By John D. Pierce

Anthony Bourdain’s tragic death has drawn attention to how he not only enjoyed the exotic food he encountered while filming his CNN show but how comfortably and deeply he engaged those with whom he shared a table.

Such observations reminded me of an insight gained during my early pursuits in biblical studies. It is something lost in a culture of fast food, power lunches and closed communions.

Table fellowship — during the time and place of Jesus — was a most intimate experience. And social/religious restrictions abounded about what one could or could not eat — as well as with whom one could share a meal.

However, Jesus, like Bourdain, reveled in breaking down such barriers by taking a seat and passionately consuming food and drink without regard to social expectations.

As kids, we often sang about the wee little man Zacchaeus — a despised tax collector who kept his hands in everybody’s pocket. Our focus is often on his changed heart. But we shouldn’t miss the fact that Jesus invited himself to the scandalous little jerk’s home — before the conversion — where surely they dined together.

Gospel writer Luke reports: “ All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner’” (Luke 19:7 NIV).

This was no isolated criticism. Jesus was often upsetting the powerful religious know-it-alls with his eagerness to dine with those considered to be “sinners,” meaning the socially outcast or religiously unclean.

Surely troubling to the religious elitists of his time, and generally ignored by religious elitists today, is Jesus’ parable of the great feast (Luke 14:15-24) which — no matter how one rationalizes it otherwise — warns that those who think they are favored by God are likely to find someone else in their seats at the big meal of eternity.

So it is not far fetched to claim that Jesus was put on the cross due to his dining habits. He kept knocking down “MEMBERS ONLY” signs, widening the table of hospitality and pulling in more mismatched chairs.

Those of us who’ve only known a parental rebuke for putting our elbows on the table have a hard time grasping the radical nature of Jesus’ dining habits — and the outrage he created among the religious/political structure that retained its power through force and claims of superiority, while avoiding contamination from the least of these.

Most of us simply play it safe and don’t get into the right kind of trouble.

Oh, we’ll say grace over our meal with familiar faces — but rarely dare to extend grace beyond the safe and same.

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