Benefactor in the Evening at the Table
We tell our friends that our favorite “place” in Italy is “evening.” It doesn’t make sense except to us so we explain ourselves. Our favorite place is evening because at evening we enjoy dinner together, often outdoors in the gentle evening breezes, we dine on nice Italian food and even better Italian wine. For us, “evening” is a place of the daily experience of enjoying being with the one you love. Somehow pesto tastes better in the Cinque Terra and somehow the prosciutto tastes better in Tuscany and somehow the lemons taste better on the Amalfi coast. But it is probably more the company I’m with than the food. Evening is that place, and evening was a place with Jesus.
What you eat and with whom you eat mattered to Jesus and his world, but they mattered in one way to Jesus and in another way to his opponents. It’s the contrast that made Peter think of Jesus as a Benefactor. First, Jews observed kosher food laws, something you may have learned in your neighborhood with Jewish friends or at school in a class or, if you are that sort, straight from the Old Testament book of Leviticus. Scholars explain the kosher food laws in a number of ways, but the only one that makes complete sense to me is that somehow God communicated with Moses and Israel that animals that are taxonomically irregular are unclean. Fish need to have fins and scales so those that don’t – like catfish and dolphin and eels – are not fit for the holy people of God. This is one example. Another one is that Jews did not eat birds that fed on dead animals. Hawks, for instance, are unclean. If you want to read more you can find it all in Leviticus 11. So, the what you eat is clear. With whom you eat is not quite as clear, but the Jews were generally separate from Gentiles and did not normally eat with them. Peter told the Gentiles that even they knew “it is against our law for a Jew to associate with Gentiles or visit them” (Acts 10:28).
Table customs exist in our world, and you can see it at the lunch table in every university. Somewhere humans learned the practice that like eat with like, which also means the “like” don’t eat with the “unlike.” There aren’t that many “food laws” for most of us, but you’ve surely experienced how riled up some folks can get about beef because it carries with it loads of cholesterol or how worked up vegans can get when some around them choose meat of any kind. This is the sort of thing happening in the world of Jesus: you watched what you ate (but for religious reasons) and with whom you ate for the same reasons.
Which is exactly why Jesus did what he did. Jesus turned every evening into a religious event where he told stories of God’s dream kingdom breaking into the world right now and did the unthinkable: he invited sinners and tax collectors to the table for dinner. Mind you, they weren’t tossing shrimp and catfish on the barbie. Just eating with sinners was enough. Jesus had a new form of benefaction as the kingdom of God broke into normal human relations: as God loves everyone, as God welcomes those same everyones to his table, so Jesus loves and welcomes everyone to his evening table talk. Opening the front door to sinners and to other marginalized people was Jesus’ form of benefaction.
If you think this was radical, Jesus upped the ante on the radical side. At the end of his life, when his followers came to eat dinner with him, Jesus “undressed” himself by stripping down to “shorts only.” Then he took a basin of water and a towel and washed the feet of his followers. That act of footwashing was the menial task of a servant, and Jesus showed that his benefaction of welcoming others to the table was the consummate act of serving others. He was there for them.
He didn’t care if they were hookers or the arch enemies of Israel, if they were ordinary observant Jews or even extraordinary young impassioned zealots for God. He converted the evening into the place of love, the place of grace, the place of peace, and the place of justice. How? By opening closed doors to become the place of welcome. His benefaction was to make a place at the table for anyone who cared to hear him out. Don’t get me wrong. Jesus wasn’t a softy. Everyone had a place at his table but they were going to hear his kingdom dream and receive his summons to follow him and to give up what they were doing and to sell everything to follow him into that kingdom.
Evening was also Jesus’ favorite place and it was surely the favorite place for his followers. As the sun’s light faded, they were hearing stories – we call them parables – about what life in God’s kingdom could be. I suspect many went to bed dreaming about what life could be if they lived out the dream kingdom vision of Jesus. They got a taste of what it could be like sitting at that table with folks they’d never thought they’d dine with, and it dawned on them at that point that a table might be the symbol of God’s dream for the world.