This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. (Luke 15: 2b)
Who eats dinner with you? If dine alone, are you keeping company with a favorite TV personality? Are you dining in a public place surrounded by strangers? Jesus was criticized because of the company he chose for dinner companions. We may not always have a choice about who we eat dinner with, but the people with whom we share dinner is as important to our emotional well-being as the food on the plate is to our physical health.
Eating is the one of our most basic needs. Some eat to live. Others live to eat. Most of do a little of each. Throughout history eating has been a community activity. In ancient days it took a village to get something to eat. Teams of hunters brought back what they could find. Others prepared what the hunters foraged.
In my childhood dinner was served at six p.m. sharp. My mother prepared the meal with occasional help from me, as the only daughter in the family. Dinner was always served in the dining room. Dad sat at the head of the table. Mom sat next to him. Each of we three children had our specific places. The order never changed.
There were only exceptions. One was when our parents went out for the evening and we three children were left at home to dine wherever we wanted from frozen three-section aluminum tray meals heated in the oven. The other exception was holidays when the adults ate at the main table and the minors ate at the kids’ table.
In the family I raised we ate whenever most of us made it home from school or work. We ate around a table in the kitchen or in the dining room. It depended on where were living in any given year. I don’t recall any particular seating arrangement. When my husband traveled I lapsed into dining off TV tray tables in front of the girls’ favorite half-hour sit-com. When Dad returned home, they wanted to continue eating in front of the TV. That was the end of TV-dining until they were grown and gone from the family dinner table.
Whenever I’ve lived alone though I generally planned dinner to coincide with my favorite news show. If that didn’t work, I often ate while having a phone conversation with someone else I knew was also living alone.
Over the years I’ve hosted people from a variety of countries and cultures. I especially remember one seminary student from India that we hosted. He politely ate what I placed before him. A few weeks later he presented me with a collection of plastic bags, each containing a spice his wife back in India had sent him. He asked if perhaps he might prepare a meal for us in our kitchen. What he presented for dinner that night was nothing like what we’d served him.
When his wife and four children joined him for the next school year we had a two-family picnic in the park. I brought typical American options – probably potato salad, grapes, fried chicken, and cookies. I don’t speak the language my friend’s wife was speaking to her children. But I understood the tone very well. I’m pretty sure she was saying, “I don’t care if you don’t like it. You will not insult our hosts by making faces. Just try it.”
I suspect that because that’s pretty much what I said to my daughters when they hosted us in their tiny apartment a few weeks later. Warm sodas served with much spicier food than our palates were used to getting reduced me to promising a stop at the ice cream parlor on the way home if they ate what was placed in front them without complaining.
So with whom do you break bread? If I had a magic wand and could do just one thing for our children, I would do this. I would ban televisions and any sort of electronic gadgets from the dinner table. I would have everyone present around one table. The dinner table has the potential to be the classroom of life. Conversations shared over dinner shape values and assumptions. They pass on family history, which helps children feel connected and understand themselves as a generational link in a very long line of people who have come before them. The attitudes we bring to the table reveal underlying issues that need addressing.
We’ve evolved society to the point where too many of us are missing the call to come to the dinner table. There are dozens of reasons for this. It is the way of modern life. None-the-less, eating is one of the most basic human needs. Sharing meals with others is one of our most basic spiritual/emotional needs.
Breaking bread together – with the ones we love – and the ones we want to get to know – is a powerful way to increase compassion and reduce animosity. We are each given 365 evening meals a year to use in any way we choose. That is 365 opportunities to get to know one another better, to be present to one another in ways that feed the spirit while feeding the body.
What a remarkable opportunity awaits us when we sit down to dinner tonight.