1999-5-17 Barbecue Hospitality

Eric Lemonholm

May 17, 1999

Dr. Gordon W. Lathrop

Introduction to Parish Liturgy

Men, Barbecue Hospitality, and the Lord’s Supper

Men search for “a life worth living”[1] in their work, relationships, often at the local bar.  Less often than women, statistically speaking, American men find meaning for life in the Christian church.  In this paper, I shall explore how men’s needs to receive and give hospitality might change how we perform the ministry of Word and Sacrament, especially the Eucharist.  How can the Eucharist become an important part of a comprehensive ministry to, with, and for men?  How can we be hospitable to men, inviting them to partake in the Lord’s Supper as one important element in the full life of the church?  My purpose is not to exclude women, but, more broadly, to find ways to include men as equally valued members of the body of Christ in all parts of church life—including, especially, at the table.

For millennia, men have shown hospitality and nurtured relationships by hosting barbecues.  A classic example of barbecue hospitality is found in the Iliad of Homer.  When Trojan Hector forced the Achaeans back to their beached ships, King Agamemnon sent an embassy to Achilles, in the hope of curbing Achilles’ rage and encouraging him to save the Achaeans.  Odysseus, Great Ajax, and Phoenix are sent to their friend.

Reaching the Myrmidon shelters and their ships,

they found him there, delighting his heart now,

plucking strong and clear on the fine lyre—

beautifully carved, its silver bridge set firm—

he won from the spoils when he razed Eetion’s city.

Achilles was lifting his spirits with it now,

singing the famous deeds of fighting heroes…

Across from him Patroclus sat alone, in silence,

waiting for Aeacus’ son to finish with his song.

And on they came, with good Odysseus in the lead,

and the envoys stood before him.  Achilles, startled,

sprang to his feet, the lyre still in his hands,

leaving the seat where he had sat in peace.

And seeing the men, Patroclus rose up too

as the famous runner called and waved them on:

“Welcome!  Look, dear friends have come our way—

I must be sorely needed now—my dearest friends

in all the Achaean armies, even in my anger.”

So Prince Achilles hailed them and led them in,

sat them down on settles with purple carpets

and quickly told Patroclus standing by, “Come,

a bigger winebowl, son of Menoetius, set it here.

Mix stronger wine.  A cup for the hands of each guest—

here beneath my roof are the men I love the most.”

He paused.  Patroclus obeyed his great friend,

who put down a heavy chopping block in the firelight

and across it laid a sheep’s chine, a fat goat’s

and the long back cut of a full-grown pig,

marbled with lard.  Automedon held the meats

while lordly Achilles carved them into quarters,

cut them well into pieces, pierced them with spits

and Patroclus raked the hearth, a man like a god

making the fire blaze.  Once it had burned down

and the flames died away, he scattered the coals

and stretching the spitted meats across the embers,

raised them onto supports and sprinkled clean pure salt.

As soon as the roasts were done and spread on platters,

Patroclus brought the bread, set it out on the board

in ample wicker baskets.  Achilles served the meat.

Then face-to-face with his noble guest Odysseus

he took his seat along the farther wall,

he told his friend to sacrifice to the gods

and Patroclus threw the first cuts in the fire.

They reached for the good things that lay at hand

and when they had put aside desire for food and drink,

Ajax nodded to Phoenix.  Odysseus caught the signal,

filled his cup and lifted it toward Achilles,

opening with his toast: “Your health, Achilles!

We have no lack of a handsome feast, I see that,

either in Agamemnon’s tents, the son of Atreus,

or here and now, in yours.  We can all banquet here

to our heart’s content.[2]


This scene is a classic and typical example of men showing hospitality to one another in the ancient Mediterranean world by having a barbecue.  Such scenes of hospitality are common in the epic poem.  They have a basic pattern and stock phrases that would have been immediately recognizable to the poem’s first listeners.  It is interesting to note what goes on in this scene.  The three visitors arrive unexpectedly.  Despite Achilles’ rage against Agamemnon, he welcomes the king’s ambassadors as friends—“the men I love the most”—and seats them.  Achilles tells his best friend Patroclus to “mix stronger wine” and serve it to his guests, while he prepares and roasts the meat.  Meat and bread are both served at the meal.  Before the hosts and guests “reach out for the good things,” however, Patroclus sacrifices “to the gods” by throwing “the first cuts in the fire.”  Only after the feast do the host and his guests engage in conversation.

