I feel guilty. Today was Vicky’s seventh birthday. We always let our children decide the menu on their birthdays. Vicky chose spaghetti for lunch. And I wasn’t there to eat it with her and the family. I was in my office at the church building doing last minute preparation for the Grace Assembly. At tea-time she wanted to eat pizza at the Zoom Play Centre. I wasn’t there. I was still sitting at the computer. I’m sorry Vicky. Daddy let you down.
To be fair to myself, today was unusual. There aren’t many days when I don’t eat with the family. One of the blessings of being a full-time pastor is that much of the time I can work at home. And since our children are home-schooled, they’re at home too. So most days I can be with them for at least one main meal. At lunch-time, tea-time, or both, we’ll all be sitting round the table together. There aren’t many families that can say that. If the figures are to be believed, fewer and fewer people ever eat a meal sitting at a table, let alone sitting together as a family.
The Telegraph published today the results of an online poll. Apparently, of the 500 people polled, “fewer than one in five said they ate at the dining or kitchen table ‘one or two meals a week’ compared to 13 per cent who did once a day. Almost one in three people admitted eating at the dining table only a ‘few times a year’, four per cent never did while three per cent of respondents do not even own a table”. Instead people “eat on the go, or consume takeaways in front of the television”.
Earlier studies have suggested that “around one-in-10 adults in the UK never eat a meal with their children and another 10 per cent only share dinners once a week”.
Does it matter? Yes I think it does. Sharing meals with other people is important. And that includes eating meals with other family members. Not just on birthdays but all the year round.
Shared meals in Bible times
The Bible puts a tremendous emphasis on shared meals. Remember, most of the sacrifices offered in the Old Testament were opportunities for people to eat with one another – and with the Lord. The best part of the slaughtered animal was offered on the altar to the Lord. Other parts were reserved for the priests to share and the rest was eaten by the worshippers together.
Shared meals were a key element in the three great festivals that God commanded the Israelites to keep each year. In fact, they were often simply called “the feasts”. The Feast of First-Fruits or Pentecost was an opportunity for people to enjoy together the first crops gathered from the fields. The Feast of Tabernacles was a giant banquet to celebrate the full harvest. And of course the Feast of Passover had its climax in a meal where each household devoured a roast lamb. Elkanah and his family went to the festival at Shiloh each year (1 Samuel ch 1). It was a tragic evidence of his wife Hannah’s misery, that she couldn’t even enjoy the family meal.
The gospels are full of descriptions of shared meals. There’s not one account of Jesus eating a meal alone. Did he ever? But there are scores of references to him eating with other people: with the circle of the Twelve; in the homes of friends like Martha and Mary; at banquets – whether organised by Pharisees or by tax-collectors; in Zacchaeus’s home, and of course with crowds of four or five thousand. His last evening with his disciples was spent round a meal-table. He looked forward to it intensely: “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer…” (Luke 23:15). After the resurrection he joined two heartbroken disciples at their supper-table (Luke 24:28-30); ate with his disciples in the upstairs room (Luke 24:42-43) and cooked breakfast for them by the lakeside (John 21:9-15).
More than that, Jesus used the picture of a meal again and again to help his hearers to imagine the joys and glories of his kingdom. “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of God” (Matthew 8:11). He told a parable about a man who invited guests to a feast; when they failed to arrive, he sent out messengers to bring in folk from the highways and byways. (Luke 14:12-25). That was his way of picturing the work of evangelism: we invite people to come and share together in a wonderful meal. At the last Supper he promised his disciples that he would eat with them on the other side of death, in the kingdom of God – and that that meal would be the fulfilment of all that the Passover pointed to (Luke 22:16).
What about the churches founded by Jesus’s apostles? From the beginning, shared meals were a central part of their life: “Day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46). Paul had to warn the Corinthians that they were abusing their fellowship meals: some members went hungry, others got drunk. (1 Corinthians 11:20-22). But he didn’t suggest that they should stop holding the meals: they were so central to church life that that was unthinkable. Paul rebuked Peter to his face when Peter withdrew from eating meals with Gentiles (Galatians 2:12).
So the Bible talks a lot about shared meals. I’ve only referred to a few out of hundreds of references. But why does the Bible stress this so strongly? What would I be missing if I never ate meals with my family or with other folk? Why is eating together so important? Let me suggest three answers to that question.
