Table Manners

by Barbara Brown Taylor

Barbara Brown Taylor teaches at Piedmont College in Demorest, Ga.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 11, 1998, page 257; copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


People saw him eating and they knew who he was: someone who had lost all sense of what was right, who condoned sin by eating with sinners and who might as well have spit in the faces of the good people who raised him.

P>I saw them eating and I knew who they were. That is a Middle Eastern proverb that Jesus probably knew. It does not make much sense in our own age of fast food and family suppers around the tube, but in Jesus’ day what you ate and whom you ate it with were critical matters.

This was especially true among the Jews, for whom eating together was -- literally -- a religious experience. To eat together was to celebrate their faith, which included very specific rules about what happened around the table. Cleanliness was paramount: clean food, clean dishes, clean hands, clean hearts. A proper Jewish meal was a worship service in which believers honored God by sanctifying the most ordinary details of their lives.

Jesus offended a lot of people with his table manners. He ignored the finger bowl by his plate. He ate whatever was put in front of him. He thought nothing of sitting down to eat with filthy people whose lives declared their contempt for religion. People saw him eating and they knew who he was: someone who had lost all sense of what was right, who condoned sin by eating with sinners and who might as well have spit in the faces of the good people who raised him.

In those days, sinners fell into five basic categories: people who did dirty things for a living (such as pig farmers and tax collectors), people who did immoral things (such as liars and adulterers), people who did not keep the law up to the standards of the religious authorities (such as you and me), Samaritans and gentiles.

So if I were putting together a sinners table at the Huddle House, it might include an abortion doctor, a child molester, an arms dealer, a garbage collector, a young man with AIDS, a Laotian chicken plucker, a teenage crack addict, and an unmarried woman on welfare with five children by three different fathers. Did I miss anyone? Don’t forget to put Jesus at the head of the table, asking the young man to hand him a roll, please, and offering the doctor a second cup of coffee before she goes back to work.

If that offends you even a little, then you are almost ready for what happens next. Because what happens next is that the local ministerial association comes into the restaurant and sits down at a large table across from the sinners. The religious authorities all have good teeth and there is no dirt under their fingernails. When their food comes, they hold hands to pray. They are all perfectly nice people, but they can hardly eat their hamburger steaks for staring at the strange crowd in the far booth.

The chicken plucker is still wearing her white hair net, and the garbage collector smells like spoiled meat. The addict cannot seem to find his mouth with his spoon. But none of those is the heartbreaker. The heartbreaker is Jesus, sitting there as if everything were just fine. Doesn’t he know what kind of message he is sending? Who is going to believe he speaks for God if he does not keep better company than that? I saw them eating and I knew who they were.

While this seems to be a different story from the one about the man with two sons (Luke 15:11-32), it really is not. The 15th chapter of Luke begins with a complaint about Jesus table manners. "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them," the religious authorities grumble, and everything that follows is Jesus’ reply to them.

Jesus seems to understand the man with two sons, who cannot get his family to sit down at the same table either. The younger son is so warped by his sense of unworthiness that he is prepared to eat the rest of his meals in the bunkhouse with the hired hands. The older son is so inflated by his sense of entitlement that he will not eat with anyone who has not earned a place at the table. Both sons suffer from the illusion that they can be in relationship with their father without being related to each other. What is a father to do?

What this father does is to prepare a meal for both of them and let them figure out what to do about each other. This is fairly easy for the younger son, who is so glad to be back at the table again that he is not about to cause trouble for his older brother or anyone else. It is more difficult for the older son, who isn’t even told when dinner is ready. By the time he shows up and finds out who has come slithering home, he is convinced that he has been displaced. It is as if there were only two chairs at the table, as if no one father could love two such different sons. In spite of his fathers assurance that everything the old man has is his, the story ends with the older son standing in the yard, while the father goes back inside to sit down with the sinner.

Any way you look at it, this is an alarming story. It is about hanging out with the wrong people. It is about throwing parties for losers and asking winners to foot the bill. It is about giving up the idea that we can love God and despise each other. We simply cannot, no matter how wrong any of us has been. The only way to work out our relationship with God is to work out our relationship with each other.

Like I said, Jesus told this story to the ministerial association that was complaining about his dinner parties. He told them he could not hear them all the way across the restaurant, that they should come over and pull up some chairs. Because he saw them eating and he knew who they were -- so clean, so right, so angry -- he wanted to help them too, so he said, "Come meet my friends. Dessert is on me!" And as far as I know, he is still waiting to see how the story ends.