Genuine hospitality is displayed in this story.  Achilles, the son of a goddess, welcomes his friends and serves them, preparing and roasting meat for them himself.  Near the end of the Iliad, Achilles shows the same hospitality to his enemy, Priam the king of Troy, when he comes to Achilles to ask for the return of his son Hector’s corpse.[3]  Even the brutal, raging Achilles shares fellowship with other men—including enemies— over wine, bread, and meat. 

For our purposes, the problem with Achilles’ barbecue is not so much any specific detail, but rather the cultural context in which the hospitality takes place.  The mythic nature of the story only heightens the problem.  What is portrayed in these typical hospitality scenes is the ideal from the perspective of the author—and the audience.[4]  In the world of the Iliad, hospitality is shown to one’s (relative) equals or superiors.  Achilles does not show hospitality to just any soldier, much less to common people, but to other heroes.  This is even true of his enemy Priam: when the “great godlike Achilles” hosts “majestic Priam,”[5] both host and guest are descendents of Zeus, the king of the gods.  Achilles’ hospitality, moreover, does nothing to change the realities that he has killed many of Priam’s sons on the battlefield, and that he is engaged in a war that will result in the destruction of Priam’s city and Priam’s death.  Indeed, when Priam is under Achilles’ hospitality, he is in danger of facing the same rage that has taken his son’s lives.  It is also important to note the patriarchal nature of the poem; in the Iliad, men show hospitality to men, while they fight over the possession of women, who are treated mostly as spoils of war.[6]  We shall look elsewhere for better models of barbecue hospitality or table fellowship: especially to the Old and New Testaments.

The hospitality scenes in the Iliad do, however, lift up for us some classic elements of (male) hospitality in Mediterranean antiquity: welcoming, sharing wine, the roasting of meat by the host for the guests, laying out the meat (with bread), giving thanks to the gods for the meal (offering the “first cuts”), eating the meal, and finally conversation.  In later Hellenistic and Roman practice, the wine was served after the meal, during the time of conversation (the “symposium”) or “music (with dancing or singing).”[7]  From what I have been able to learn about Hellenistic and Roman practices, I have not found the same stress on the (male) host actually preparing the meal and serving it to his guests.[8]  Instead, women and/or slaves served the men, who reclined at the tables. 

Interestingly, the practice of reclining at the meal, which is common in New Testament stories of Jesus’ meals, was not, originally, a Greek custom, but may have been copied from the Phoenicians during the late eighth century.  Oswen Murray notes that “reclining… is first attested by the prophet Amos in Samaria in the eighth century (Amos 6:3-7).”[9]  I must add that Amos did not think highly of

those who lie on beds of ivory

and lounge on their couches,

and eat lambs of the flock…

who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp…

who drink wine from bowls

and anoint themselves with the finest oils,

but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Amos 6:3-7

Amos’ words here and throughout his prophetic work can be understood as a devastating judgment against the rich and powerful who practice “hospitality” for one another at the expense of their poor and less powerful neighbors.  One need only substitute “Troy” for “Joseph” in the passage above, moreover, and apply Amos’ critique to Achilles.  Achilles extends hospitality to his friends and to other heroic souls, while engaged in a sort of “ethnic cleansing”[10] of Troy.

For our purposes, we find better examples of hospitality in the Bible, where hospitality to the stranger is prominent.  Abraham’s hospitality to the three traveling strangers in Genesis 18 is a classic example of the Bedouin hospitality that is deeply embedded in the biblical tradition.[11]  Abraham welcomes them, and gives them water to wash their feet and a shady place to rest.  With help from Sarah, he then prepared a feast of bread, curds and milk, and a “tender and good” calf (v. 7), and set it before his guests.  While they ate, Abraham “stood by them,” as a servant (v. 8).  Only after the strangers had eaten does the LORD reveal his promise to Abraham and Sarah.  After speaking with their host awhile, the travelers resumed their journey, “and Abraham went with them to set them on their way” (v. 16).  Not only does the host give his guests a place to rest and food, but he also helps point them in the right direction by beginning their journey with them.  This is the occasion for a further conversation of the LORD with Abraham.[12]  Had Abraham not been hospitable to his guests, one might conclude, he would have missed communicating face to face with the LORD!

