Table Manners

[This sermon was delivered on 9.1.19 at Perinton Presbyterian Church.]

 

One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched…. When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “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 person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. 10 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. 11 For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

12 Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:1, 7-14)

 

Do you have a bucket list? I do, a list of things I’d like to do before I die. Recently, my wife and I hosted good friends from out of state for three days. In one of our rambling conversations, Carl asked each of us: what is on your bucket list? We enjoyed hearing each other’s answers. One of mine is this: I would like to attend a state dinner at the White House. It wouldn’t matter the occasion. I have walked through the East Room of the White House on tours several times; I would like to enter it in formal attire and be seated at a table for a genuine state dinner. It wouldn’t matter which table, but I wouldn’t mind if it were close to the head table.

 

I have served at over 200 weddings, so I know something of seating protocol at formal dinners. There is the newlywed couple, then the wedding party, the immediate families, the good friends of long standing, and the more distant friends and relatives. My main concern is that I not be assigned to a table right in front of a big, loud speaker. That makes conversation impossible. If I am assigned a seat in front of a speaker, I might survey the room for empty seats at other tables and make a stealthy move.

 

I like being at formal dinners. The food is usually well above average. And there is a festivity. The tables are set with fine linen, often with fresh flowers and candles in the center of each table. There are more forks than one needs, each with its own unique purpose. There might be little treats, like chocolate, intended to follow dinner, but I usually find a way to open them before dinner and sneak them into my mouth, discreetly of course.

 

Why do Pharisees keep inviting Jesus to their dinners? I think they would know in advance that they are likely to disagree with him about fine points of theology and faithful living. He doesn’t wear the finest clothing, because he doesn’t have any. He probably doesn’t shower every morning. He doesn’t even own a home, or a chariot; not even a donkey. I can only imagine that they find him so interesting. Immensely interesting. His ability to spin stories from everyday life is already legendary. Like him or not, he brings life to the party. The table conversation will be anything but dull.

 

“One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched….” Aha! They are carefully watching him. Perhaps they are looking to catch him saying something so wrong, something heretical by their standards, that they can have him turned over to the leading rabbis and be done with him.

 

Sure enough, Jesus is troubled. He sees a pecking order, according to which people readily know where they stand—and sit—in this dinner party. We can picture it. The wealthy get these seats. The well-connected get those seats. The beautiful people are there. No, no, no, Jesus says: “But when you are invited, take the lowest place….” Then he illustrates by way of a wedding feast story, ending with this jarring conclusion: “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” That is just not the way most people see life working. In our current immigration crisis, some see the answer as having a merit approach. Let those best able to care for themselves and succeed come in, but not others that cannot care for themselves as well. Jesus is not addressing the current American immigration crisis, but he challenging the ways things are, the way we tend to do life. He doesn’t seem to endorse the meritocracy approach.

 

Jesus is always challenging the status quo, the ways things are. He sees things in new ways, different ways, better ways. He is ever rocking the boat and stirring the pot. His first words spoken in a synagogue in Luke’s gospel give warning: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:17-18)

 

Jesus continues, as the dinner guests are either delighted or troubled by him (I expect some were in each camp). “When you throw your next lunch or dinner party, don’t just invite the usual people: the wealthy and well-connected. No, invite some less obvious folks”: “…invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind….” Invite some people that can’t pay you back.

 

Many see life as all transactional. I’ll scratch your back and you’ll scratch mine. Two movies illustrate different approaches. In “The Godfather”, Vito Corleone does favors to people and keeps track, so he can call in those favors when he needed them. He likes having people in his debt. Another movie took a different tack. In “Pay It Forward,” the one receiving a favor was not to pay it back to the benefactor, but to find someone else in need and do the kindness to that one. There is no question which way Jesus leans. Do kindness to people that can’t pay it back to you. Set them free to help others. “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.” Invite those so often overlooked.

 

The author of Hebrews urges such radical hospitality. “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” The New Testament word hospitality literally means loving the foreigner, the stranger. Hospitality can be a power game, in which the one offering hospitality is in the obvious place of privilege and power. It can be like, “I have a nice, large house and you don’t, so I will invite you over and impress you with how successful I am.” That is not biblical hospitality. In biblical hospitality, we sit at the same table, stand on level ground, and look each other in the eye as friends, as sisters and brothers. These two passages link humility and hospitality.

 

When I pastored in eastern New York, I was a member of a covenant group of pastors that met every other month for a full day of worship, mutual support, and food. For one meeting we had a guest speaker, whom I hosted at my home the night before. As we drove to the meeting, he asked me about the group. There were about 12 regulars and I described them as I knew them, one at a time. When it came to John, I said something like this. “When John enters a room, he looks for anyone that might be on the edge, perhaps feeling alone, and he goes over and quietly welcomes that one. Then he looks for what needs to be done and he does it, quietly, never calling attention to himself.” When we arrived at our meeting place, I started introducing Michael to each member already there. About half were there and others were coming in. Michael saw one person quietly moving chairs to create a circle for all of us, making sure coffee mugs and water glasses were filled. Michael looked at me and looked toward that one, and mouthed to me, “John?” “Yes,” I mouthed back. John wasn’t trying to look humble; he just was. He wasn’t trying to look like a servant; he simply was a servant. His humility wasn’t broadcast; it was authentically lived.

 

  1. S. Lewis caught what biblical humility is in two simple sentences:
  • Humilityis not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”
  • “A man (or woman) is never so proud as when striking an attitude of humility.”

The worst form of pride is trying to look humble. We are not called to look humble, but to be humble. Humble and hospitable. If we are good at something, it isn’t humility to pretend otherwise. That may be pride, which is the polar opposite of true humility. If we are good at something, true humility allows us to accept that and give glory to God, the source of every good and perfect gift. Jesus embodies humility and hospitality and calls us to do the same.

 

The next time we invite people over for dinner, what will the guest list look like?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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