It was cold, but no freezing rain or snow. More than a hundred hungry people from the community were in the basement, waiting in line for a meal. A group from a local church was in the kitchen, putting the finishing touches on the soup, bread and salad they were serving that night. A leader of the church group announced, “Okay, let’s pray.” And the kitchen group gathered in a circle, held hands and prayed a blessing and the Lord’s Prayer together. Then they served the meal on plates, handed it to the waiting folks, who sat down with their meal, ate and left. The kitchen crew gathered all the dirty plates, cleaned them, cleaned the kitchen, swept the floor and they too left.
Sounds like a good night. Why was there something wrong?
It reminds me of a potluck that the apostle Paul went to. It was in Antioch, his home church, which was mixed with Jews and Gentiles. The potluck was good, and while most of the Jews were sitting in a couple tables and the Gentiles had their own table, a number of the Jewish leaders made a point to sit with the Gentiles.
They did this because in the first century, to eat with a group of people is to include them as family. This only made sense because a group meal, in the ancient world, was a messy business. No one had utensils, they ate with bread, and everyone at the table would dip their bread into the same stew in the middle. So everyone at the table was eating off of the same plate, so to speak. Because eating together was such an intimate experience, to welcome someone to a table was to make them family. We still have a shadow of this sense today.
Jesus had made it clear that he was welcoming the outcast as family. He would eat with the sinners and tax collectors. He made a point to have his feasts in the homes of some of the most disreputable people in town, such as Zaccheus. The early church continued that practice. And the church in Antioch, at their potlucks, with the mixed Jewish and Gentile group, did the same thing. The Jews would eat with the Gentiles, which any proper Jew would never think of. But Jesus made the church somewhat improper for the sake of love.
But this potluck in Antioch was different. Peter had come from Jerusalem to visit and some VERY proper Jews had visited with him to check out the church. And on this day, Peter and Barnabas and the other leaders of the church didn’t eat with the Gentiles. They didn’t welcome them as family. They played a segregation card.
Paul was furious. He stood up and rebuked Peter and the Antioch leadership publicly. And he said, “Why are you treating these Gentiles as second-class Christians? You may have been a ‘proper’ Jew before Jesus, but Jesus showed us how improper we all were! That we had to recognize ourselves as inadequate before God and only Jesus makes us right before Him! If that is so, we need to treat these Gentiles as our equals, as our family, because we are no better than they.” *
Today we recognize that segregation between races and sexes isn’t right—yet we still often practice the segregation between the servers and the served. We are implying that those who are served are not worthy to be serving, and those serving are of a different tribe than the poor being served. In doing this, we are neglecting to welcome the poor as family, as brothers and sisters in Christ.
While certainly not all the poor are believers in Jesus, a number of them are. And whether they are or not, we are all children of God, and needing to be welcomed into the kingdom. If we, who are confidently in God’s kingdom, neglect to treat the poor as our family, then we are neglecting the practice and command of Jesus. When we see a poor brother or sister, we are to treat them as if it was one of our own family coming to visit us, or, dare I say it, Jesus himself.
- The server should eat with the served: If we are providing a service to the poor, we should take time to fellowship with them, to appreciate them as company. We should not do this as a “ministry”, but as we would for family, because it is important to connect with and spend time with them.
- The served should be invited to serve: If there is someone who asks to help, we should find a way for them to help. Not only does it give them self-respect, but it gives them a sense that they are a part of the “serving” group, at one with the ministry of Jesus. To allow someone to serve is a ministry to them.
- Weep with those who weep: The ministry for the poor should not be like a fast-food encounter. There should be laughter and compassion and high-fives and sorrow. We need to appreciate the needs of those around us, to not wall ourselves off from them. We need to sympathize, empathize and pray for those with needs.
*You can read about this incident in Galatians 2:11-21.