Sharing our humanity
When we eat with other people, we are letting them see that we are just as human as they are. We’re admitting that we are not self-sufficient, superhuman beings. What are we? We are creatures made out of the dust of the ground: we only survive by eating the food which the ground produces, whether it comes to us directly as plants, or indirectly as meat from slaughtered animals. That’s the way God created us to be. The need to eat didn’t start with the fall. From the beginning, Adam and Eve were dependent on the earth to sustain their bodies. And that’s the way it will be as long as we are in this world.
Eastern gurus like to pretend to their followers that they can live for months or years without food. They want others to believe that by the power of their will they can rise above human appetites and needs. They’re claiming to be superhuman. Likewise, emperors and dictators who want to be worshipped as gods by their subjects will avoid eating in front of them. To do so would be to expose their own humanness. But Jesus was different. He was not afraid to let people see that he was truly human, that he had a body like ours and needed to eat. He told his disciples about the forty days he had spent in the wilderness and how hungry he had become. And he sat down and ate with them: they saw that he needed food just as they did. When I eat with my children I’m saying to them, “Though I am your father, the head of this home, I’m still just a human being with the same needs as you”. When I eat with my friends, I’m saying, “I don’t need to pretend – I’m letting you see that I’m a man just like you”.
Will we need to eat in the world to come? Did the Lord Jesus need to eat after the resurrection? We know he did, but did he have to? Answer: I don’t know. But I’m sure that when he ate with his disciples after the resurrection, they knew what it meant. He was saying to them, “I’m still a man, still flesh and bones. My body is still a body made out of the dust of the ground, however wonderfully it’s been changed. I’m still one of you.”
The shared meals of the church in Corinth became an opportunity for some people to show off their wealth and social status. They became an occasion for pride. But shared meals should have the opposite effect. They should be an expression of humility. As we eat together, we’re all confessing our dependence, our shared humanness.
Expressing our friendship
When we eat with other people, we are expressing our trust in them and our commitment to them. Throughout the Bible, once you’ve shared a meal with someone, you owe them loyalty and friendship. That was one reason why Judas’s betrayal was so despicable: “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me!” (Psalm 41:9). When Jethro decided to make common cause with the Israelites, “Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law before God…” (Exodus 18.12): that was the token that they accepted him and that he was committed to them. When David had finally brought the ark of the covenant, he “distributed among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins to each one…” (2 Samuel 6:19). He wanted the whole nation to express its unity by eating a common meal. When the Lord sent a man of God to rebuke the wicked king of Israel, he told him that he must not “eat bread or drink water in this place” (1 Kings 13:8). To do so would be to align himself with the wicked king and rebellious nation. Sharing a meal implies friendship.
Yes of course, we may eat a meal with someone and it can be a pretence: a show of friendship that we don’t feel. But we still use shared meals as a way of assuring people that we want their friendship. If I have to discuss a difficult situation with someone and I know they’re wary of me, and that it may be a tense discussion, I may well suggest we meet over a meal. I’m assuring them that we’re meeting as friends.
Finding pleasure together
When we eat with other people, we are sharing a pleasure with them. Eating is one of life’s great pleasures. It is something that we can all enjoy. Of course, if I eat on my own, I can enjoy my food and give thanks to God for it. But God did not create me to seek pleasure only for myself. He created me to love my neighbour as myself and to seek his or her pleasure. And that’s what I’m doing when I share a meal with other people. I’m saying, “it’s as important to me that you should have this pleasure, as that I should. I want to see you enjoying this good gift from God”. A man who eats alone is doing so only for his own pleasure. A man who eats with others is sharing their pleasure and letting them share his.
I should add that I can’t think of any other activity that has the same significance. What could take the place of eating as an opportunity for sharing pleasure with all sorts of people? Some have suggested that TV has become an effective substitute: “..millions of British families now spend more time relaxing in the living room in front of the television than they do sitting at the dining room table chatting about their day… A feeling that watching the same shows together gave them ‘something to talk about’ amid a ‘shared experience’ was explained as the reason for the shift.” (Daily Telegraph, Feb 2011). But not everyone enjoys watching TV. Not everyone enjoys hill-walking, or listening to Mahler, or playing Monopoly. Eating is the only activity I can think of that everyone enjoys. Unless a person is physically ill, or – like Hannah – emotionally disturbed, he or she will find pleasure in food. It may require a lot of thought and effort to plan a meal that everyone present will enjoy but that’s part of the challenge of loving our neighbours. If I eat alone, the only person’s tastes I need to consider are my own. If I eat with others, I have to consider their pleasure too.
