Family Meals

“When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” – Luke 19:5-7

We are now in between Easter and Mother’s Day, two holidays that often culminate in a family meal. Holiday meals were times of celebration when I was young. My grandparents, cousins, and immediate family would all gather together for food, laughter, and often for a lively game of train-style dominoes.

There were also several important rituals and practices that my family undertook which were all vital to the success of our meals.

There was the group prayer. My grandfather would give thanks to God while everyone else would hold hands in a circle with their eyes closed. Only a few of us peeked. There was the “kids table,” a blue card table that you were banished to eat at if you were below a certain age. It was a special rite of passage to be welcomed to dine upon the larger adult table. There was the hiding of food within a napkin, and the slipping of said napkin under the table so that the dog could join in the feast. There was also the customary after meal nap in which all adult males would pretend that they could watch sports with their eyes shut for a few hours.

But all kidding aside, holiday meals within my family were always loving occasions. They were ripe with tradition. They were full of meaning. And now that I have a family of my own, it has been a blessing to learn how to pass these traditions on.  

Meals have meaning. What happens around the table matters. That’s surely the case today, but it was even more so around Jewish tables in the first century A.D.

1st Century “Family” Meals

For many first century Jews, the table served as a microcosm of God’s Temple.

That is, when a Jewish person, but particularly those who identified as Pharisees would gather for a meal, they understood their time around the table as an extension of the worship that might take place at the Temple.[1] This means that the purity laws and regulations which applied to the Temple transferred to meals as well.

There were strict regulations regarding both food consumption and handwashing etiquette at the table of a first century Jew. Kosher laws were in full effect. Pork was prohibited. Shellfish wasn’t allowed. No food that would be considered ceremonially impure according to the Torah could be eaten. More than this, however, a rigorous washing practice was also in effect. Utensils needed to be cleaned. Hands needed to be washed,[2] and sometimes entire bodies depending on which sect of Judaism you aligned yourself with.

There were also strict regulations surrounding who should and shouldn’t be allowed to attend dinner in the first place. Only those who upheld religious purity were allowed within the courts of the Temple. Only those of a certain ethnicity and sex were allowed within the inner courts. The meal practices of many first century Jews reflected this reality as well. That is, if you weren’t Jewish, and a devout Jewish male at that, you likely would not be allowed to join the meal.[3]

In other words, the restrictions practiced by these groups went well beyond my family’s “kids table” segregation.

It should also be mentioned that, in first century Palestine, meals were where you performed your social status.[4] This means that a strict socio-economic hierarchy was often upheld and promoted too. Those of the same standing would share meals together so that they might mutually share in honor. But it was very rare that a Jew of higher social standing would invite someone of a lower economic class to attend a dinner they were hosting. If someone could not return the favor by hosting you within their household at the same level you did for them, both households would experience shame. So, not wanting to inadvertently dishonor the name of God, many pious Jews made sure that the wealthy ate with the wealthy and the poor with the poor.

But why did first century Jews find such practices so important?

It might be easy for us to critique these table regulations today. But we need to remember that Pharisees and other Jews of their time weren’t merely concerned with ritual and meal etiquette just for the sake of politeness. They also weren’t merely trying to earn their salvation through this display of virtuous living either.

No, to the mind of a Pharisee especially, salvation in the Lord was a sure reality coming. God had already promised His Messiah and the nation of Israel’s liberation from foreign powers. They were confident in these things. But the Pharisees were highly concerned with making sure that the people of Israel did not make the same mistakes that had once sent them all into exile. They didn’t want the observance of Torah to be abandoned. They didn’t want the distinctiveness of Israel to become blurred or blended with the pagan nations around them, so they made absolutely sure that what they did in both Temple an in home made clear that set-apart status. And, if they were successful in doing so, they believed[5] that God would look upon them favorably and might bring about Israel’s salvation even sooner than was divinely planned.[6]

That is to say, to the mind of many first century Jews, these types of table mannerisms were believed to be exactly the thing that God Himself would want them to do.

And if they were followed properly, these practices might even spur the Lord to come liberate His people from their oppressors and usher in cosmic peace.

Jesus’ Table Practices

Yet, of course, these practices were not followed properly by Jesus.

In Mark 7:1-5, a group of scribes and Pharisees accuse some of Jesus’ disciples of eating with unwashed hands and of not following the “tradition of the elders.” Jesus critiques a group of wealthy Jews for only hosting dinners for those of similar social status. He then challenges them to set aside their honor so that they might feed those who are in the most need instead of those who already have enough (Luke 14:15-24). And several times within the Gospels, people grumble about Jesus eating with those deemed unfavorable (Matthew 9:10-17, Mark 2:15-17, Luke 5:30, Luke 7:36-40, Luke 15:1-2, Luke 19:7, John 4:1-27).