Jesus’ practice of table fellowship with the rich and poor, with Pharisees and tax collectors and sinners, is a fundamental model of hospitality.  Koenig delineates two ways that “the ministry of Jesus manifests the theme of hospitality” in the Synoptic Gospels.[13]  First, “Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom is frequently symbolized by images of food and drink, especially at festive meals.”  The inbreaking kingdom of God is like a great banquet, to which everyone, especially the marginalized ones, are invited.  Continuing Old Testament themes (symbolized by, for example, manna and the Promised Land), Jesus in the Synoptics is convinced that “God is revealing himself powerfully and eschatologically as Israel’s host.”[14]  God is throwing a great, everlasting party, and we are all invited.  Second, Jesus “intended to live in accordance with the coming feast of the kingdom.”  In his ministry, Jesus was no ascetic.  In fact, his opponents ridiculed him as “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matt 11:18, Luke 7:33[15]).  After Jesus’ forty day fast in the wilderness (at the end of which, he was “waited on” by angels—Mk 1:13), his distinctive attitude toward food and table fellowship—in contrast to John the Baptist’s “locusts and wild honey” (Matt 3:4)—is positively festive and inviting.  One gets the impression that Jesus was, literally, the life of the party wherever he went—a reality we remember whenever we celebrate the Eucharist.  As Koenig demonstrates, moreover, the Jesus movement and the fledgling early church continued Jesus basic pattern of hospitality.[16]

The same basic pattern of barbecue hospitality, or table fellowship, that we see in the Iliad and the Bible is common in the U.S. and throughout the world today.  Back in 1994, when I worked on the Mexican border in Reynosa, I repeatedly encountered this type of hospitality.  Once, when I was with a group of Americans helping to build a home for a pastor and his family, we were surprised when the family brought chicken and rice and made a feast for us—a feast that probably cost them a month of income or more.  I experienced the same hospitality on the U.S. side of the border with my Mexican-American friends, who were always inviting me to communal and familial “barbacoas” after church events.  In fact, in house churches, communal barbacoas were served immediately after the worship service.[17] 

Of course, the barbecue hospitality that graced me in the Rio Grande Valley was not unfamiliar to me, having grown up in a hospitable barbecuing family.  I do not even remember learning how to light a charcoal fire, or learning how to tell when the meat is properly cooked.  I must have watched and helped my father from an early age.  Barbecuing is something my father, my brothers, and I have always done together.  Barbecuing is often a precious opportunity for men to get together, work together to start a fire, and then talk while the meat and other foods are cooking on the grill.  The barbecue is usually one part of a larger meal, which is often, in my experience, a “potluck,” wherein everyone (men and women) share food and good ‘spirits’ with one another.  My parents are expert hosts, who make everyone who visits feel at home and cared for. 

In fact, the church I grew up attending in Duluth, Minnesota, has always had a potluck every Wednesday night, as well as regular picnics in the summer.  Table fellowship is an important part of the life of many congregations.  In the church I will serve as intern for this next year, an integral part of every Sunday together is the “coffee-and” after the worship service, when the congregation shares coffee and whatever food people bring to share.  As a welcoming congregation, the “coffee-and” time in that church is also a time to meet and welcome visitors. 

The barbecue hospitality we men share with each other reveals the importance of spending time with one another, experiencing life together, sharing our labor and its fruits.  As Robert Strikwerda and Larry May have noted, most men lack intimate friendships.[18]  Much of the friendships of men exist more on the level of comradeship. 

Men can become more than comrades, but you cannot force intimacy.  Friendships take time and conscious effort to develop; you cannot pretend to know the depths when you stay on the surface.  That is not to say that the surface is shallow.  As Reinhold Niebuhr stated, the surface is “thick.”[19]  Men do things together, spend time together.  There is a depth in shared experiences, shared lives.  In that sharing, I catch glimpses of the depth within my friend, even if he does not spill it upon me verbally.  Feelings, hopes, and fears can be communicated indirectly; in fact, they are always communicated indirectly, even if one manages to put them into words.  It remains the case, however, that we men need to learn to recognize our feelings and verbalize them, both to ourselves and to others.  It is not just that we do not share our inner lives with others; too often, we are disconnected from our own inner lives.  We need to learn to speak in the language of feelings. 

