay man to be in a church context where people are unaware of his sexual identity and listen to them talk about the “LGBT community” as a “them” that lives a certain way, has a certain agenda, unaware that someone who would identify as gay, but doesn’t fit any of these stereotypes and loves Jesus, is right in front of them. I could multiply examples of this kind of talk about “the Black community,” “the Muslim community,” the “Asian community,” or even “English majors”! I’ve even been guilty of them!
Perhaps my greatest challenge is simply, how intentional and persistent will I be in this effort? After a dinner with some Pharisees where Jesus is treated rather shabbily, he tells the parable of the great banquet, where a host sends his servants to notify his previously invited guests that the dinner is ready. A number of them snub him for a number of lame reasons. But he doesn’t give up or content himself with those who came. He sends his servants out onto the town streets to invite anyone they encounter. And when that doesn’t fill up his tables, he sends them out to do another round of invitations in the countryside (Luke 14:15-24). I love that the master and his servants keep inviting until he has a full house. Will I love the Master, and people well enough to keep inviting until the Master’s house is full?
It all begins with the question of “who is not at our table?”