Readings: Philippians 2:1-13 Matthew 21:23-32
Jesus table manners based on a writing by John Bell
We pray: Loving God, we pray that we will hear your word for us today – that our ears, our hearts and minds would be open, hearing again your words of encouragement and anticipating new truths for us to explore. Amen.
I often wonder if we realise just how radical Jesus was. For the time he was seriously subversive, somewhat rude and definitely a thorn in the side of those who wanted people to behave decently and in good order. In the reading from Matthew he is speaking his mind – and in the way of great debaters, tangling his opponents with questions that have no obvious answer and stories that turn you back to front and upside down. And invariably, as we read in scripture, Jesus makes his final verbal thrust with clarity and precision. No one could go away from that encounter in the temple without a very clear understanding of the point made.
And John Bell suggests that one of the places that Jesus was at his challenging best was around the table – which is a little surprising considering how we can see the table as a place of peace where all differences are put aside in the unity of Christ. Let us see where John Bell takes us. He begins with a table story of his own experience but I suspect many of us might well have our own example to recount:
First of all he speaks of three things that people in his home town of Kilmarnock referred to in muted tones – generally to keep the peace we suspect. They were cancer, Catholics and women’s troubles. And he recounts the story of a Mrs Dunlop who was particularly adept at random embarrassing asides– and she saved her best for anything Catholic. The whispered ‘Did you know that she is descended from a Catholic great grandmother?’ as a women walked by. So the day came when, with great trepidation, her grandson came to dinner with his fiancé –who happened to be Catholic. And the extended family were on edge, hoping against hope that no inappropriate words would suddenly emerge from the Dunlop matriarch. And all went well until, in the middle of a particularly stodgy rice pudding, apropos of nothing out came the words: ‘Well there is one thing I have always said about Catholics – they are good singers.’ Lousy timing, embarrassing moment, choking in the indigestible rice pudding. And John Bell finishes the story by saying how like Jesus was this woman.
That brings us up short for a moment. Because, says Bell, Jesus at a meal, inevitably said the right things at the wrong time. At the least people were upset, and at best he created livid consternation. Makes us think twice about speaking of the passive ‘unseen’ guest that Jesus is at table and I wonder too if it challenges our insistence on silence at we eat and drink the bread and wine of communion? Be good to think about that sometime.
What were Jesus’ table manners really like? In the gospel of Luke, says John Bell, there are ten different occasions of Jesus at table and every single one has an element of surprise at least.
In Levi’s house he sat down to eat with tax-gathers and sinners – and he insults his critics by saying that perhaps they need his company more than those who are pickled in self-righteousness.
He insults Martha, the industrious housekeeper, by telling her to stop fussing about whether there is enough gravy in the stew and to sit down and listen to him.
He dines in the house of Simon the leper and disgusts his host by not only allowing a woman to wash his feet with her tears, but by telling Simon that the woman is showing him up when it comes to real hospitality.
He confounds the disciples in an upstairs room when, in the middle of a fellowship meal, he reveals an awkward truth - that one of the company is going to betray him.
Remember him being chastised by his distinguished Pharisee host for forgetting to wash the hands, and his reply ‘You Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and the plate. But inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools…..’
Can you imagine the silence that would follow that outburst?
Makes Mrs Dunlop seem positively benign. You can’t imaging the rotary club of the day inviting Jesus as the after dinner speaker can you?
But there is another point that Bell makes: that meals taken in the presence of Jesus are a blessing to some and a provocation to others. Think of each of those examples. So what is Jesus trying to do. Why so abrasive?
John Bell suggest that it is really quite simple – that Jesus is exposing what no one else has noticed – that their obsession with detail, their prissiness about what is right is covering up the fraudulence of their existence, that in identifying the wrong in others was all about preventing others recognising what was wrong in them.
His words: ‘But Jesus is not impressed by the outward display, be it piety or righteousness or good manners or perfect procedure, if that is at odds with an inner self which is emaciated, damaged or denied.
And he suggests that when we come to sit around the Lord’s table, we are offered a fragment of bread and a sip of wine through which Jesus Christ in his fullness enters into us to deal with the dirt and the frustration and the yearning which too often our external lives disguise. And in that same moment of sacrament God provides a specific moment and a specific means whereby we can be healed, forgiven, blessed and made new again.
And with John Bell I say to you: around the table, Christ enters our soul – will we make room? Amen.