Guess Who's Invited to Dinner?

The Spiritual and Political Vision of the Table

There is a weekly farmers market in my neighborhood. In addition to the expected vendors of vegetables, baked goods, and meats, there are always two political booths – one for Democrats, the other for Republicans. 

The women at the Democratic table are good friends (and yes, they follow appropriate safety procedures of masks and sanitizing). On market day last week, I stopped by to chat as they distributed signs, handed out campaign literature, and answered election questions. With the election less than three weeks away, the booth was busy – more so than the GOP table in our majority Democratic neighborhood. In quieter moments, we talked about how exhausted we are, and how stressful it all is, and our weariness of anger and division.

At one point, quite a few people arrived to the table at the same time — two black women, an older white woman, and a Muslim family — everyone talking over everyone else. Amid the clamor, the Muslim father and son asked for a sign. The mother, dressed in a black abaya and hijab, hung back slightly. After a little coaxing, however, she joined the rest of us nearer the table. Her eyes lit up as she told us how excited she was to vote. She wanted a Biden button to wear on her robe.

I stepped back to let others help her sort through the buttons – there was a lot of masked laughter and happy chatter. The black women picked up signs to distribute while the proud husband of the Muslim woman talked with the Catholic woman who organizes the table. Black, brown, and white, different religions and secular folks – it was good to be at that table and to sense the joy and energy of those gathered. 

I glanced over at the nearby Republican table. There were about a half-dozen people there, too. But the group was not like the one gathered at our table. Except for a single white woman behind the booth, all were white, middle-aged men. They were also happy to see one another, and they were also laughing. But one couldn’t help but notice – they all looked alike.

Those gathered around the two tables were a microcosm of each party’s demographics – and the polling in advance of the election. Democratic voters are consistently more ethnically and religiously diverse, and more female. White men form the core Republican constituency right now.

But I saw something that went beyond surface political analysis. As I looked at the two tables, I remembered how – when I was younger – I wanted to be at tables with only people who were like me. I feared diversity, imagining that sameness was safe. I shied away from making friends with people who were different, I joined an evangelical church that demanded theological agreement, and I went to a Christian college because I wanted a community of intellectual conformity. If nothing else, the “table” needed to be a safe place – and the only way to ensure that was inviting those who looked the same, thought alike, and believed in the same God. I wanted my tables gated and guarded, I wanted to be both safe and saved.

Eventually, an alternative vision of the table opened before me. The more I read the New Testament, I discovered that Jesus didn’t like closed tables. He invited all sorts of people to join him at dinner, so much so that his critics attacked him for eating and drinking with unacceptable people, calling him “a glutton and a drunkard, the friend of tax-collectors and sinners.” Indeed, the biblical vision of the “heavenly feast,” the Kingdom of God, is a gathering of people from every “tongue, tribe, nation, and people,” a seemingly rowdy assembly of humanity from every background imaginable.

(ROME, ITALY - JUNE 29: "ALL'S Dinner", a big outdoor table to dine together with Christian citizens, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and lay people in the Trastevere district to give an answer against all forms of intolerance and racism. (Photo by Stefano Montesi - Corbis/Getty Images)

Long ago, the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness. In fear and anger, they cried out to God: Can you set a table in the wilderness? That remains a good question. Whenever I feel lost in the wilderness, anxious and worried about the state of the world, I remember that God sets tables in unexpected places, invites unlikely people to dine, and promises that our eternal destiny is a party. God’s business is setting tables.

But a “safe” table isn’t a matter of divine concern. God’s only concern is that guests will be sated.

In the Bible, the table is God’s not ours. God issues invitations willy-nilly without regard of station or status, and God’s seating chart never considers whether guests share any interests at all. The point of the sacred table is that God wants us to eat together. When all are fed and satisfied, we will find ourselves to be friends. Tables become safe when we sit and sup with those different from ourselves – not when we keep others away from the banquet.  

Of course, the Democratic Party is not the Kingdom of God any more than the GOP. My market epiphany wasn’t primarily about politics. Rather, the two tables offered a glimpse of a much larger vision of the tables we imagine in this world and for our communities. Under the guise of our partisanship – no matter which side wins the election – remains a deep spiritual concern: What kind of table do we want to set? Who is invited? Is the table closed or open? Do we trust there is enough for all? 

That instant at the market encapsulated my spiritual journey from a person who once believed the peace of the table was in its conformity — only those who share certain political or cultural or religious orthodoxies deserve a seat — to being a woman who rejoices when even the most unexpected guests join the circle. I’ve come to treasure big tables with lots of chairs.

I kind of wanted to invite the people at the other table to come over, and imagined assuring them that there was nothing to fear. I didn’t expect that they would accept, however. I worried they wouldn’t like those gathered at my table. Perhaps I sold them short. Or maybe I still have to work on my invitation list.


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INSPIRATION:


May you vote as a member of the beloved community envisioned by Dr. King, an inclusive society based on love and justice for all human beings. May you vote not driven by self-interest or party loyalty but to usher in that vision for all people, no exceptions. 
Rabbi Sharon Brous

There are times when wisdom cannot be found in the chambers of parliament or the halls of academia but at the unpretentious setting of the kitchen table. 
― E.A. Bucchianeri

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
—Joy Harjo

Jesus said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
—Luke 14:12-14

On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines.
Isaiah 25:6