At the table so much happens in the Bible, especially with Jesus and his fellow Galileans. We ignore perhaps the significance of meals and food in our world and this leads us not to notice the importance of meals and food in the world of Jesus. If we have eyes, however, we will see how central meal time was for Jesus. Hence, a chapter on this topic in Justo Gonzalez, The Story Luke Tells: Luke’s Unique Witness to the Gospel.
Today we do not often linger at the table with others for conversations throughout the evening and into the night; we eat in haste between activities. The ancient world didn’t have entertainment at night; the entertainment was discussion and conversation and playfulness.
Luke asks us to think again about the table and food and meals:
Commentaries have often pointed out that, much more frequently than in any of the other Gospels, in the Gospel of Luke we find Jesus eating. And that there are many other references to food and drink. One commentary offers a list of sixty such references — which comes out to about two and a half references per chapter! (77)
The table demonstrated or embodied central social realities and values and honor and worth.
Eating and drinking are not only a physical necessity, but also an important element in the fabric of any society. Even to this day, when we sit together with someone at a table, this implies some sort of relationship. It may be a matter of friendship, of business, or of simply trying to get to know each other better. But in any case, sitting with another at a table is both a sign and a way to create and develop relationships (78).
It has been said, and I have this in A New Vision for Israel, that one ate with one’s worthies and to eat with those above you was a honor-enhancing and below you as honor-diminishing. The table embodied worth and status. Hence the funny story in Luke 14:7-11, a story that trades in honor at the table.
Also, meals in the world of Luke’s Gospel are especially connected to discussions — what in the Roman and Greek worlds is called the symposium. One of Plato’s most famous and studied books is called Symposium. It’s about public philosophy in conversation at the table.
Jesus isn’t simply traveling along the road, hungry, when somebody invites him in for a quick bite. He is usually invited to rather prolonged dinners, during which the guests, reclining at the table, have the time to discuss subjects at length. And these dinners are also mostly formal occasions, during which certain customs and practices are expected to inform the behavior of both the host and the guests (80).
One can easily speculate that many, if not most, of Jesus’ parables came from evening table conversations. His pointed teachings often emerge from the table practices:
Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32).
Jesus sets out his kingdom vision for human relationships at the table, as seen in Luke 14:13-14 (also Luke 14:23-24):
Meals, as Gonzalez shows so well, are also the opportunities for Jesus to probe and push and plead and to warn, as seen in Luke 7’s famous discussion at table: Simon the Pharisee is the host; a sinful woman is the actor; Jesus is the central story and Jesus pushes against Simon on the basis of her behavior. But we are wrong, Gonzalez says, if we condemn the Pharisee here — that’s a stereotype we get from other texts. In this one, we get a Pharisee who is pushed but the story does not end with condemnation but with wondering what he will do. Hence, Luke 7:36-50:
But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
“Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Instead of listening to Jesus instruct the Pharisee here we often play the Pharisee by condemning him. But, in Luke Jesus eats with Pharisees. In Luke Simon does not reject Jesus but is warned with the counter example of the sinful woman. The story ends as a wondering invitation, not condemnation, like the elder son in the prodigal son story.
Instead of condemning we should be wondering:
If the Pharisees, the most religious people of their time, were to be definitely excluded from the reign of God, what hope would there be for us religious people of today? (86).
This is not to say Jesus does not warn, for he does, as Gonzalez puts it — one ought to come to dinner on guard if Jesus is present:
Luke thus depicts Jesus as reclining at a table with a group of Pharisees and lawyers who have invited him for some polite and edifying conversation, only to be surprised to hear words that they find offensive (88).
One of the great stories of meals in Luke is in Luke 19, with Zacchaeus and here are the four major points: Jesus encounters a paradigmatic and stereotypical sinner; and Jesus invites himself to his home; Jesus does not leave but stays at the home; most notably, the man is transformed. Fellowship with Jesus leads to transformation.