Jesus’ Favorite Piece of Furniture: The Table and Mission

by JR Woodward

It’s the place we come when we are hungry and thirsty. It’s the place where we experience laughter and tears, where we share stories, surprises, and secrets. It’s the place where families are formed and community deepened.  It’s the place where there is opportunity for honest conversation, where words that are shared shape who we are and who we are becoming.

It’s the place that missional people need to be – the table.

I find it fascinating that the story of God starts with a picnic and ends with a feast. The climax of the story is Jesus. And the table is the most used piece of furniture in his life.

Jesus Taught at the Table

It was at the dinner table of the Pharisees that we find the town harlot anointing Jesus’ feet, with a very expensive bottle of perfume, as well as her kisses. And when the religious leaders murmured about the harlot, Jesus told them a story about the table, at the table. He tells them, when someone invites you to dinner, don’t sit in the place of honor, because if someone more important than you arrives, the host may have to call you out in front of everybody and re-seat you to a less honorable place at the table. Where people sat at the table spoke to their rank in society.

Jesus is teaching them table manners when in essence He says, “Don’t just invite your friends and those with a lot of money to your dinner parties, invite the people from the other side of the tracks.” Jesus understood that one of the best places for those with, and those without, to find reconciliation was at the table. For it is at the table that strangers can become friends, and wrongs can be made right.

Jesus Trained at the Table

When the disciples wanted to disperse the crowds because they didn’t have enough food, Jesus told them to feed the five thousand. In other words, prepare a picnic out of your need, not out of your access. Jesus can take the little we have and multiply it to more than we can imagine. When Jesus is present in our lives, we don’t need to have a scarcity mentality; we can have a mindset of abundance that leads to generosity.

Jesus engages in discipleship at the table. Because people sat by rank in that day, every time they sat at the table they argued about who is the greatest. Jesus, who understood who He was and where He came from, was comfortable with any seat. He not only taught the disciples that those who are great are servants and the greatest is the least, but He lived it out.

As they were at the table, each with dirty feet, nobody felt secure enough in who they were to get up and wash feet. For this is the job of the servants, and typically the lowest ranked servant. So what did Jesus do? Knowing that discipleship is more about imitation than instruction, He gets up from the table and starts washing His disciples feet.

Jesus Extended the Table

Jesus loved extending the table to those whom religious leaders and society had dismissed and damned–the tax collectors and “sinners”. Jesus accepts invitations to dinner parties where many disreputable people could be found, and He even invites Himself to dine at the table of Zacchaeus, who was a crook. For Jesus, the table wasn’t limited to the temple, and those who went to the temple. He took the table to “the unclean”, because He knew it was the sick that need a doctor. Jesus knew that mission is best done at the table.

In addition, when He went to the temple, He didn’t go to set the table, but to overturn the table. Jesus used the table over and over again in His ministry. But when He went to the temple, the center of religious life, He turned the table upside down.

This action not only acted as a worship corrective, but an economic corrective. The money changers were the first century banks, and they were being used by the ruling elite to feed their appetite for more off the backs of those who had little. Jesus turned the tables over because His ministry trajectory was reflected in Mary’s Song: “He knocked tyrants off their high horses, pulled victims out of the mud. The starving poor sat down to a banquet; the callous rich were left out in the cold” (Luke 1: 52-53).

Jesus consistently indicts those who gain their wealth unscrupulously or hoard wealth ungenerously. It is easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into heaven. Jesus loved rich people too much to abandon them to a shallow life. He wanted them to experience the riches of community and meaning of mission by extending the table to those who couldn’t not repay. This is why Len Sweet says, “Jesus was killed because of his table talk and his table manners–the stories to told and the people he at with.”[1] Thus, we have the last supper that takes place at the table.

So what are you doing at the table? Are you just eating? Or are you living on mission? Mission isn’t about creating a lot of new things to do, but learning to be present to God and others in our everyday life.

 

[1] Leonard Sweet, From Tablet to Table: Where Community is Formed and Identity Found, p. 6.

 

JR Woodward (@Dreamawakener) is a church planter, activist, missiologist, and author of Creating a Missional Culture and co-author of The Church as Movement. He co-founded Kairos Los Angeles, the Ecclesia Network, and Missio Alliance. He currently serves as national director for the V3 Church Planting Movement. He serves locally at the District Church in Washington DC and is pursuing a PhD at the University of Manchester (U.K.)