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.


Don’t Worry – At a Time Like This?

In my last post, I talked a little about the context of Matthew: how it was written for Jewish Jesus followers and war refugees in Antioch, and how it explores themes of moral responsibility and God’s presence with us, and I told you how relevant I find it for the moment in which we modern people find ourselves.

One of the most important things to know about Matthew, given our context and the gospel’s original context, is this: Matthew argues for what modern Christian ethicists call a “preferential treatment for the poor.”

Matthew’s insistence on this preferential treatment for the poor is clear in Jesus’s first sermon: the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, it’s the first thing Jesus says, in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 6:3) These “poor in spirit” are not spiritual poor or theoretical poor people, but very literally the poor people in Jesus’s midst. The Fortress Commentary on the New Testament puts it this way, “The poor in spirit are not to be spiritualized. They are the material poor whose material poverty has crushed their very being. They mourn their desperate circumstances.”[1] And he goes on, addressing the meek (that is, the politically disempowered[2]), the hungry, and the thirsty.

Jesus here is giving desperate people comforting promises in their suffering, but that is not all Jesus is doing. After addressing people defined by their situation, Jesus then shifts to addressing people defined by their action: those who show mercy, those who act with integrity, those who make peace, those who endure hardship to live out their faith.

One biblical scholar put it this way: rather than blessing people in hard circumstance, Jesus here is blessing those in whom “God is reversing human actions [to] manifest God’s empire.”[3] That is to say, Jesus is bestowing blessing on those whose actions are contrary to the cruel things the powers and principalities of this world are doing, and instead whose actions show the grace and compassion of God.

Unidentified Flemish painter. Rich and Poor, or, War and Peace, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN..

This action piece is important because he then goes on to talk about all sorts of moral lessons for his followers. Jesus is addressing those who are downtrodden, comforting them, and still asking them to reach out to those who are suffering in one way or another. Crisis, anxiety, and suffering did not negate their responsibilities to their neighbors.

But it’s a part of his sermon towards the end that really gets me in our moment, during the Coronavirus. Jesus continues teaching (this is a long sermon), and finally, he gives us some advice that I believe was relevant to this early, Jewish Jesus following community, also to us, living in an age of pandemic and anxiety. He tells them: You can’t serve money and God. Focus on serving God, not just about finding security for yourself.

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?

Don’t worry? Don’t worry about what I’ll eat? Or drink? Or wear? Jesus, have you read the headlines recently? It’s all well and good for the lilies or the birds – they don’t have to worry about the May unemployment numbers or where the resnt will come from or about riots in the street or food shortages in the grocery stores.

There was a time, for me, when this was a straightforwardly comforting text. As someone who, even in the best of times, has a proclivity towards anxiety, this sounded like a soothing message. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, it sounds like a challenge. Back in that grocery store, I felt in my gut the scarcity mindset my neighbors were acting upon, and it ignited my own. In my mind, there was an urgent voice telling me, “There won’t be enough left for you! Take it while you can, while you still have time!” And for the first time in my life, there are discussions of food scarcity across the US, of the SNAP program running out of money, of unemployment levels not seen since the Great Depression.

To not worry about my life now is not a comfort, but instead it is a mandate.

Biblical scholars debate fiercely who Matthew is writing for – was his community rich, as many scholars say, or were those Jewish refugees poor, too? One scholar, named David Sim, argues that they were poor, and points to passages like this one to make his point. He writes, “Let us consider Matthew’s theme of discipleship. The evangelist is clear that following Jesus involves major sacrifices and hardships. His followers are expected to leave behind their employment and their families and homes. They are to relinquish all they have… This single-minded devotion to Jesus and the will of God may evoke anxiety about food, drink, clothing, and even one’s life.”[5]

According to Sim’s interpretation, living with some level of anxiety is a natural response that Jesus anticipates from the discipleship he demands of his followers. Coping with that voice telling me “Take as much as you can for yourself – hoard those dry beans!” without living into it is part of discipleship. Like I said, it seems like cold comfort during a pandemic.

But, Jesus doesn’t leave us there. He goes on to say:

Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Jesus isn’t condemning us in our worry about food, water, and clothing; in fact, Jesus reassures us that these are reasonable worries with he acknowledges that we do really need all these things. But he reminds us of our call, as the church, to be harbingers of God’s reversal of human empires, those systems which give some more than enough and others are left poor, disempowered, hungry, and thirsty. By striving for the kingdom of God, by acting for the good of the disempowered when it’s easier to just act for ourselves, we may struggle. But even in our struggles, Jesus – Immanuel, God with us – is with us in those struggles. And Jesus is not promising that it’ll be easy, but promising that it’ll be worth it to be part of God’s kingdom.

I leave you this week with a song from the Poor People’s Campaign, a non-partisan organizing movement that continues the work of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Their aim is to bring a moral revitalization to our nation, so that our nation remembers the poor and makes policy changes for their good.

