Third, mealtime is a place to learn self-control and moderation. This, like gratitude and not complaining, is never fully learned in childhood, and is usually a lifelong struggle. The child’s first lessons in self-control come even before mealtime. “No,” they are often told, “you cannot have a bag of potato chips right now; it is almost mealtime and you will spoil your appetite.” Self-control over one’s appetite for food, and, over all of one’s appetites and passions is fundamental to the formation of good moral character. Many basic table manners have to do with this self-control. We don’t just grab the food with our hands and shove it into our mouths. It takes time, but little children learn to keep the food out of their hair and off of the floor. They learn to take what they need and not waste. They learn to use a fork and a spoon. We dish up our plates, and then we pass the food around to others, and we make sure everyone has enough before we take more. Even then, we should not take too much, even if more is available. Eat too much, as we all have at times, and you will end up not feeling well. In the rest of life it is the same: drink too much, spend too much, insist on your own way too much, sleep too much, procrastinate too much, or goof around too much, and you will regret it. Meal-time is a good place to begin to learn about doing things in moderation and about practicing self-control and about orderly behavior.
Fourth, the family table is a place to learn to communicate, to have a polite conversation. Families that make the effort to have a meal together have at least that much time to talk to each other. This doesn’t happen automatically. Mealtime may be rushed, family members may be upset with each other, and there may be interruptions. But when the effort is made, the opportunity is there, and children can learn the give and take of reasonable conversation– no interrupting in, no loud talking, no talking with your mouth full of food, and to respect the words and the views of others.
Part of wisdom is learning the principles and moral behaviors of a good and upright life. But another part of wisdom is learning to be with people, learning to get along with people, and learning to get your ideas across and to listen to and respect the ideas of others. The family table is an excellent place to learn that.
Jesus himself once used the teaching of table manners to teach a larger lesson about life and morality. Luke 14 tells the story of a time when Jesus was invited to a wedding banquet hosted by a prominent Pharisee. Place cards were apparently not yet invented, so we are told in verse seven that Jesus noticed how the guests were all jostling around, picking for themselves the places of honor at the table. So Jesus said to them (beginning with verse eight): “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat;’ and then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when the host comes he will say to you, ‘Friend, move on up to a better place.’ Then, you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.” There Jesus teaches the table manners, and then in the next verse, he applies the lesson to the rest of life, saying, “For everyone who exalts himself, will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Proper humility, says Jesus, can be learned at the table.
So can gratitude, self-control, communication, civility, and many other things. When teaching the people the laws of God, Moses said (Deuteronomy 6), “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up… and be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God.”
We surely do not want to forget the Lord our God, and an excellent way to remind ourselves of God is to give Him thanks every time we sit down to eat.
Deuteronomy 6:11b-12a — When you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord.
Luke 14:10-11 — (Jesus said), “But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Titus 2:11-13 — For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
A thousand gifts Thou dost impart.
One more I ask, O Lord: A grateful heart.