How different my dog was from Jesus!
Some years ago we had a black Labrador Retriever who was as good natured as a dog can be. But Zion (named for the national park, not for the place in the Bible!) ate like… Well, she ate like a dog. We would put what looked to us like a huge portion of dog food in her dish, and without pausing to breathe, Zion would gulp it down almost in a single bite. She never paused for conversation or petting. She never looked up. She was simply a canine version of a Hoover vacuum.
How different from Jesus! In the Gospels we see him, with some regularity, lying on his side, enjoying a good long meal with his friends. Over and over again we read that Jesus was reclining at table. Sometimes he reclines with sinners and sometimes with saints, but, either way, we get the picture of a Middle Eastern feast where the food is sumptuous and the wine, abundant. In fact, the naysayers of Jesus were a bit offended at the culinary habits of the Son of God, calling him a drunkard and a glutton (Matthew 11:19).
Have you ever thought about the significance of sharing a meal? Have you considered what it means to eat and the importance of what we might call eating rituals? Hear what Leon Kass has to say:
Eating may be a humble subject, but it is not trivial matter. It is the first and most urgent activity of all animal and human life. We are… only because we eat. Much of human life is, in practice, organized around this necessity. Enormous time and energies are poured into growing, harvesting, rearing, butchering, preserving, packaging, storing, transporting, stocking, selling, buying, preparing, cooking, and consuming food.
Kass, who trained as a medical doctor and biochemist, spent his life teaching literature and philosophy at the University of Chicago. And he has written a book on the philosophy of eating!The title of the book is worth its price:The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature—and the author is absolutely serious. Kass believes—and argues persuasively—that the way we eat is dreadfully important. In fact, the way we eat distinguishes us from the animals. Our eating rituals civilize us. Table manners distinguish us from the barbarians and lead to a wealth of human relations. Indeed, our eating is what makes us human beings.
Eating makes the world go ’round, but eating is about far more than eating! Jesus said, Man does not live by bread alone… and we might add that we rarely want to eat our bread alone. Sure we may fuel in the morning before work or wolf down a sandwich for lunch. But something in us knows that fast food separates the milk from the cream. Solitary eating is functional but not fruitful. It is in the togetherness of dining that we find the filling of our hungry soul.
As essential to life as eating is, consider that it is, nevertheless, a learned activity. A baby feeds at his mother’s breast, and even that has to be learned. Soon that same baby is fed real food—and it’s a mess. The little creature hardly seems to care that some green goo is in her hair, all over her face, on her baby-chair, and perhaps even in her mouth. Sippy cups and soft spoons are the tools of toddlers as they become civilized in the art of eating.
Later, these little barbarians are invited to eat with the grown-ups, with Mom and Dad at the dinner table. There these littler people learn the customs of their time: chew with your mouth closed, use your napkin, don’t reach, don’t stare. At the dinner table they participate in something larger than eating. They are becoming bona fide members of the family. They pass the potatoes and learn to like—or at least tolerate—their vegetables. They are taught to finish the portion they received. But even more is going on. At the table the children are learning about life. They join in conversation. They wait their turn to speak, learn to ask questions, welcome the visitor, and bring their own friends to this daily celebration called dinner. Kass puts it this way:
As in other matters the social setting becomes a stage on which individuals display their character, virtuous or not. The common meal is such a stage, and the relevant virtues and vices are well known, even if little discussed these days. The first cardinal virtue of the table is temperance or moderation.
Recently The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial on the importance of family meals. The essay lamented the fact that the dinner hour is increasingly squished into twenty or fewer minutes. Youth sports, dual-career parents, music lessons, etc., are taking their toll on this traditional Sabbath-rest that once marked the transition from the day of work to the evening hours.
But even as the dinner hour grows shorter, the Journal reports that the benefits of families eating together are astounding. Among those benefits are better grades, healthier body weight, lower rates of cigarette and alcohol use, stronger relationships with parents, and better overall mental health (WSJ, 9/17). And these benefits accrue even if the evening meal is exceedingly brief.
Lisa and I are empty nesters now. Our kids are gone, and they are dining in their own way. As we look back on those busy years of having three teenagers in our home, we are thankful that we made dinner together a daily sacrament. We decided that no matter how busy we all were, no matter how short the dining experience, and no matter how much was still to come after dinner, we would eat together. If our evening meal was ten minutes long, then we would make it the best ten minutes of the day. If our dinner bled into an hour-long repose, all the better.
Parents of young children and parents of teenagers, learn from Jesus and not from our dog Zion. To borrow from the language of the ESV, recline at table with your children. It will be good for them and good for you. Let your evening meal, regardless of how short or long, be a digital-free zone without tweets or texts. Look one another in the eyes and inquire about the activities of the day. Laugh, pray, talk, discuss, cry. This is your daily bread… to be shared together.
In the Bible, the church is often pictured as people having a meal together. In all four Gospels, a last supper is the earthly climax in the life of Jesus. Our Lord has one final meal with his friends before his coming ordeal. Then, when he is raised from the dead, the disciples find him at the breakfast table in Galilee! One of the four distinctive practices of the early church was that of breaking bread together, and the Second Coming of Jesus is described as themarriage supper of the Lamb! In fact, in the pages of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, there is a whole lot of eating going on!
So let’s practice now for what we’ll be doing for eternity. Let us eat together. Slowly. Invite to your home or apartment people who are like you and people who are not-like-you. Invite those who are married and not married, young and old. Set the table, recline, and fill your soul to the brim.