SCRIPTURE READING Luke 14:1,7-14
On one occasion when Jesus[a] was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
MESSAGE “Etiquette, Ethics, Everyone” Rev. James R. Renfrew
When you sit down for a meal at your house, are there any rules or customs that you follow? There’s the simple table setting plan, fork and napkin on the left, spoon and knife on the right. Maybe some beautiful flowers as a centerpiece.
When I was growing up we usually had dinner around the kitchen table, and I think people just sat down in whatever chair was available. But on special occasions, usually during holidays, we had dinner in our Dining Room. The seating was carefully defined. My Dad sat at the head of the table, and he was responsible for passing each plate of vegetables, potatoes and the main course around the table, always admonished by my mom to step up to that important role. My mom sat at the opposite end of the table, the chair closest to the kitchen, not the head of the table, but actually she was the one in charge of the meal, trying to make sure that everyone knew how to enjoy a family meal properly.
My sister Tina sitting right here with us this morning I expect will have memories of this that contradict mine, but I remember most of all that my mom had a heightened awareness of proper table etiquette; it was her special calling to educate and train the family to live according to her higher standards. Maybe I remember this because I did not have the high calling to etiquette that my mother had. I liked to think that common sense is more important than etiquette, but not in my mom’s house. “Please put the milk on the table”, my mom would ask me, and I would dutifully put the milk carton on the table. Wrong! Milk was properly poured into a pitcher, not served from the carton, while I thought that it was common sense not to soil another dish that would need to be washed afterwards. If we failed to abide by the rules of etiquette we were admonished to do so, no matter what common sense might offer.
Did you, do you, have rules of etiquette around your dinner table? Can you name some of those rules?
Our Bible reading from Luke’s Gospel is based on the rules of etiquette of Jesus’ day. These rules were different than the ones we may be familiar with, but it’s important to look at them because they are the take-off point for understanding the heart of Jesus’ teachings, which has less to do with etiquette, and a lot more to do with ethics, less to do with you and your immediate family, and much more to do with everybody else.
There were elaborate protocols governing the seating arrangements at important meals, especially weddings. The most important honored people sat at the head of the table, and then seats were assigned in rank of importance to everyone else, so the least important people sat at the foot of the table. The people at the head were served first, received the hottest, freshest fare, while those at the foot of the table got served last in smaller portions and the food no longer even warm.
So it appears that there was good reason to try to sit as close to the head table as possible, better food and better service. But there was a danger in that because someone might call you on it. “Hey, you! Get out of that seat. There are people far more important than you here. Move it!” This of course would be highly embarrassing and humiliating. So Jesus offers some good advice. It’s better to sit in one of the worst seats and then be invited to move up to first class, than to sit in first class and then be demoted.
Now this sounds like good etiquette for those days. Take a seat so as to minimize your chance of humiliation and to maximize your chance to be honored. By humble, know your proper place, and don’t be grasping for more than you deserve. So, OK, now you know table etiquette, taught by Jesus himself.
But Jesus has more to say than that. It’s not just etiquette, it’s ethics, The little tagline at the end of the first part of the story goes far beyond table manners to something else entirely. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Maybe you will like my translation of those words: “Those who think they are important will find that they are not, and those think themselves unimportant will be surprised at how important they really are.”
It’s a big hint that Jesus is moving far beyond table behavior. It’s not just wedding banquets; it’s not just seating arrangements at important dinners. It’s everything about your status in the world, which becomes a spiritually provocative question about what really constitutes “status”. Is your status based upon what you have gained, or is it based upon what you have given? Is your status based upon whom you have excluded, pushed aside or left behind? Or is your status based upon whom you have included, drawn in and welcomed to the table of life? And there’s even more: the status Jesus is talking about is not just your position or status today, it’s about your eternal status, and how your life helps bend the universe in the direction of hospitality, inclusion and love. Jesus shifts our entire focus; it’s not at all about you, it’s about everyone else. If you thought this teaching was only about table manners, you’re missing the bigger point.
For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. If it’s really about everyone else, not just yourself, then the best way to live is always about including more people around the table, and that our challenge is not to move up to the important seat, but to find ways to give those seats to others.
At the end of the reading, Jesus pulls it all back to the dinner table, again asking a simple, provocative question: who is on your invitation list, just people like yourself, or are there others, too?
My sister Tina and her husband Tim are visiting this weekend. These days Tim is deeply involved in daily ethical choices, doing everything he can to reduce the depletion of scarce resources and understanding more clearly the impact our daily decisions on the environmental health and climate of the planet.
Tim shared a provocative insight. Years ago, it would have been a virtuous thing for him to bring home a bunch of flowers to give to his mom to put on the dinner table. That kind gesture would have earned him “points” in God’s eyes, just like any of the good things any of us do to honor our relatives and friends. But now he is much more aware of the environmental impact of giving flowers, that those flowers may have been transported thousands of miles from South America, the cumulative impact of which depletes scarce resources and creates damage to the environment, and it is very possible that the gift of flowers like that is no longer such a virtue before God. Have God’s standards for virtuous behavior changed? I would put it this way, that we are deepening our understanding of Christian ethics by thinking more clearly about factors that we did not previously consider at all. Something as simple as flowers from the flower shop has a dimension we have to consider as good citizens, as faithful Christians, as people concerned about planetary health. Or, as Tim, put it, demonstrating great common sense, wouldn’t it be better to pick flowers from your own yard?
I recently visited my Mom. At 93 she doesn’t put on formal meals anymore. Her big meal of the day is in a dinning room with dozens of others. Of course, my mom is still teaching me proper etiquette at meals we share – she still reminds me to wash my hands before dinner in the exact same words that she did when I was five years old. But I also notice that some common sense has crept in – she drinks out a milk carton at the dinner table, no pitcher any more. More importantly, she grasps the ethics of Jesus’ teaching, the best etiquette, the best ethics involves reaching out to meet and welcome others. She told me that many of the people in the dining room always sit with the same people every meal, but she emphatically resists that, and looks around the room to sit with people she doesn’t know well yet.
Etiquette, ethics, and including everybody. The Pharisees were watching Jesus closely at the dinner table – to see if he broke the rules. Instead, he brought the rules to life so that everyone could be welcomed and honored.
So much to discover in this old parable that Jesus told, this is what I love about the Bible, always something new to discover, even when we’ve been set in our ways.