Gathered around a set table, guests await their cue to dig in, training their eyes on the one wielding the power to set the feast in motion. Depending on the occasion, it commences with the guest of honor either being served or taking the first bite.
We know this scene well. When we think of feasts, we likely populate the tables of our imaginations with our inner circle—people of a similar life stage, socioeconomic status, ethnic background, and worldview. A look at the feasts of the Bible reveals that in God’s kingdom, such gatherings are the exception, not the norm.
In my third year in China, I once taught about American holidays. As I turned to the chalkboard to write out T-H-A-N-K-S-G-I-V-I-N-G on the board, silent tears fell down my cheek. I wiped them away before turning again to address my class. Thanksgiving was around the corner and, even if I’d been able to find all the items for a feast, I lived alone in my ovenless on-campus apartment, and it wouldn’t have been worth the hassle to prepare a whole meal myself.
Square center at God’s table we find something so often missing at ours: marginalized people who not only have made themselves at home but who occupy seats of honor. From the shared Passover lamb and ungleaned edges of fields to the king who threw a great banquet, feast after feast the Bible normalizes the embrace and inclusion of those at the margins. Inclusion at the table surpassed mere charity; it saw these groups as indispensable fellow celebrants.
At Passover, each household was to prepare a lamb for the meal based on family size and what each person could eat. Tucked away in the instructions was a provision for families too small for their own lamb. The stipulation that no household have leftovers could have burdened the childless, widowed, orphaned, and those otherwise without family. Preempting their feelings of being overlooked and insufficient facing the prospect of procuring—let alone finishing—a lamb on their own, God saw their situation and commanded larger families to make space at their tables. He didn’t stop there.
At the Feast of Firstfruits—Israel’s celebration of the harvest—God’s people were to give the first of their yield back to God in thanksgiving, and landowners were to leave the edges of their fields untouched for the poor and sojourner (Leviticus 23:22). At the Feast of Tabernacles—where Israel dwelt outside in tents for seven days in remembrance of their desert wandering—servants, sojourners, the fatherless, and widows were to be included in the festivities (Deuteronomy 16:14). In Nehemiah, God’s people returned from exile and completed the construction of the new city wall in Jerusalem and then had a public reading from the Law. When they finished with their ceremony, returnees are told to “eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord” (Nehemiah 8:10). How could recipients of such grace as Israel received fail to be channels of it?
Jesus himself likens his kingdom to a great banquet in Luke 14 where, instead of hosting friends and family, those least likely to receive an invitation—the poor, those with disabilities, the blind, and the limping—make up the guest list. Opening your life to and honoring the overlooked, he explains, is how to be blessed. Such an arrangement is not only for the benefit of the guests but for the ultimate benefit of the host as well. Later, when Paul instructs the church in Corinth about taking communion, he has harsh words for them because one goes hungry while another gets drunk. No table where the hungry are not filled could warrant Christ’s name.
After the class I taught on holidays, one student, who’d seen the tears I thought I’d covered up, came up and invited me to his house to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family. It wasn’t their holiday and they could at best only offer to make dumplings for me, their own special holiday tradition. But he didn’t want me to be alone. I spent the afternoon making dumplings alongside them feeling seen, both by my student and by God.
With the world as it is, a pandemic of loneliness, cascading sorrows as conflicts of one sort or another engulf humanity, rampant tribalism, and the proliferation of every discriminatory -ism and phobia the human heart can manufacture, how do we make our tables wide and welcoming? How do we honor those who lack honor in the eyes of the world, look after the overlooked, and invite the “uninvitable?”
We begin with our lives. The breadth of our tables extends from the breadth of our lives. We do not widen our tables by aiming for longer tables, but less insular lives. By widening the margins of our lives, we capture those who would otherwise be outside our field of vision. When we welcome the margins to the fellowship and provision of our tables, we do not just care as proxies for those who never escape God’s notice, but we enter the theater of the divine as viceregents of God who extend to others what has been extended to us.
Cover image by Marc Babin.