Faith and Food
When I think of tables, I think of eating with friends and family. Through the years these tables have taken different shapes and forms. Sometimes it’s just me and another person and at other times there could be 15-20 of us gathered around. Sometimes it’s quiet conversation and other times a cacophany of chatter, dishes, and someone yelling down the table to get someone else’s attention. I’m Irish-Italian; we tend to be a loud bunch. Of course that didn’t change when I headed off to college, and all of my friends were religion geeks like me. There was still a lot of talking over one another, around one another, and yelling at someone in order to get a word in edgewise. I felt right at home.
The table I normally think of is our family table growing up. Mom, Dad, my sister and me every night for supper. We didn’t have very many family rules set in stone, but eating supper together was one of them. When friends were over, they ate with us. Same thing if family visited: eating supper together never changed except when we slept over at a friend’s or had a school function. Some nights there was a lot of chatter, some nights we played Jeopardy more than we talked, and other nights we ate in relative silence because we were tired. The ebb and flow of activity may have changed but supper itself did not. We ate one meal as a family at the table everyday. Period.
One of the hardest things to get used to when I moved out and started living on my own was eating alone. It seemed odd, wrong. And not just because of family dinner. Before college I had always eaten breakfast with my sister, lunch with friends, and dinner with the family. In college I always ate with friends or the family that adopted me at church. Eating by myself bothered me more than living by myself. In the movie Under the Tuscan Sun her neighbor invites Francis over for supper saying, â€œIt’s not healthy to eat alone.â€ I absolutely agree with him.
In fact the Mediterranean people know how to do supper. I lived in Barcelona for a year as a Nazarene in Volunteer Service or NIVS for short. I loved their attitude about food. Food was something to be enjoyed, not scarfed down. I am a slow eater. I always have been and I will stubbornly remain so. I get teased because I refuse to scarf my food down in order to â€œdoâ€ something more important. What’s more important than nourishing yourself? And I don’t believe you can nourish yourself if you inhale your food. I fit right in in Spain and with the Mediterranean mindset: food is to be enjoyed and preferably enjoyed with family and bunch of friends. They take supper seriously. There it is a three hour affair with three or four courses and a lot of conversation. Talking, joking, sharing the day, getting caught up. It’s relaxed. Everyone is enjoying themselves. Everyone is enjoying the food. I fit right in. I found out the Italian genes I got from my full-blooded Italian great-grandmother ran true in my blood. They somehow skipped the rest of family.
How the Mediterraneans view supper is very much how people in both the Old and New Testaments viewed supper. Breakfast was some bread, probably left over from the night before. Lunch was at work and normally a piece of dried fish and what ever fruit or vegetables that were in season. But supper–supper was different. You were paid for your work at the end of the day. You went shopping then came home, and the whole family–and you have to remember in the Bible this would be three generations who lived close to each other–all of them would get together and eat supper. It was a relaxed, joyous time for the family. They had food, they had each other. They enjoyed their day’s labor at the end of the day. And they took their time. This meal was not to be rushed. It was to be savored and enjoyed. It was the only time the entire family ate together.
It is no surprise to see the early church in Acts carrying on with eating meals together. First of all eating and feasting were part of their cultural and religious traditions. A look at the festivals tells us this: Passover, First Fruits, and Purim. All of these festivals revolve around food and eating together as a community, celebrating all the God has given. In fact the very feast that birth to the church, Pentecost, was a harvest festival where after the sacrifices, people ate together. In New Testament times, after temple worship, devout Jewish families shared â€œmeals together as symbolic of their social and spiritual solidarityâ€ (The New Interpreter’s Bible).
Considering the importance of feasts and festivals through out the Old Testament, it’s not all that surprising that Jesus liked to eat too. When I think of Jesus in the Gospels he’s always at someone’s house eating: the wedding of Cana, Simon the Leper’s, Simon the Pharisee, Mary and Martha’s, or Zaccheus’. In fact the religious leaders who didn’t like Jesus accused him of being a wine-bibber and glutton. I always go to the King James for that verse. The newer translations say drunkard, but you just can’t beat wine-bibber when it comes to a good word. So it’s no surprise to see the early church eating together.
Breaking bread together was one of the four hallmarks Luke notes about the first Christians. He says they learned from the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread together, and prayer. And their eating together was not a privatized affair. In the first century, when someone had a dinner party, the room they were in was open to the public, particularly if a famous rabbi, scribe, or Pharisee was there to teach. We see this in Luke 8 where the sinful woman anoints Jesus’ feet. The reason she is able to get in is because the dinner and conversation were open for public hearing. This would probably be the case with the believers meeting at each other’s home, eating, learning, and praying there. More than likely this was done in the room that opened out into the street or the outer courtyard, and whoever wanted to could stop and listen. With the rules of hospitality, it is likely that whoever wanted to eat and join the proceedings were welcome. This was how so many people knew what the early believers were doing and were in awe of them. What they did was in the public eye: both their worship in believers’ home as well as their worship in the temple.
Another thing that would have caught the people’s eyes were that these believers held all things in common. When someone in the community had a need, another family with the resources would help them out. One of the most common needs during that time would be food. In fact, the Hebrew Scriptures are just as emphatic about taking care of the poor as they are about worshiping only Yahweh as God. A verse in Deuteronomy says: â€œWhen you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns.â€ Every third year there would be an extra offering to make sure that those who did not have land–the Levites and resident aliens–and those who did not have a household to protect them–widows and orphans–would be taken care of. This was in addition to the earlier commandment in Deuteronomy for the Israelites not to reap all they had sown, but to leave the edges and some grain and grapes for the widows, orphans, and aliens to harvest, so they too could eat. The Israelites are commanded to take care of those who are immigrants, poor, needy, and those who are without family and without protection from the elements.
The early church made sure its members were taken care of: everyone had a place to stay and everyone ate. They lived out the command to love their neighbors as themselves.
The early church also ate together because most of Jesus’ teachings were over a meal. Jesus had taught and revealed himself to the two disciples in Emmaus through the breaking of bread. Breaking bread together probably also signified these believers remembering the Last Supper. There are a lot of people who would like to have it one way or another. Breaking of bread was a meal or the Last Supper. More than likely, Luke is talking about both. And again as the believers broke bread to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus, others could see what they were doing and hear what they were saying. The locked doors find in the Gospels after Jesus’ death were no more.
Now we can’t go back to how they did things. First of all not many people have a room that opens out to the street or an outer courtyard where people can just stop and listen to what’s going on while a family eats dinner. You have to get past a doorman to even come into our home, or our church for that matter. We are not the open, communal community of first century Palestine. But community–and community that is visual and easily accessible for people passing by–is still a must. How do we do that here in Chicago? How do we form a community that is welcoming and open? How do we shape a community that draws people in and makes them want to stop for a few minutes and listen?
The picture is “Hospitality” by Farid de la Ossa Arrieta