A Feast for the World
Each Monday, a few friends from our church don aprons and dish up tasty breakfasts at The Haven, a day shelter for the homeless in our city. You won’t be in The Haven for long, however, before you recognize that it’s more than a soup kitchen catering to the downtrodden. It’s a place where we recognize that all of us, in our own way, are isolated or searching or hungry. In this space, volunteers and guests both give and receive. Everyone serves and everyone eats. The tables where meals and conversations take place are dismantling barriers and creating a new kind of community. With food and joy and friendship, The Haven offers a feast for our city.
The Haven and other places like it are attempts to embody the provocative image Matthew’s gospel presents: the church as a radical new community that takes down every barrier and offers a feast of grace for the entire world. This gospel (which theologian Frederick Bruner has referred to as “The Churchbook”) narrates Jesus’ story, giving particular attention to what it means for the church to be, by the power of the Spirit, the visible body of Christ. The church is a place where all who are hungry and estranged are welcomed, in order to feast on mercy and grace.
In Matthew 15, a trio of stories weave a common thread: a focus on food and eating. In the first (vv. 1-20), religious leaders confront Jesus, angry that his disciples ran roughshod over their tradition by failing to wash their hands before dining. Jesus turned the charge back on the accusers. If we were to paraphrase verses 6-9, we might render the text as, “‘You give scrupulous attention to the many strata of regulations you’ve piled on top of God’s commands,’ Jesus said, ‘but you have ignored the actual command.’”
God had intended Israel to be people of glad-hearted celebration, hosting feasts brimming with food and happiness for everyone. Over the centuries, however, Israel’s religious leaders had concocted inflexible codes meticulously detailing who should eat and who shouldn’t eat, when one should eat and how one should eat. It was exhausting. These troublesome details obscured God’s most basic instruction to the nation: that they were a people of blessing for the rest of humanity. He intended to love and bless the world through Israel. His people were to revel and rejoice and feast on God—and offer their boisterous joy to all who would?have it, to any who were hungry. Instead, the table of welcome and generosity had become a table of exclusion.
My family lived in Clemson, South Carolina, for six and a half years. Being a Texan, I assumed I grasped the concept of football tailgate parties. I was mistaken. A Clemson undergrad’s father, a man referred to (even by his son) as Big Dog, hosted tailgates that were the stuff of legend. One week, after receiving an invitation, I arrived at the location and immediately spotted a colossal grill/smoker combo. It looked like a small NASA satellite hitched to Big Dog’s diesel pick-up truck. He worked over his smoking satellite, frying shrimp and grilling brats. There were fresh-cut fries and ice chests filled with every kind of beverage. Homemade banana pudding arrived as the grand finale. Gathered for the festivities were students and parents, athletes? and bookworms, friends old and new, city dwellers and country folk—everyone laughing and everyone eating. It was, in every way, a feast. This is the type of generosity God intended Israel to offer the world. But they’d lost sight of their calling, and now many were known for their stinginess.
Matthew’s second story (vv. 21-28), uncomfortable as it is, coaxes the stinginess of the religious elites into the open. The author tells us that a Canaanite woman approached Jesus; and those two words (“Canaanite woman”) would have set Matthew’s audience on edge. This was a woman, and as any first-century reader knew, a woman does not approach a man of authority—certainly not a religious teacher. Moreover, she’s a Canaanite woman, and to the Jews, Canaanite was synonym for “outcast, dirty, unacceptable.” Even worse, she came in desperation to beg Jesus’ help for her demon-possessed daughter. Demonic affliction relegated a person to the furthest edge of society—the most unclean of the unclean, the untouchable, those not welcome. It’s as if Matthew wants the religious leaders stretched to their limits. If you think the disciples are unclean, the author suggests, what about this woman?
Matthew doesn’t paint the disciples (and thus himself) in any better light. Bothered by the woman, bothered by the noise and the nuisance, they ask Jesus to brush her aside and send her away. Here, the disciples echo the same withholding mindset as the religious leaders. Stinginess, it would seem, begets stinginess.
