Jesus’ “Bad” Table Manners


Over religious objections, Jesus didn’t insist that his disciples ritually baptize their hands before eating, explaining it’s not what goes into a person but the bad stuff that comes out of a person’s heart that’s the problem.

He transformed jars of water intended for ritual use into wine during a wedding, and, on another occasion, defended his disciples eating grain they gleaned from a field on the Sabbath, despite religious prohibition.

Jesus did not object to an uninvited, “questionable” woman washing his feet during dinner, offending his Pharisee host. On another occasion, he defended Mary listening at his feet while her sister Martha was left to prepare their meal by herself.

He invited himself to the home of the tax collector Zacchaeus, and commonly ate with tax collectors and sinners to the disdain of the truly religious people, who wouldn’t even dine with each other lest they be contaminated by another’s hidden sin.

He indiscriminately fed multitudes with meager resources, declaring the hungry will be blessed and full while those who are full now will be hungry.

In Samaria he asked for water from a woman, multiply married and of a despised minority, and warned his disciples of the leaven of the Pharisees, while comparing the kingdom of heaven to the leaven with which a woman leavens a loaf of bread.

Jesus told kingdom parables of feasts missed by those with privilege because they were unprepared, inattentive, distracted, late, or dressed inappropriately.

He washed the feet of those attending his final meal over the objection of Peter, who apparently wanted to keep his rabbi on a pedestal. And Jesus had the audacity to confront them with the truth—their anticipated betrayal, denial, and abandonment. He was unafraid to spoil their camaraderie with the harsh reality of his impending martyrdom.

The traditional beginning of the Communion story is “On the night that Jesus was betrayed…” But we did more than betray him that night; we denied him multiple times and abandoned him to the “powers that be.” We expressed shock that any of us would desert him, let alone betray him, and we each said, “Is it I, Lord?” Was our fear of authority figures and the awareness of Jesus’ and our vulnerability already palpable at the meal? Regardless, both believers and betrayers were welcome at his table.

Those shaping the story—the oral predecessors of the written Gospels and the Gospel writers themselves—would associate it with Passover, another ritualized meal commemorating salvation, the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt.

Nice touch, giving the meal a religious gravitas and connecting it to Jewish tradition as well as the metaphor of Jesus as the paschal lamb. But I happen to be of the school of thought that this “last supper” was actually a friendship meal that a Teacher would have with his disciples. That could explain the absence of the usual ingredients of a Seder. In my view, that would make it no less vital spiritually then or now.

Jesus gave the meal his own gravitas, declaring the bread as his body and the wine as his blood, a kosher faux pas given that blood was taboo. Earlier in his ministry he had offended and lost a lot of literalist followers when he told them they must eat his flesh and drink his blood to live forever. Jesus must have been a bad influence, because eventually his followers would set aside all dietary restrictions to eat whatever was set before them, in gratitude, even meat offered to idols—as long as it didn’t hinder another’s spiritual growth.

But not long after Jesus, the church at Corinth reintroduced table manners into their observance of Communion. Thus the Corinthians were reprimanded by the apostle Paul that their customary way of serving guests in Greek culture, separating them by class and desirability in different rooms, was failing to recognize the body of Christ—not in the bread, but in the body of believers, who were, he wrote in another context, no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female, but all one in Christ Jesus. The writer of James similarly felt compelled to chasten followers of Jesus who favored “a person with gold rings and in fine clothes” over “a poor person in dirty clothes.”

“You don’t have to be a member of this church or any church to be welcome at this table.” I learned this from my colleagues in Metropolitan Community Churches. Now these table manners, closer to those of Jesus, have spread to other denominations which want to welcome anyone and everyone to the table Jesus offers.

Just as Jesus welcomed everyone, regardless of belief or behavior, class or condition, so we who claim to represent his values to the world are called to do the same.

Visit Chris Glaser’s website here.

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