The Table Jesus Sets

Slaughterhouses, where workers already worked in unsafe, dangerous conditions before the Coronavirus hit. Many of the laborers in our meat plants are immigrants, refugees, and formerly incarcerated people who are often already made vulnerable by poverty and being victims of violence, and their working conditions are ordinarily a concern for injury – both psychological and physical. Now it is clear that their working conditions are ripe for Coronavirus outbreaks. For slaughterhouse workers, their meager compensation for their labor often means that they live in crowded housing with many family members or roommates, exasperating their risk for COVID.[1]

These are the reasons that workers and unions demanded that plants who employed people sick with COVID to voluntarily shut, rather than expose vulnerable people to what may very well be a death sentence. Bloomberg News reports that, “At least 20 workers in meat and food processing have died, and 5,000 meatpacking workers have either tested positive for the virus or were forced to self-quarantine, according to UFCW.”[2]

However, Trump used the Defense Production Act to reopen these plants, despite workers’ fears for their safety. At the same time, leaders of our senate are pushing for liability production for employers whose workers fall ill with COVID due to their working environments – effectively silencing those who were put in harm’s way in their essential duties.

We have to ask ourselves: what kind of feast is it that we’re cooking up?

We have deemed these workers’ labor essential, and it is, and we owe it to these workers to give their lives and health adequate protection as they work to provide food to hundreds of millions of people. To do anything less is to say in our actions that their labor is essential, but that they themselves are disposable.

In every gospel, Jesus invites multitudes to a feast where he is the host, and he feeds many by miraculously multiplying the little people had. You’re probably familiar with the story, including Matthew’s version:

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Matthew 14:13-21, NRSV.

Jesus, tired and seeking some alone time, still feels compassion on those desperate people who follow him for healing. And, having compassion on them, he feeds them all with the fish and bread, enough that there was plenty leftover. It’s beautiful, theologically resonant on its own.

But we have to put it in context to get the full story of this feeding miracle. You see, in Matthew, this feeding miracle is something like a protest to the gruesome, deadly feasts that Herod is hosting in his palace. If we back up just a few verses, we learn that Herod hosted a feast in which he arrested and beheaded John the Baptist for the entertainment of his dinner guests. Jesus learns of the death of his friend and co-minister, and immediately seeks to withdraw (probably for his own safety, and to mourn) away from Herod’s cities and into the wilderness.

Herod’s deadly feast and the beheading of John the Baptist is paralleled with Jesus’s feast of compassion. One exploits the poor and one invites them in. The Beheading of John the Baptist by Caravaggio, 1608, and Jesus Mafa, 1973.

The poor follow him, even into the wilderness. He is filled with compassion for them and moved to feed them in a scene that could not be more different from the grotesque meal Herod offers his followers. Warren Carter, a biblical scholar, says this about Jesus’s meal: “The contrast with Herod’s banquet is stark. Whereas Herod and the elite trade in manipulation, immorality, and death, Jesus’ meal includes the crowds, promotes their well-being with healing the sick and multiplying food, and anticipates God’s different future, God’s new creation and empire, in which there is abundance for all.”[3]

Of course, this meal has echoes of communion; Matthew later uses much of the same language in chapter twenty-six, when Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper.[4] In this, we know that Jesus continues to invite us to this meal in the wilderness – a place that is outside the purview of the empires of this world, yet still not in God’s coming empire – where we receive healing, and where all have enough.

The powers of this world still do not value human life as they should. We are still, collectively, willing to put some of the most vulnerable in our society at risk of illness and death so that we can feast as we always have. In this way, we act very much in the same way that the Roman imperial elite of Jesus’s time treated their own laborers. Dong Sung Kim, another biblical scholar, describes the attitude elite Romans had towards the non-elite by saying that, “to the elite, the non–elite were no more than central economic resources whose function was to support the comfortable and abundant lives of the elite.”[5] I believe we have acted too similarly to how Kim describes the elite Romans acting, using the poor in our midst as mere economic resources. In this, we as a nation have set our table in Herod’s kingdom, and not the kingdom that Jesus is beckoning us toward.

Jesus invites us to a different kind of table than the one we have set – one where the values of community, love, justice, and mercy permeate everything. It is a feast that tells us about who Jesus is, and what the Kingdom of God is about. And we are invited to be part of this table, as best we can, here and now.

In this way, when we partake in communion (or when we look forward to when we will be able to again, some day), we too are partaking in a feast that stands in opposition to injustice in our own midst. When we eat the bread or drink the wine, we must remember not only those hands that labored to bring those elements to our table and pray for their wellbeing, but we must also remember those who are dying at Herod’s table and speak out for their good. Like Jesus’s feast, ours is one which stands in defiance to death-dealing forces that harm the poor.

John August Swanson, a Christian artist, captures this in his own depiction of the Lord’s Supper. In it, Jesus and the disciples are seated together at a round table, and if you look closely, you’ll see that the border of the image is composted of depictions from both the Gospel of Matthew and farmworkers hard at work to harvest the food on Jesus’s table.

He says of his work, “The theme of my serigraph is community, and what it means to share a meal together… I have chosen to create an illuminated narrative border of seventy-eight miniature scenes to emphasize the labor of those who grow and prepare the food. It is important for me, in this celebration of a feast of sharing and companionship, to explore where our food comes from, to depict the communal nature between those at the table and those who make the meal possible. Even a simple meal of bread and wine requires the labor of planters, growers, pickers, bakers, winemakers, and so many others.”[6]

Our lives are bound up together, and at the communion table, Jesus is beckoning us away from Herod’s feasts of violence and oppression and towards a table of sharing and companionship. And this feast is not for the few over the many – it is a feast for all of us, rich and poor together. Next week, we’ll ask the question of what kind of actions this feast requires of us today by looking at Jesus’s “community discourse” from chapter eighteen.


[1] Luke Runyon, “Meatpacking Plant Working Conditions Stoke Spread of Coronavirus,” from NPR News. 19 April 2020. Accessed 8 May 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/04/19/838195049/meatpacking-plant-working-conditions-stoke-coronavirus-spread

[2] Jennifer Jacobs and Lydia Mulvany, “Trump Orders Meat Plants to Stay Open in Move Unions Slam,” from Bloomberg News. 28 April 2020. Accessed 8 May 2020. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-28/trump-says-he-s-issuing-order-for-tyson-s-unique-liability

[3] Caravaggio, The Beheading of St John the Baptist, 1608. [retrieved May 12, 2020]. Original Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beheading_of_John_the_Baptist#/media/File:Michelangelo_Caravaggio_021.jpg

[4] JESUS MAFA. The poor invited to the feast, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48397 [retrieved May 12, 2020]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).

[5] Carter, 307.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Dong Sung Kim, “Feeding the Poor and Disrupting Empire: An Imperial-Critical Reading of Feeding Narratives,” in Korean Journal of Christian Studies vol. 103, p. 401.

[8] Swanson, John August. Last Supper, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56552 [retrieved May 7, 2020]. Original source: http://www.JohnAugustSwanson.com – copyright 2009 by John August Swanson.