Jesus answers the woman with a perplexing statement: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (v. 26). In the culture of the day, children would have been understood as a reference to Jews and dogs to Canaanites. But even here, to our surprise, Jesus shows Himself to be compassionate. Rather than rely on the common word used by Jews toward Gentiles, the Lord refers to the woman as though she were not a stray dog, but a beloved little pet. This subtle and unexpected shift in words would have been noticeable to all who listened, including the woman.
Christ’s love compels us to be broken for the good of others—to live gregarious hospitality and generosity.
Even so, the comment rightfully makes us wince today, but Jesus wants all the cards on the table—He wants all the prejudices lurking under the surface to be plainly evident. The woman doesn’t blink but simply answers, “Even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table” (v. 27). And Jesus’ true heart erupts, delighted at this woman’s courage and faith, even in the face of the culture’s ridicule and bigotry toward her kind. Matthew concludes this story with what he intends to highlight: Jesus flaunting outrageous generosity. The Lord healed the woman’s daughter instantly and without hesitation—despite their status as unclean “outsiders.” Jesus was quick to welcome the woman and her distressed daughter to His table—His response communicating the simple but profound truth: “You are wanted here.”
On the mornings when I take my sons to school, I ask them how they’d like me to pray. Each time, our youngest, Seth, offers a version of the same request. “Dad, pray for everyone who needs food and everyone who needs money. Pray that they will get all they need.” I’ve been tempted to think this prayer too vague and broad. However, I’ve come to see Seth’s appeal as a true expression of his heart. My son knows there’s a lot broken in our world, a lot of hunger and a lot of pain, much emptiness. And Seth wants God to intervene for all, providing everything they need.
Matthew proclaims that this lavish, broad generosity is precisely what God has done for the world in Jesus, and what Jesus now intends to do in the world through his church. Chapter 15’s third story (vv. 29-39) explodes the stingy posture of the earlier two, offering an emphatic exclamation mark for God’s generosity. Jesus moved to the mountainside, with a large crowd in tow: the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute—in other words, precisely those the religious leaders excluded and the ones Jesus’ own disciples pushed away.
What’s more, the gathered were hungry. There were thousands of them and they had nothing to eat. Jesus instructed the disciples to scrape together whatever they could find. In total, seven loaves of bread and a few fish—nothing more. He took the bread, blessed and broke it, and offered it to the throng. Miraculously, everyone ate. And ate. As much as they could, as much as they wanted. Matthew concludes simply: “they all ate and were satisfied” (v. 37). Those who came empty were filled. Disciple and destitute alike, clean and those considered unclean—all filled, all satisfied.
We mustn’t overlook that the central metaphor Jesus gave his church for remembering, enacting, and living the gospel is a table: a meal, the bread and the cup. This table is a banquet of grace— one not cordoned off for those stuffed with goodness but widely offered to all who are familiar with emptiness. The table isn’t restricted to the pristine few but is open to the many who are tarnished and scuffed, to the weak and the sick. Jesus’ table is for all. Matthew’s description of Jesus’ blessing and breaking bread for the crowd evokes what happens each time we gather at the Lord’s generous table and give thanks for His gift: His body broken for the sake of love. However, the table is not only the place we gather but also the way we are sent. The table models the kind of people Jesus created us to be. His love compels us to be broken for the good of others—to live gregarious hospitality and generosity. We offer a seat at the table to all who are hungry or lonely or confused. We love all who are unlovely. We offer a place of wide welcome, gathered in by Jesus’ cross and resurrection.
The first Sunday of each month, our church hosts a meal. Seven-year-old Seth loves the food but also the conversation and laughter, all the love he soaks up in those spaces. Seth recently asked, “Dad, do we have the feast this Sunday?” Yes, we do, Seth. We have it, and we give it. We live it.
The article was selected from In Touch magazine.
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