When Ezra Tull was still a child, his father Beck picked up and left. Beck’s departure maimed and scarred Ezra, as well as his mother Rose, his brother Cody, and his sister Jennifer. Each in their own way.
Reeling from the feelings and the economic fallout of abandonment, the remaining Tulls grew distant from one another. The weight of loss and the sting of rejection frayed the fragile threads that bound mother to child, sister to brothers, brother to brother.
In Anne Tyler’s novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Ezra tries to weave all of these scattered, fractured individuals back together. He repeatedly plans a dinner for them at the eating establishment he manages and eventually owns: The Homesick Restaurant.
Ezra believes in the power of a shared meal to mend his family. His restaurant provides a homey setting and offers a menu of comfort food designed to nurture and heal the homesick soul.
By design, there is nothing fancy or glamorous about the place or its food. The restaurant’s very ordinariness welcomes and soothes the weary, battered, lonely souls seated at its plain tables. It gently signals, “You’re home. You’re not alone. You belong.”
At each intended Tull gathering, something or someone derails the meal. Again and again the Tulls can’t seem to be able to get together or, even when they do all show up, to stay together long enough to eat without quarreling and parting ways.
It’s as if they can’t quite bring themselves to believe in the power of a meal to mend their broken hearts and to restore their frayed relationships.
Jesus believes in the power of eating together. He came by this belief honestly. From his first breath, his culture had taught him that breaking bread together has an unavoidable spiritual depth. A shared meal creates a sacred bond between all those at the table.
That same culture insisted upon hospitality to the stranger. The divine shows up in the person of the unknown visitor, the wanderer, and the alien. As the writer of Hebrews put it, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (13:2)
For Jesus, the conclusion to draw from these two principles is inescapable. We’re already all in this together. So let’s eat together and seal the deal. And contrary to all the cynical expectations, holiness will happen. Subtly and gradually, to be sure. But holiness will happen.
Some of his contemporaries—the Pharisees and the scribes among them—drew a very different conclusion from the theology and the spirituality of table fellowship. It goes something like this:
Some of us have worked very hard on our moral and spiritual resumé. We have scrupulously followed the law and said all our prayers. We’ve made ourselves holy by toeing the line.
Since eating with somebody connects you at the spiritual hip, then you’d better be very selective about the people you’re willing to break bread with. You can lose the holiness you’ve worked so hard to get by associating with dangerous, compromised people
That’s precisely why the religious leaders of his day gave Jesus the stink eye about his dinner companions. They said, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2)
Jesus responds with something like this. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Of course, that’s just how they mean it. And Jesus wants them to see that they’ve got this wrong in so many ways he hardly knows where to start.
So, true to form, Jesus tells a couple of parables: the lost sheep and the lost coin. The lesson of both is that God goes looking for the lost.
Since he’s talking to the sin-obsessed, law-reciting Pharisees, Jesus talks about the lost in terms of sin, repentance, and forgiveness. And while Jesus is certainly about forgiveness of sins, he is also about healing the sick, bringing justice to the oppressed, restoring addicts to sanity, mending shattered hearts, and reconciling enemies.
Jesus decides to tell these parables precisely because the Pharisees and scribes don’t consider themselves lost. And there lies the irony.
Once you think you’ve got it together enough to size up somebody else as an unacceptable mess, you’re in such spiritual shambles yourself that you can’t even recognize it. You need help more than all those people you don’t want to eat with.
In other words, God is not impressed with what you take to be your holiness. In fact, it’s not holiness at all. Holiness is never a human achievement. It’s always and only a divine gift, the reflection of God’s own presence.
That’s what Jesus means when he says, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7) The ninety-nine are deluded.
In Jesus, God gathers and heals the lost in all our myriad forms. Literally. In Jesus’ day, he ate with all sorts of people, connecting them to him and to each other through him.
Today, Jesus gathers us around the Eucharistic Table. In the ordinary elements of bread and wine we partake of Jesus himself, and he weaves us together into one. The one Body of Christ. Subtly. Gradually.
At the conclusion of Tyler’s novel, the Tull family matriarch Pearl dies. Their long absent father Beck returns for the funeral. They all gather to share a meal, but Beck leaves the table over a conflict with his son Cody. The siblings hunt down their father. They return to the restaurant and finish the meal. Together.
Tyler’s portrayal of the Tulls helps us see who we are as the Body of Christ. The Tulls are not a sanitized, 1950’s TV family. They don’t resemble the Cleavers or the Nelsons. Think Addams family.
Like them, we are worn and tattered. Aching from old hurts, our nearly forgotten desire for unity catches us off guard.
We stumble our way awkwardly toward forgiveness. Still clinging to wariness, we edge our way toward intimacy and vulnerability. Impossibly, gradually, haltingly, we shuffle toward becoming one. By eating together.