Table Manners


The Gospels describe a characteristic of Jesus that really got the attention of his contemporaries. He was evidently rather surprising in his choice of table companions. He seemed willing to share table fellowship with anyone, no matter the person’s reputation. This practice scandalized many religious people, people most committed to their religious tradition.

Of course, Jesus was not denying the centrality of religious tradition. But he wanted people to get religion right. Like the prophet Hosea, he reminded people God wanted not sacrifice, but mercy in a mutual relationship of covenant. When Jesus applied Hosea 6:3–6 to the people sitting with him at table in Matthew 9:9–13, he meant that God’s outreach to sinners outweighs other considerations and is the heart of the law.

When I attend ecumenical dialogue meetings with Lutherans, they frequently link these stories of table fellowship to Paul’s perspective. In Romans 4:18–25, for example, Paul uses the story of Abraham and Sarah to illustrate how faith saves us. If we open ourselves in faith to what God is doing, we’ll find ourselves—like Sarah—amazed at the unexpected results.

For both Paul and Martin Luther, despite their different contexts, this message is good news. It relieves us of the imagined burden of earning something that can never be earned. Salvation is a gift, won by Christ, and in the Gospel...

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About the Author

Margaret O’Gara is professor of theology at the Faculty of Theology in the University of St. Michael's College, Toronto. She is one of two daughters of James O’Gara, who served as Commonweal’s managing editor (1952–67) and editor (1967–84).