A problem with male relationships is a lack of intimacy and sharing.  Perhaps we have lost, to some extent, some important elements of barbecue hospitality.  We live in a society in which the importance of hospitality seems to be diminishing.  It is possible to live one’s whole life—especially for those who live in suburban cardboard palaces, but elsewhere as well—without giving or receiving hospitality, especially to and from the stranger, but even to and from one’s neighbors.  For men (as well as for women), this means that major opportunities for developing friendships through barbecue hospitality are lost.  A nuclear family eating at a fast food restaurant is an all too familiar image of table fellowship today.  In this rich society, our fellowship with others can be seriously impoverished.  Although I do not doubt that genuine communication occurs on the Internet (I keep in touch with friends though e-mail), virtual hospitality is no substitute for the real thing, just as virtual friendships are no substitute for the shared experiences and conversations of embodied relationships.[20] 

We men, therefore, need to keep the tradition of barbecue hospitality/table fellowship alive, as one way to nurture relationships with one another.  We need to go against the grain of our society and invite the stranger to our tables.  In the church, this means following in the footsteps of Jesus and inviting the stranger in our midst—even going out into the streets and compelling them to come in! (Luke 14:23)—to come to the table.  We do not necessarily need to change any rubrics about the Lord’s Supper.  But a concern to follow Jesus in practicing truly open table fellowship/hospitality towards and with our neighbors, even with strangers and those on the margins of society, can guide how we welcome all to the table.  Indeed, we can ask how our church can be a place where all people, including men (and women as well) who do not feel that they belong in church, are truly welcome and sought after.  If only we were as welcoming as Abraham and Jesus to the strangers in our midst.

[1] A term used powerfully by songwriter Jay Farrar.

[2] Homer, The Iliad, trans. by Robert Fagles, New York: Penguin, 1990, 9.222-273 (pp. 257-9).

[3] Ibid., 24.700ff. (pp. 608ff.)

[4] See Oswen Murray, “Forms of Sociality,” in The Greeks, ed. by Jean-Pierre Vernant, trans. by Charles Lambert and Teresa Lavender Fagan, University of Chicago: 1995, p. 222.

[5] Ibid., p. 604.

[6] The point should not be pushed too far.  Women seem to have a somewhat higher status among the more civilized Trojans.

[7] Paul Veyne, ed., A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, Cambridge: Harvard, 1987, p. 189; cf. also the lecture on the “Table,” Gordon W. Lathrop, Lutheran Theological Seminary, March 16, 1999.

[8] Although, presumably, Achilles and Patroclus did not themselves bake the bread that they served!  Their female slaves/concubines are mostly invisible in the poem, but present in the background—as bed companions and as Patroclus’ mourners.

[9] Oswen Murray, p. 224.

[10] “Ethnic cleansing” is but a polite term for genocide, the murder of a people. The term should not be used, because ethnic groups that practice it are anything but “cleansed.”

[11] John Keonig, “Hospitality,” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 3, p. 299ff.

[12] Interestingly, immediately after this scene, Lot’s hospitality to the two angels of the LORD is what saves he and his family from the destruction of Sodom.

[13] “Hospitality,” p. 300.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Quoted in Ibid.

[16] Ibid., p. 301.

[17] An interesting point: our word “barbecue” comes from the Spanish “barbacoa,” which, it seems, comes from a West Indian term referring to “a raised frame of sticks” on which the meat was roasted (Webster’s Dictionary).  The parallel with the ancient Greek practice is obvious.

[18] Robert A. Strikwerda and Larry May, “Male Friendship and Intimacy,” in Rethinking Masculinity: Philosophical Explorations in Light of Feminism, Second Edition, Edited by Larry May, Robert Strikwerda, and Patrick D. Hopkins, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996, pp. 75-94.

[19] This quote was brought to my attention by Donald Capps.

[20] For example, I have friends around the world that have never met my 11-month-old son.  No matter how much I email them, telling them about him, they do not know him; thus, they do not yet know an important part of my life.

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