Few routine activities in life require as much diplomacy, patience, grace, and deliberate silence as taking care of a shared check at a restaurant with a large group of friends. If handled right, it’s a transaction no one thinks twice about; if not, even the best of meals winds up sitting poorly in the stomach. The moment of truth—when the vinyl folder is placed strategically center table amidst the remaining glasses and utensils with a delicate, “I’ll take care of that when you’re ready,” by the server—can be an unnerving experience. According to Seattle etiquette consultant Mary Mitchell, how best to split the bill on such occasions is one of the most common things she is asked. In essence, the key is less figuring out the numbers than it is divining the personalities in-volved. Most dinner parties will include one or more of the following characters:
The Calculator: Who whips out the cell phone to decipher the precise split based on everyone’s orders, the tax and tip. The Moocher: Who never tosses in more than a token $10 or $20 on the money pile, or lets everyone else take care of the tipping. The Equalizer: Who insists on an even split despite vast differences in who ordered what and how much. The Cringer: Who subsidizes the meals of others, paying $30 for a side salad and ice water because she won’t speak up. The Conscientious Objector: Who sees The Cringer getting short-changed and advocates for a fairer split. The Wait and See-er: Who does what everyone else wants to do, hoping it comes out in his favor. The Cleanup Splitter: Who is well off (or wants others to think so) and pitches in the missing $20 or pays the entire bill rather than sit through the discussion.
I had to smile when I read this article, because I could see the similarities in people’s involvement in the church and how much we give—of ourselves, our time, our possessions. We all feast on the Word, partake of the Sacraments, bask in the afterglow of fellowship and service; and while God never presents us with a bill (that’s taken care of up-front by Christ: His cross, the stamp PAID IN FULL!), there still exists a certain degree of internal calculation regarding how much each one of us should chip in. Perhaps less important than tallying up the dollars, minutes, and who got what is making a good and loving assessment of each other. We are fed. Grace abounds. Salvation is ours. However, it’s not simply about what we get individually, but how the group dynamics are played out in the process, that makes a church. We exist, as Christians, in community. We are connected, linked, bound together. There are over a hundred “one another” clauses in the New Testament—sixteen “love one another’s,” and others as varied as “forgive,” “be patient with,” “be subject to,” “teach and admonish,” “lay down our lives for,” etc. Although in the restaurant world it might be best to ask for separate checks, in the church that would be a denial of what we are called to be. Writes Mitchell, “The bottom line on the bottom line is to consider those around your table.” Says Jesus, to his disciple dinner-mates in the upper room, “This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you. No on has greater love than this, to lay down his life for his friends. And you are my friends.” [John 15:12]
Figuring out the different kind of characters present when the bill comes turns that awkward moment into a game. And, after all, enjoying a meal with friends is the point, not who pays what. We may ask ourselves what kind of character we are with regard to being a congregational partner; but should keep in mind in our savoring this “foretaste of the feast to come,” what matters most is not what anyone gives, but what we all receive. And it’s God’s treat.