By Rev. Joan Kessler
Luke 14:1, 7-14
I took some time this week to explore the back story of the dinner party. I would invite you now to call to memory your most recent dinner party-style event that you attended. Who hosted? What food was served? Where did you sit? How did you express your appreciation for the food and the social gathering?
We all are familiar with social eating events like wedding banquets, service club dinners, special meals in the homes of family and dear friends where a crowd gathers around the table. Certain times of the year like Christmas are ripe with celebratory eating. Large group meals that are hosted and provided by groups or individuals are a luxury both in terms of the food that is served and the setting. But historically, they have also created a form of unspoken obligation that overarches the event.
During the Middle Stone Age period (which took place between 10,000 BC and 8,000 BC) our human ancestors used small stone tools and fashioned spears from materials such as antlers, bone, and wood for means to survival. They lived nomadically along bodies of water. They hunted and gathered. Agriculture was introduced which led to more permanent settlements. The development of nets, fishhooks and weirs allowed for mass fishing to take place. Seed processing techniques such as boiling and pressing led to advances that enabled these early peoples to stockpile food, which as we can assume, led to improved mortality and longevity. But with this arose the challenge of food preservation and storage. One could only store food for so long in the ancient world before it was either spoiled or stolen. The surplus was deployed for social benefit and to help establish reciprocal relationships. And so, the dinner party was born!
The basis for group meals was organized and carried with it an underlying sense of social obligation on the part of the participants. Those with an abundance would have hosted those without, in the hopes of establishing relationships that would be beneficial. Organizers held a status and were driven to keep that status. Acquisitions of desirable food staples, housewares such as fancy serving platters all reflected the status of the guests as well. Group meals formed a social network that could be deployed in times of need. Attending a meal meant you owed something to your host, maybe a cup of sugar or a day’s work in the vineyard. And if a guest failed to meet this contractual obligation, they would be removed from the social network and would not be invited to future feasts. It was a cut throat world 12,000 years ago!
Jesus along with other guests invited to the home of the Pharisee, are all too aware of this contractual arrangement. And Jesus sits back and watches as guests clamor for the best seats at the table, those positions that would influence their social standing in the community. The host would have only invited those who could further his cause and from whom he could benefit being in relationship with.
But Jesus feels the need to speak up and challenge the social stratification of his day. He addresses the guests first and reminds them that they are not as self-important as they may think for there could be another guest coming that is more important and so you should just hang back and take the lowest seats so not to bring embarrassment upon yourself. Then he turns his attention to the host and reminds him of the poor and disenfranchised who also need a place at his table even though they have nothing to bring and cannot reciprocate. This arrangement that sees eating together removed of obligation and quid pro quo thinking, is what Jesus envisioned the kin-dom of God was most like.
Our modern-day dinner party gatherings are largely celebratory in nature to observe birthdays, graduations, reunions, or to simply share in one another’s company. But they still remind us, just as they did the people of the Stone Age that human beings need one another and need to be in relationship. It is an opportunity to gather our allies and renew our social obligations to each other. The host is the giver…the guest is the receiver and may be moved to bring a bottle of wine or a host gift as an offering of appreciation and an attempt to reciprocate. We want to make the exchange equal or better but we often do not come close.
I read a statistic out of the UK from five years ago that suggested one-third of weekday evening meals are eaten in isolation and that the average adult eats 10 meals out of 21 alone every week. Busy schedules and hectic work weeks were cited as the main causes of this dining trend. More than half of those surveyed reported never having shared a meal with a neighbor and more than one-third had never eaten with a community group. But what does this information show us as churches and spiritual communities? Eating together is critically important to fostering a social network and places of belonging. Last week we talked about the difference between inclusivity and belonging. They are not the same. We can include without allowing someone to fully belong. To belong to a group, you have to be missed. How can we, in light of our continued commitment to COVID safety measures, eat together around a table? Maybe we eat out in the parking lot more often? Maybe we host an “eating alone get together “on a regular basis where people join together for a meal and commiserate. We could call it the Eat Together Project. We are also going to be starting Community Coffee on Tuesdays in September, an idea that came from our Visioning Team, and it spoke to our desire to get to know our neighbors and thrift store customers and help address issues around social isolation. I am excited for us to be launching this and I hope you will consider joining me as a co-host. The possibilities around social sharing are endless!
We know human nature. We know the need to be needed and missed and have a place at the table where all belong. And we remember Jesus’ good parable and dinner party advice… to be wary of our motives either as a guest or a host. The kin-dom is all about care and concern and humility towards one another. It is not supposed to be a fair trade-off or a reciprocal return. Our life together is not to be contractual ever, measured or quantified over who gave what and how much. Our actions speak volumes about what and whom we value. May we be watchful for those who have no means to reciprocate. May we pay attention to the “seats” we want to occupy and why. And thank you for the tables you extend to one another as this community. May our exchanges always be honoring and life-giving to those we share meals with.
Peace and grace be with you this day and always. Amen.