A discussion of the importance of table fellowship will eventually bring us to the Gospel of Luke. Luke is where all the important stuff seems to be happening during a meal. The table becomes the location of forgiveness and repentance, of preaching and calling. In Luke 6:6-11, amidst several other stories about Jesus creating controversy, comes a story about Jesus healing a man with a withered hand. This happens in a synagogue during Sabbath worship. The scribes and Pharisees present want to see if Jesus will heal the man (thus technically qualifying as working on the Sabbath) so that they have proof and witnesses that Jesus is a sinister rule breaker, that he has no respect for God’s law and Israel’s worship.
For such a short story, it is a whole world of drama, controversy and good news unto itself. Before Jesus actually heals the man, he decides to make a scene of it. He tells the man with the withered hand to come closer. What Jesus says to him is more literally, “Come to the middle” or “Come into our midst.” Not only does this man have a disability, but is apparently excluded from proper society for it. He’s only allowed to exist at the margins of society and worship, not welcome in the middle of the action until Jesus invites him. Even a worship service like this has become yet one more place in the world where the people in the middle of the action are the people who are easy to look at, the people who have it all together (or at least can make us think they do). But a man with a visible disability is expected to find some dark corner of the room where everyone else is free to ignore and forget him.
So before Jesus heals his physical ailment, he heals his spiritual ailment. Jesus heals his neglect. Jesus places him front and center for everyone to behold. He tells the man to stretch out his hand, and when he does, his hand is healed, now perfectly restored. The scribes and Pharisees are “filled with fury.” They’re mad because Jesus has supposedly disrespected the sanctity of their Sabbath worship. But on a deeper and much truer level, they’re mad because Jesus has forced them to acknowledge the existence, humanity, and healing of someone they wanted to ignore. They’re mad because Jesus has scuffed the polish off of their worship. Let us never assume Jesus wants our worship to always be a comfortable thing. Jesus might wants some rules broken now and then. He might want to place someone unappealing at the center of our attention.
While there is no table or meal in this particular story, we quickly see how much it resonates with other table stories in Luke. One chapter earlier, Luke has dinner with a tax collector named Levi and all his tax collector friends. And one chapter after the man with the withered hand, Jesus has dinner with an upstanding Pharisee named Simon, but also a woman who has a reputation for being a sinner. She showers Jesus with her love and affection and even her own tears. In both cases, Jesus is inviting people into the middle. And in both cases, Jesus’ critics say to him, “Surely that’s not what the table is for, is it?”
The table of Jesus is where healing happens because the table draws in those most in need of healing. Healing can’t happen from a distance. We can’t share the good news with someone we haven’t welcomed closely into our presence, into the middle of the action. Let’s allow the table be what it wants to be and what Jesus has always used it for: the place of fellowship and reconciliation, dignity and embrace.