Towards the end of a Lent season my church did a little something special for the middle school students – they organized a recreation of the Last Supper. At first were a little uncertain about the whole thing. The U-shaped table (a triclinium – a Roman table setting adopted by the first century Judeans) was barely knee-high and there were cushions lined up all along the outside of the table. None were on the inside of the table which allowed for servers (either servants and/or ladies in the role of hostess) to move freely taking away empty bowls of food, filling up glasses with drinks, and serving the guests – this is what Peter’s mother-in-law would have done when she was cured and got up to wait on the disciples . The table was set plainly enough, no spoons or forks, but bowls of warm broth in each setting and there was a loaf of bread or two in the center of the table.
Before we were seated, they opened up the Bible to Luke 14 and asked us to stand where we might think that the position of honor was. They stated to the person at the far-left corner, “Friend, you are in the position of honor, but I had saved it for another guest …” They said to the person in the far right-hand side: “Friend, what are you doing down there? Move on up! Take their place!” Everyone else watched as the person who had guessed correctly was rewarded with being relocated to a less honorable seat the one on the far right-hand side. That parable took on new meaning.
Of course, the next puzzle was how to be seated. It turns out that the customary way to recline at such a table was to lean on one’s left elbow, take food with the right arm, and their feet were behind them – as if they were laying face down on their stomach to get the right picture of how they would have eaten at the table. Being left-handed, I was relieved that my arm would be put to good use so there were no worries about using the wrong hand. It’s recorded quite a few times that they ate while reclining, but sometimes they just reclined there when they weren’t eating both are indicated to be true.
At this point, we began eating while the teachers went from passage to passage explaining a little something about how table manners were different back in the day. Most of the other kids in the group really didn’t like the meal. I was the odd one that was delighted, the broth turned out to be chicken and the unleavened bread was delicious (after all, we were a Christian church and not about to actually have a full Passover meal – which would have included lamb). When everybody else had refused to eat – they brought in another form of unleavened bread … pizza.
Switch to John 13 (and again referred to in 20), there was another element of scripture that would be odd to us – the part where the disciple leans back on Jesus to ask him a question. Such a thing doesn’t tend to happen in an upright table – but when you’re leaning on your left-elbow – you’re facing to the right. To converse with the person on your left – you have to lean backwards on them. Unless, of course, you’re on the far side, then you have to motion to the other side, and ‘telephone’ game your question to the host as mentioned in John 13. Such a detail might be lost on us because of our cultural differences – but it would have been quite normal.
Going back to Luke 7, we see the story of the sinful woman who enters a Pharisee’s house to anoint Jesus’ feet. Here again, our Western ideas about formal dining rooms cause us to lose sight of the real picture. The dining room was actually an open-air courtyard that was considered public space and not an owner’s private property. With Jesus’ feet behind him, he didn’t exactly see the sinful woman approach him and she wasn’t below the table as we might imagine. Which supports what we had heard about the Rich Man and Lazarus – that he longed to eat what fell from the rich man’s table which was also in an open-air courtyard. There were references to it being not uncommon for dogs to eat of the left-overs from the children at the table. A woman used this argument to convince Jesus to help her, that even though she wasn’t an Israelite she was deserving of help all the same.
Back to the Last Supper, this amazing video describes how the seating arrangement adds more depth to the final events of that week. It was a Passover meal, celebrated late in the evening / towards the early night. Jesus first washes the feet of his disciples and seats them in order of the least being the greatest honor, and the greatest sitting at the place of least honor. It’s something that we don’t think about because we don’t know about it – when we picture Da Vinci’s painting, we lose out on how every detail of that meal was important – and as we take communion we don’t always think about what that means.
One other thought – remember how the Apostles said that they didn’t want to wait on tables? They delegated the ministry to people considered to be the first deacons – they were to wait on the widows, providing for them, and in this sense, these women were given great honor to have these young men were chosen to serve them when in the real world it would have been the other way round. This is the leadership of Jesus’ kingdom, these are the table manners we ought to be taught.