Recently, I was sitting at the local ice cream parlor with my wife and some friends when in walked another family we all knew.
My friend Joe immediately got up, went over to an unused table and began to move it and the accompanying chairs to expand our table and include the incoming family. Now, there was ample room for all three families to sit, enjoy our ice cream and visit with each other.
Jesus expanded the table
Much of Jesus’ ministry centers around the table. Jesus had meals with Matthew and his despised friends, the heinous tax collector Zacchaeus, and the confused men from Emmaus. He ate with everyone from the religious elite to the commoners who followed him. He shared stories to illustrate the inclusiveness of the prodigal son at his father’s celebration to the wedding banquet open to all who might come to the festivities.
One of the most significant events of Passion Week is the commemoration of Passover, where Jesus gathers with his disciples and instructs his followers to continue the practice of remembrance and consecration at the table. Even after his resurrection, the Gospel writers make sure to validate Jesus as a living being who eats with his disciples from the Upper Room to the seashore.
The table matters, and the table of Jesus expands to include all who are willing to join him.
Us vs. them
Yet, while Jesus expands the table to include all, so many tout that they follow Jesus while refusing others. An us-versus-them mentality says if you are not like “us” then you are not welcome at the table. This exclusivist view appears to be most prevalent in fundamentalist circles that seek to preserve their version of the truth at the expense of welcoming others to the table.
Examples are far too numerous:
- Women are refused leadership roles as staff members, elders, deacons and teachers.
- LGBTQ individuals are not welcome in the doors of churches out of fear that they will pervert teens or draw other members away from a perceived truth.
- Religious leaders seek to gain political influence to draw Americans back to their slanted view of the founding of our country.
- White evangelicals deny the ongoing, systemic aspects of racism that remain embedded in our society.
- People refuse the data proposed by the medical and scientific community of the life-threatening dangers of the pandemic and of climate-control.
- Pro-lifers claim their opponents do not value life and misrepresent that they favor killing babies.
- Vocal parents advocate that certain books should be banned from school libraries and curriculum should not be taught because its content does not align with their beliefs.
Ultra-conservatives are not the only table shrinkers, though. If progressives, moderates and liberals are not intentional, they can be just as prejudicial. Egalitarians can refuse complementarians the very equality they advocate for. LGBTQ advocates can be intolerant and impatient with those who reach an accepting but not affirming position. The attempt to address racial inequality can lead to vitriol and hatred for the prejudged. Adherents to science can scorn the unbelieving as ignorant and uncaring. Blame can be placed on others, ignoring our own personal culpability for the struggles and cultural problems in our country.
“Ultra-conservatives are not the only table shrinkers, though. If progressives, moderates and liberals are not intentional, they can be just as prejudicial.”
It is easy to become desensitized to the complexities of care for the unborn, the immigrant, and others who are marginalized.
Another kind of ‘conversion therapy’
Perhaps more than ever, we live in a polarized country where everything is deemed a political topic. The value of pluralism is overshadowed by attempts to convert the perceived ignorant, misguided and wayward to the way of “truth” (at least our view of it, which is oftentimes proposed to be God’s view as well).
When this happens, “conversion therapy” becomes the answer to all of society’s ills, seeking to change people from who they are to make them like “us.” Failure to successfully convert the immoral to the light of a corrected viewpoint results in a witch hunt to dismiss, defame and destroy their credibility, character and careers.
Dismissiveness of the value of diversity is like the archaic TV tubes of the 1950s that broadcast a very colorful world but only in visible black and white.
However, this is not new or exclusive to the modern society. In fact, throughout his ministry, Jesus regularly encountered religious and political tensions. Yet Jesus had a tremendous ability to answer his opponents with principle over practice.
For example, instead of choosing sides between the views of rabbis Hillel and Shammai, Jesus spoke of the importance of marriage and the union of a couple as one. Instead of identifying among his disciples who would sit in the places of honor, Jesus taught the principle of servant leadership. Instead of being an arbitrator regarding the inheritance of brothers, Jesus taught of the frivolousness of storing up earthly treasures. Instead of debating the importance of paying taxes, Jesus emphasized giving to God what belongs to the Lord.
“Throughout his ministry, Jesus expanded the table.”
Throughout his ministry, Jesus expanded the table.
Advocates, adversaries and allies
In our culture, there are two prominent positions on the major issues of our day: 1) Advocate: An advocate is one who makes a stand, argues for a position and seeks to right the injustices in our land. 2) Adversary: An adversary is one who stands in opposition to the advocate, desiring to keep things as they are or return them to a former position of an idealized past. There are times when each of us must make a stand as an advocate or an adversary.
However, there is a third option, which is underemphasized in our society today: Being an ally. An ally does not have to agree on the issue. An ally is not necessarily an advocate for or an adversary against a particular perspective. In fact, you might leave the table without even knowing what an ally believes about the discussion because he or she is much more concerned about the people involved than the issues debated.
An ally does not accept the internal or external pressure to try to change the position of another person. An ally emphasizes inclusion at the table. An ally follows Jesus’ example of making safe space for others, regardless of their position. An ally does not just tell someone they can pull up a chair if they want to, squeezing them into an uncomfortable space; rather, an ally expands the table to make room for all who come in the door.
I’m convinced if the church would practice the art of expanding the table, we would find value in each other and our kaleidoscope of diversity. If we began to pray with others, eat with others and truly listen to others, we would see that even in our differences we have much to learn from and appreciate about each other.
If we became allies of one another more than advocates or adversaries to each other’s positions, we would find a greater humanity and cultivate a healthier society.
Jesus made sure even Judas had a seat at his table. If Jesus welcomes his own betrayer, maybe we should be table expanders too.
Patrick Wilson has served as a pastor for 25 years in Dallas and Austin, Texas, and most recently in in Rolla, Mo., where he currently is building a new table through a church plant. He is a graduate of Baylor University, earned two master’s degrees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry degree from Logsdon Seminary.
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