But let’s look a little more closely at one famous mealtime interaction that Jesus had with a man named Zacchaeus.

Zacchaeus, as introduced to us in Luke 19:1, was a chief tax collector. This means that not only was he willing to work with Gentiles, he worked for the Gentiles in order to extort money from his fellow Jews. He was a sinner of sinners. He was universally despised. And, because sharing a meal with someone in first century Palestine meant that you were also willing to share in their social status, sitting at a table with Zacchaeus would have been severely dishonorable.

In other words, to the mind of a Pharisee or scribe, sharing a meal with Zacchaeus would be like sharing in his sin.

This is why Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus is so scandalous. That’s why all who saw Jesus enter into Zacchaeus’ house grumbled and complained. But does this mean that Jesus was somehow complicit in Zacchaeus’ sin? Was Jesus deliberately frustrating the pious attempts of many good Jews who were hoping to catch God’s attention so that the Lord might bring about cosmic peace? That is surely what Jesus would have been accused of doing at least.

But this is not at all what Jesus is doing.

Jesus didn’t condone the actions of all those he ate with. However, he was willing to share the social status of even the shameful so that he might have the opportunity to lovingly challenge them to repent of their sins. Jesus was more than willing to befriend sinners, and to be seen as intimately associated with those deemed ceremonially impure, so that he might show them a way out the darkness into his glorious light.

Christian Family Meals Today

Many of us have mealtime traditions nowadays. These might be holiday-specific things we do with extended family. These might also be weeknight habits we’ve cultivated over time.

But, I wonder, when it comes extending hospitality to outsiders or welcoming sinners into our families of faith, which table mannerisms might we more closely align with? Would it be Jesus’? Or would it be the common first century Jewish practice?

Meals have meaning. They say something. And the story told by the table fellowship of many pious first century Jews was one of religious exclusivism and superiority. And even though they did what they did because of the way they read their Bibles, they did so in disagreement with the One who authored the text. They focused so much on “holiness” and “chosenness” that they forget about God’s mercy and love. So, when it comes to associating with those that our circles might consider “on the margins,” how do we react? Who might we be willing to welcome into our family of faith? Are there any people we would be hesitant to be seen with because of the way we read our Bibles? If so, it might be wise to reconsider those biblical texts in order to see if the way we read them is more informed by cultural understanding than by Christ.

Does this mean that we should ignore sin? No. Behavior matters in many ways. But one’s behavior, or lack thereof, isn’t that which grants them acceptance by God. And offering critique before compassion is not the mode of hospitality that believers have been called to embrace.

Jesus welcomed sinners at his family meal. Jesus invited those of low social honor to dine with him, knowing full well that such an action would look suspicious to the religious. Are we willing to do similar?

Meals have meaning. The way we choose to dine, and those we choose to welcome to the table of our family of faith conveys a lot about the God we serve.

What story are our family meals portraying?

[1] See:  J.H. Elliot, “Household Meals Versus the Temple Purity Systems,” HTS Theological Studies 47 (2) 1991, 389. It should be mentioned, however, that this move wasn’t born of legalism per se. It seems as if the Pharisees were

[2] For more detail, see the Tractate Yadayim within the Mishnah.

[3] The Essene community, a separatist sect of Judaism that prided itself on its extreme religious purity, took this a step further. This group wouldn’t even sell a Gentile food or livestock lest that Gentile eat the food improperly or sacrifice the animal to a foreign god. See: Damascus Document – C.D. 12.8-11

[4] For more detail about this, see: Branson Parler, “Table Fellowship in Luke-Acts,” accessed May 2, 2022,, 4-7.

[5] The Mishnah makes this belief clear in Sotah 9.15: “…Rabbi Pinehas ben Ya’ir says: Torah study leads to care in the performance of mitzvot. Care in the performance of mitzvot leads to diligence in their observance. Diligence leads to cleanliness of the soul. Cleanliness of the soul leads to abstention from all evil. Abstention from all evil leads to purity and the elimination of all base desires. Purity leads to piety. Piety leads to humility. Humility leads to fear of sin. Fear of sin leads to holiness. Holiness leads to the Divine Spirit. The Divine Spirit leads to the resurrection of the dead.” 

[6] N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 237.

One thought on “Family Meals

  1. Pingback: Guests at Jesus’ Table | Scripture Simplified

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