Here’s a little riddle.
What is more powerful and influential in
creating social change
than laws or money,
and yet is rarely, if ever,
used by advocates of change?
Here is another clue:
What is the public and communal equivalent
of sexual intimacy?
One last clue:
What is the single most powerful
we can engage in as families, friends, or social cohorts like a church?
You have probably already guessed
that I am talking about eating together.
And you probably know most, if not all,
of what I am going to say about it.
But it’s been awhile
since we invited a tax collector
to our table, so here it is again.
We take eating together utterly for granted
unless we eat alone
and have to cook for ourselves
on a regular basis.
it is the single most powerful social activity
we do or do not do.
As a society
we do not eat together — we eat separately
in our segregated communities —
just as we live separately.
we do not even eat together
while living in the same household
according to a bunch of social research.
Parents and children
apparently sleep in the same house
but often do not eat together
in the same place
at the same time.
Yet, if there was one exercise
that households could engage in
to create greater social cohesion
it would be to eat together.
And beyond private households,
if we regularly ate with people
ethnic, and racial boundaries,
we would have greater social cohesion
and be a radically different society.
But don’t take my word for it.
Listen to this from anthropologist, Peter Farb:
”In all societies, both simple and complex, eating is the primary way of initiating and maintaining human relationships…Once the anthropologist finds out where, when, and with whom the food is eaten, just about everything else can be inferred about the relations among the society’s members…To know what, where, how, when and with whom people eat is to know the character of their society.”
“Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography” John Dominic Crossan
Now, it is far easier to observe
the power of eating together
in a society like the one Jesus lived in
than our own.
In 1st century Judah & Galilee
the rules and norms for social contact
were much clearer
and far more pronounced
than our own.
Jesus’ society was intensely hierarchical
with older men
generally at the apex of the pyramid
and children and slaves
generally at the bottom.
But within that order
social positioning and public credentials
also situated individuals along the hierarchy.
Men did not eat with women
and they did not eat with children. Period.
Jews did not eat with Gentiles
nor did they eat with other Jews
who were not within their social caste.
Those who were ritually pure
did not eat with those who were impure —
whether their impurity was
because of their profession
or lack of scrupulous religious observance.
Those who were well
did not eat with those who were not well –
and wellness was determined
by something as small as a blemish on the skin,
like acne that could be considered
an outward and visible sign of a hidden depravity.
Or more grave illnesses
that were also regarded as punishment
for moral deficiency
In short, in Jesus’ world,
you only associated with people like yourself
and avoided physical contact,
with anyone who did not inhabit your shelf
on the social hierarchy.
Which brings into focus
all the more,
the radical nature of Jesus’ behavior.
But before we think about Jesus
I want us to consider ourselves.
We may not have the same rigidity
of social hierarchy
but in fact by practice,
we are nearly as segregated
by socio-economic and racial caste
as was Jesus’ world.
In some ways we are more segregated
because in the Roman Empire
of Jesus’ day,
the concept of “race” did not exist.
It is interesting to note
that the modern concept of race,
that one’s skin color
determines ones humanity,
is a social concept
that enters the scene
with The Enlightenment –
the so-called great Age of Reason.
There is a great deal about the Age of Reason
that turns out to be unreasonable.
Anyway, in Jesus’ day
ethnicity carried a lot of weight
but it was a very polyglot world
and society was stratified by
social and economic caste,
and each caste could be very ethnically diverse.
When we look at our behavior
as 21st Century North Americans,
we observe the practice of
and ex-urban segregation
by class, race and ethnicity.
And within that span of geographic segregation
there is the micro-segreation
into neighborhoods or areas,
and streets and roads even.
I loved living on the corner
of Washington and Pine streets.
On the blocks of Washington
near where we lived,
it was a leafy stretch of affluent homes.
Pine Street though, was full of rentals,
small single-family, and student houses.
It was also the pass-through from
the corner of William and Pulteney Street
where an extended Hispanic community lived.
So it felt less segregated
than Washington Street actually is.
about our housing and banking
policies and practices
nourishes segregation by caste —
though we don’t call it that.
So when we listen to what Jesus
says and does
we should not imagine that his world
was all that different from ours.
With that in mind,
let us peek at this little story from Matthew.
First of all,
it is widely presumed that the place
to which Jesus led Matthew, the tax-collector,
was to Jesus’ own house.
I know we do not think of Jesus as having a house
but there are references to his having a home
and presumably some kind of carpentry shop
in the city of Capernaum.
When my own house and mortgage
get me down,
I renjoy the thought of
Jesus as home-owner.
It makes him less romanticized.
Anyway, Jesus takes the tax collector
to his house
and sits him down
at his dinning room table –
actually, they would have reclined on cushions.
And Jesus feeds him food
from his own cupboard.
Now let me say a word about the tax collector.
We’re not talking about an IRS auditor
or someone working for the State of New York.
Remember, Jesus’ little world
by a foreign military force —
a massive and conquering empire.
Tax collectors were the people who
collaborated with the occupiers.
They collected painful and ruinous
amounts of tax
for commerce —
all of which made a precarious existence
all the more difficult.
Not only did the tax collectors charge
whatever amount the empire set
for the particular tax,
they also added a surcharge
from which they became wealthy.
So you see, the tax collectors
collaborated with the enemy
to benefit themselves
at the cost of their own people.
They were exploiters.
Tax collectors were hated…hated.
Jesus invites one of them home, and feeds him.
That would be just one more nail
in Jesus’ social coffin.
Jesus earned the reputation of a disreputable host,
and that meant he had an invisible
inscription pinned on his back:
“Don’t be seen at his house
because he invites people there
that will ruin your reputation too.
He eats with people
who will lower your standing
on the hierarchy —
people who will make you
people who will ruin you.”
Remember what the anthropologist wrote:
“To know what, where, how,
when and with whom people eat
is to know the character of their society.”
by who he ate with,
by who he invited into his home
to sit at his table,
and with whom he engaged
in the intimate act of eating.
So we see that Jesus’ behavior
threatened the social order
that was woven together
with the strong fabric
of clear and rigid standards
There were linear boundaries
that had no elasticity
and so would break
if stretched too far by too many.
When was the last time
our character was besmirched
by who we ate with?
When was the last time
anyone could be scandalized
by who we invited into our homes?
If social order is created and maintained
by who we eat with
and how and where we eat,
and we want to destabilize
our social order
because it is essentially unjust
then our subversiveness
will begin around the table —
around our own dinning room tables
as well as around this table here.
If Jesus is our model
for what the love of God
when practiced in the real world
by real people,
then our spiritual practice
begins with this table here
and how we extend it
and who we share food with.
We have a nice little ritual
and have been doing
for thousands of years,
but it is a symbolic ritual
that points to something bigger.
”Don’t just snack on this wafer and wine,”
Jesus might say to us,
”feast with one another
and bring others into the feast.
That is what this means.”
Now I know we are bright,
and creative people.
I do not need to spell out the implication for us
of Jesus’ disreputable behavior
and of the composition
at his dinning room or kitchen table.
We would do well,
as individuals and as a congregation,
to revisit our own ideas
about social cohesion,
about strategies for social change,
as well as our ideas about what
makes for strong community
and strong family systems.
We would do well to begin to look
at all that through the lens of Jesus’ practice
of hosting and being a guest
around tables that included people
who crossed boundaries
to eat with one another.
Someone might respond
that I am making much ado about eating,
but really, when we think about it,
when it comes to Jesus,
it is almost all about eating, and eating together.