In the first century table fellowship was often used as a measuring stick for determining one’s stature in your community. Who you ate with and where you sat at the table said a lot about how you were viewed by your peers. Because of this, if you were hosting a meal, it was common to invite people of great stature to attend. If they showed up, people noticed and your stature improved among the community. Finally, to accept a seat at the table was to accept the host.
The Pharisees compared their tables to the altar in the temple. This is why they were so strict as to what food was served, how it was prepared and served and who would be allowed to enter the house to fellowship at their table. Only those who were “clean” would be invited.
As he did so often, Jesus didn’t play by the rules, but rather challenged the exclusivism that was so common. Jesus ate with the elite Pharisees and Sadduces. He was also ridiculed by those same people for eating with tax collectors and “sinners.” Once while eating with some respected men, Jesus wasn’t as offended as his host when an adulteress woman entered and began honoring him. He taught people to humbly take the seats of less importance around the table rather than presuming yourself to be more important than you really are. He taught us to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” (Lk.14:13) rather than the elite.
Jesus once told a parable where he compared the kingdom of God to a king who threw a banquet (Matt.22). His invitation was initially rejected which is the same as rejecting the king himself. So the king sent more servants out to invite anyone who would hear and accept his invitation to come and enjoy the feast he’d prepared. Obviously Jesus is referring to the Jews rejection of him and his kingdom and foreshadowing the spread of the gospel to the gentiles.
One of the principles that I find in all this is that there is room for all kinds of people at the Lord’s table. Consider some of the men Jesus handpicked to be his disciples. Simon was zealously patriotic, but Levi worked for the oppressive Roman regime. Peter was impulsive, bold, outspoken and arrogant. Thomas was a realist while John was faithful, loyal and thoughtful but perhaps a bit self-serving. James (and John also) seemed to be temperamental and ambitious. Imagine the conversations that went on around the table during those meals together.
From the outset, the early church was composed of numerous different mindsets and doctrinal beliefs. The earliest converts were the conservative, Hebrew / Aramaic speaking Hebraists who maintained their commitment to the Jewish moral laws, except for circumcision, and kept close ties to the Temple. As the gospel spread, the church had to find a way to maintain unity when the more liberal, free-thinking, Greek-speaking Hellenized Jews and gentiles were baptized into this new life in Christ. Throw in the supremely legalistic Judaizers and you’ve got a ticking time bomb.
Jeph recently wrote a post on the bigness of God and his ability to handle the differences within his Church. Jesus, being God in the flesh, was radically inclusive where others remained exclusive. He didn’t view diversity as a flaw but rather as the vitality of the Church and evidence of the glory of the grace of God. I wonder if Jesus paired up Levi and Simon when he sent the disciples out in pairs to minister to teach them to work together. It had to be awkward at first, but something happened over time. Peter remained bold and outspoken, but replaced his arrogance with humility. Thomas’ dark realism was replaced with fervent faith. Closed minds are closed hearts but each of them, Judas being the obvious exception, remained teachable and faithful, aiding their spiritual development. In time, each of them contributed to the ministry and spread of the kingdom of God despite their glaring differences.
It’s strange but I often find Christians who are hesitant to fellowship with other followers of Christ who don’t share their particular set of doctrinal beliefs, political affiliations, worship preferences, social / economic status, race, age or perceived level of maturity. They are more concerned with being proved right than being with Jesus. It’s as though we are still abiding by the old rules of table fellowship. I have some old friends that border on fundamentalism and though we all believe in Jesus and strive to follow his teachings we remain distant due to certain interpretations of scripture. What gets me is that I have no problem calling them brother and sister but I’m not sure they would reciprocate that sentiment and it sucks. Jesus didn’t discriminate based on any of these factors but rather invited anyone to come. To respond to Jesus’ invitation and accept a seat at the table is to accept Jesus himself and everyone else at the table regardless of personal differences.