In it, the organizers sing that Everybody’s Got a Right to Live. And it makes me think of those Beatitudes: the poor have a right to live. The disempowered have a right to live. The hungry and thirsty have a right to live. And what a gift it is that we have an invitation be part of God’s kingdom.

Next week, we’ll look at the ways Jesus is inviting us to that table through communion and explore how this dinner invitation of Jesus’s is so different from the one the powers of this world offer us.


[1] Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament, 138.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press Ltd, 2000). 134.

[4] Unidentified Flemish painter. Rich and Poor, or, War and Peace, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55707 [retrieved May 12, 2020]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Arm_und_Reich_(fl%C3%A4misch_17_Jh).jpg.

[5] David Sim, “Wealth and Poverty in the Gospel of Matthew” in Prayer and Spirituality in the Early Church Vol 5: Poverty and Riches (Strathfield: Saint Paul’s Publications, 2009), 84.

Matthew & Our Time

When the Coronavirus pandemic hit in Chicago, I was disheartened by the ways I saw my neighbors acting. About a week before social distancing was officially enforced here in the Second City, I stood in my local grocery store and watched as multiple people would blindly grab dozens of items off the shelf – pasta, bread, dried beans, toilet paper.

I had taken to heart Mr. Roger’s advice of “looking for the helpers” in a time of crisis. But, as I looked around in my community, I didn’t see helpers outside of the medical field or grocery store clerks. I didn’t see individuals rising to the occasion to help their neighbors; instead, I saw my neighbors get as much as they could for themselves, leaving those who came to the shelves shortly after them high and dry.

Of course, it’s not as if I wasn’t guilty, too. In my own anxiety, I grabbed two bags of beans rather than the one I would have bought otherwise. And in my distress that I saw no helpers, I did forget about those people who were putting their own health on the risk to keep food on the shelves and nurses, doctors, and all the staff who keep hospitals going who were making preparations for my own community in that moment. I forgot about parents suddenly homeschooling their children, and caregivers who stepped up to the plate to care for the vulnerable in the privacy of their own homes.

And yet, even after I remembered the helpers out there, my disappointment remained. Disappointment with the people around me, and disappointment with myself. It seemed as all of us shopping in that store had thrown out our commitments to the common good at the slightest hint of danger.

Not that our fear wasn’t warranted. In the days that would follow that grocery trip, news would break that more than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment – a number that doesn’t even include those who cannot file for unemployment because of the overwhelming demand on the government’s systems. Food banks would report the tripling and quadrupling of public demand. And, of course, we as a nation would participate in the grim tallying of Coronavirus-related deaths. Fear was – and is – a reasonable response to the terrifying situation we find ourselves in.

But fear doesn’t revoke the responsibilities we have to one another, even if it might mean it takes more will on our part. Right now, all of us have a moral responsibility to each other – and especially to the most vulnerable in our society. For Christians, this moral responsibility is an integral part of our faith.

In this crisis, we can look towards scripture for guidance – and I believe Matthew has a lot to say to us in this moment.

Matthew’s gospel gives the twenty-first century believer a lot to chew on when it comes to our moral responsibilities in a crisis. After all, this gospel was written for a community that had experienced a lot of crises in their time. They were Jewish followers of Jesus, and refugees from the Jewish War. Before the Jewish War, they lived in or around Galilee; after the War, after witnessing its atrocities and the brutality of the Roman Empire, they found themselves in exile in Antioch. And, once there, they found themselves struggling with a rapidly changing Jesus Movement: no longer were they primarily Jewish believers, but suddenly they were also Gentiles, people from the same culture that had caused them so much grief.

Anxiety, crisis, uncertainty – these were not new to Matthew’s community, and this gospel grapples with this reality of uncertainty and crisis. Given this context, perhaps we would have understood if Matthew hadn’t emphasized moral responsibility and self-giving. We probably would have understood if Matthew grappled with wondering where God was in times of crisis. And yet, Matthew wrote strongly about the need to think not only of one’s own self and one’s own community, but to always reach out a hand to those in the most desperate need. And Matthew emphasized again and again that God is with us in Jesus, the Immanuel.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at some readings from Matthew that I believe are particularly relevant to us today. They all examine issues of scarcity, plenty, and moral action in a fearful time. All these readings invoke questions about what we owe to our neighbors, and which neighbors we are supposed to serve as we follow Jesus.

Just a note: I wrote these posts at the beginning of May, before the killing of George Floyd. These posts deal most with issues of poverty, which are deeply racialized in my context in the US. I don’t explicitly mention anti-black violence and racism in my posts, but I know – and I hope you keep in mind – the ways in which poverty and racism work in tandem to devalue the lives of the poor, and make the conditions of black people’s murder possible.