What are we losing?
If the researchers are right, shared meals are becoming a thing of the past, at least in the UK. People eat a sandwich in the car or at their desk. They snack in their bedrooms. They get up from the sofa when they’re peckish, get something out of the freezer, heat it up in the microwave, and return to the sofa. They get a burger from a van and eat it in the street. What are the consequences when people stop eating together, especially as families?
Social analysts are beginning to be alarmed as they trace the consequences of the decline in shared meals in the home and elsewhere. Let me quote some further recent newspaper reports…
“Boys and girls are growing up lacking the ability to make conversation with adults, share ideas and use good manners because of a drop in old-fashioned dining arrangements, it is claimed. Richard Harman, chairman of the Boarding Schools Association, said a decline in family dinners had also coincided with increased access to high-fat convenience food.
The comments come just days after research revealed that children from families who regularly gather around the dinner table tend to eat more fruit and vegetables than those who shun traditional meals….”
“Researchers at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, found that children were healthier and less likely to be overweight in households where families eat together around the dining table…”
“A decline in “knees under the table” dinners has coincided with a rise in the “snacking all day culture”, it was claimed. Prue Leith, chairman of the School Food Trust, insisted that schools had a duty to intervene to help children learn about the benefits of healthy eating because many families failed to impose a decent diet… children will inevitably succumb to the blandishments of the chip, crisp and chocolate manufacturers, who have massive marketing budgets and know how to sell sand to Bedouins…”
These reports are highlighting loss of social skills, loss of healthy eating habits, loss of regular routine. We could add other obvious consequences. A family – or any other group – eating round a table talk, and may talk at length about all sorts of serious matters. You can’t do that while watching TV together or going to a football match together. It’s not easy doing that while you’re climbing a hill in the Lake District together. For many families, meal times are the only times when a family will really talk. And it’s very often the family meal that forces the family members to sort out their differences. Two children – or a husband and wife – may have been sulking silently, refusing to have anything to do with one another all day. But when they sit down and look one another in the eye, the ice begins to melt. They begin to speak to one another, if it’s only to say, “pass the salt, please”, or “thank you, that was very nice”. It’s difficult to stay angry with your sister or your marriage partner if you’re eating a meal together. I suspect that it’s sharing meals that has enabled many marriages to survive and many families to function.
Christian families, Gospel churches
At every meal we give thanks to God. Children – and their parents – are reminded that “all good gifts around us are sent from heaven above”.
Parents and children talk together in a natural way about what they’ve been doing, what they’ve been planning, what books they’ve been reading, what problems they’ve encountered, how the day has gone. And they view all those things from a Christian perspective. Even if the Bible is never quoted explicitly all the members of the family are learning to think about all of life in the light of God’s Word.
Often, the family – if it takes seriously God’s commands about hospitality – will be joined by visitors at the meal-table. And those visitors enrich the life of the whole family. I trust my children will always remember some of the stories they’ve heard round the meal-table – stories of God’s grace, of remarkable conversions, of wonderful providences.
And for many Christian families, the meal-table is the best opportunity for family worship. There may be no other opportunity in the day for the whole family to read the Scriptures together, to sing a hymn, to pray. But before the family gets up from the meal-table and scatters, Dad can reach for the Bible, read a passage and ask God’s protection and blessing on the whole family.
Shared meals can become a great means of grace to a Christian family. And if that’s true for the natural family, it’s true too for the New Covenant family – the gospel church. We quoted above some of the passages which highlight the importance of shared meals within the local church. Whether it’s a few church members enjoying a barbecue together on a pleasant summer evening, or an organised “bring and share meal” for the whole fellowship, Christians are bound together as they eat together.
And finally don’t forget. Sharing a meal with unconverted folk may provide the most natural context in which to talk to them about the gospel. What was the first thing Levi the tax-collector did after he was called by the Lord Jesus? He invited all his tax-collector friends to a meal where they could meet Jesus (Luke 5:29).
Shared meals are important. I hope you agree? And if you don’t, well that’s OK. We can have a chat about it – over a meal.