In recent years many people have criticized the decline of etiquette and manners in our world. To many, it seems that society has grown accustomed to things that would have been considered incredibly rude only a decade or so before. My Grandma was always in charge of patrolling this area for my family. Even though Grandma and Grandpa didn’t have much in the way of material things, this was by no means an excuse to be uncivilized! There would be no elbows on the table, the forks were always on the left, and you most certainly did not come inside the house without taking off your hat or cap! So this morning, in memory of my Grandma Pauline, I want to give you a little reminder of some important Table Manners. So, here are ten simple table manners from Emily Post’s daughter Lizzie, who has updated them just a bit for this generation: 1.) Chew with your mouth shut. 2.) Avoid slurping, smacking, blowing your nose, or other gross noises. (If necessary, excuse yourself to take care of whatever it is you need to take care of.) 3.) Don’t use your utensils like a shovel or as if you’ve just stabbed the food you’re about to eat. 4.) Don’t pick your teeth at the table. 5.) Remember to use your napkin at all times (contrary to popular belief, this is not the reason shirt sleeves were invented – that addition is from Grandma). 6.) Wait until you’re done chewing to sip or swallow a drink. (The exception is if you’re choking.) 7.) Cut only one piece of food at a time. 8.) Avoid slouching and don’t place your elbows on the table while eating (though it is okay to prop your elbows on the table while conversing between courses.) 9.) Instead of reaching across the table for something, ask for it to be passed to you. 10.) Always say ‘excuse me’ whenever you leave the table.
We won’t take a poll on how many of those you all follow, because today I want to talk about a different kind of table etiquette – a kind that comes from a significantly higher authority than Emily Post’s daughter! Someone once said that in the book of Luke you always find Jesus coming to a meal, at a meal, or leaving a meal, and that is true in this passage. Jesus had been invited to the home of one of the leading Pharisees, but it wasn’t just your average social occasion. The passage shares the real reason for the invitation – they were watching Jesus closely.
This group of Pharisees and religious scholars probably wanted to give Jesus a very thorough test, but in a surprising twist, the only observations made at the table came from Jesus himself, as he began to comment on their table manners. You see, the religious and social culture of that day had very strict and well-developed list of social rules for eating together, and there were an incredible number of do’s and don’ts. The ways you interacted in these settings were very much tied to your social standing and your place in society. The place you sat at the table was incredibly important and determined your social rank, so we may not be surprised to find that as they sat down to eat, there was a great deal of jockeying for position.
Lest you think we’re above this kind of behavior, and social ranking has nothing to do with your seating, just think about your last family Thanksgiving or Christmas gathering. Maybe your family has a “kids table” that still has thirty and forty year olds sitting at it?! At Nanci’s family gatherings, those of us who are the younger adults in the family had to wait until we had enough kids to populate the kids table with grandkids in order to get to sit with the adults! In my family, my Dad sat in the same spot at the table for as long as I can remember! And even though we might think these kinds of things don’t really matter in our day and age, it was a little bit awkward the first Thanksgiving after my Dad’s death, because no one else had ever sat in that place.
Jesus noticed how the people put a great deal of effort as they jostled for position at the table, so he began to teach through a parable. He told the people gathering around the table the best way to go about choosing a seat. “If you’re invited to a banquet, don’t simply sit in the place of honor. You just might not be the most honored person there, and it will be incredibly humiliating when your host asks you to give up your seat and you have to traipse back down to the children’s table…” Instead, Jesus says, “Sit at the least honorable place, so that your host can invite you to the higher place. Then you’ll receive a great honor.”
Now what happened next is the most surprising, because Jesus doesn’t stop with what may have been accepted as reasonable and practical advice. Instead he challenged the very notion of what honor and privilege were all about as he turned to look at the host and challenged the practical wisdom and etiquette of the day.
Meals like this one were not just occasions to gather, eat, and talk; they were occasions to build your own reputation and connections. Gifts, such as an invitation to a meal, weren’t free but were tied to obligations to those who accepted the invitation. If you gave out an invitation, you expected to receive one in return. In a way, these dinner invitations were a lot like political rallies. You’re invited to attend, but there are expectations that are tied to the invitation. But Jesus turned this on its head when he said, “When you have a big meal, don’t invite all the people you’d normally think of inviting, just because they can invite you in return and pay you back. Instead, when you throw a party, invite the poor, cripples, lame, and blind because they can’t repay you. And in the end, you’ll receive your reward, not from them, but at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Jesus gave them, and he gives us, a completely different kind of table etiquette. In those days, common wisdom and social etiquette said jockey for position. Jesus said God’s etiquette calls for something completely different – all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted. In those days, common wisdom and social etiquette was to invite those who can give in return. Jesus said that God’s etiquette reminds us to invite the very least: the poor, lame, and blind. And when we show generosity to those who can never give in return, Jesus says that we’ll find out something incredible. You won’t be repaid in the usual way, but you’ll be repaid by the very God who created every man, woman, and child. God himself will be the one who gives in return for those who are unable in the resurrection of the righteous.
Jesus shows us that God’s table etiquette operates with an entirely different way of looking at the world, and I believe that is directly connected today with our celebration of Holy Communion today. At God’s table, everyone is welcome. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, able or disabled, young or old, white, black, Asian, or Hispanic. As we kneel at Christ’s table today, we are shoulder to shoulder and elbow to elbow with people from all walks of life. Because around Christ’s table, we are all one receiving the very same grace, love, and forgiveness that only God can give. Kneeling at the feet of Jesus Christ, we are all loved, we are all cared for, and we have all been offered the same gift of forgiveness and Salvation. As we prepare our hearts and minds for communion today, let us pray that God will give us the grace to practice the kind of etiquette we learn at God’s table outside these walls in our daily lives – that’s the kind of etiquette that will truly be rewarded…
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.