Reflection: The Table and Her Scandalous Embrace

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And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”[1]

As I venture to reflect upon the word table, perhaps some readers of this article may find this topic to be quite odd, for the table in many of our mindsets has little to no importance (at least in the west). Yes, it may be true that most holidays, parties and festivals are celebrated around a table, however, the table in our mindset is often a symbol of nothing more than a mere means to an end. Put more simply, when we gather together at the table eating is merely eating, drinking is simply drinking and remembering is only remembering.

However, as I reflect upon the table amidst my Chinese context, the table becomes much more than eating, drinking, celebrating and remembering, rather the table becomes the powerful instrument of inclusion through which one finds herself brought into intimate familial relationships. To put it more simply, the table in a real and sacramental sense becomes the space where one finds that she is accepted and included into a community of people. Thus, the table in a Chinese sense is the means by which individuals are made aware of the familial relationship they share with sisters and brothers.

Not unlike the Chinese table, in my African-American heritage the table has functioned in much of the same way.  Historically, the African-American table has served as the place where family got together to maintain, nourish and grow  familial bonds. As my father comments: “Our African American table is the place where stories are shared, jokes are told and predecessors are remembered.” Thus, individuals discover that they belong to a family and a precious history at the African-American table.

However, in pondering upon the African-American table, I am reminded of how the table has often functioned as a tool of exclusion over and against an instrument of inclusion throughout American society. Seen from the eyes of my ebony skinned history, the table has often operated as a constant reminder of my inhumanity and lack of worth. Such a view of the table can be found in the words of Langston Hughes as he describes his experience as a black man excluded from the American table:

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.

Tomorrow,

I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me,

“Eat in the kitchen,”

Then.

Besides,

They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.[2]

Nevertheless, as I think about the concept of table, I cannot help but be drawn to think about the table from my own Christian standpoint. From a Christian perspective, the table of Jesus challenges our notions of us and them (or who is in and out) by welcoming all. Even more, Jesus’ table practices powerfully exposes all the exclusive tables in our own lives by providing seats for all people.

Perhaps this is the reason why the table of Jesus is so controversial, particularly because it welcomes, embraces and calls all people worthy. As seen in the ministry of Jesus,  the table is the place of transformation, liberation, restoration and reconciliation.  The table is the space where the orphan is given a home, the dehumanized discovers her humanity, the outcasts find their welcome, the poor are made rich, the sick are healed, the weak are made strong, and the tyrants are forgiven.

Thus, at the table of Jesus one is confronted with this challenging truth: ‘that all are welcomed and forgiven in Christ’. The truth discovered at the table of Jesus is a challenging one, for it proclaims that all people – irrespective of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education, political or religious bent etc. – have a seat at the transformative, reconciling, liberating, restorative and gracious table of Jesus Christ.

[1] Mark 2:15-17

[2] I, Too, Sing America by Langston Hughes

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