Table Manners

© Robert P. Hoch 

September 1, 2019 

First & Franklin Presbyterian Church 210 West Madison Street Baltimore MD 21201 

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. 

When Jesus 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.” 

Luke 14:1, 7-14 

When you come as a guest to someone’s home, don’t look for the nicest chair in the house, the leather upholstered one, next to the fireplace, in order to claim it for yourself. Why? Because if you do, and someone else more important than you comes along, the host might walk up to you and ask you to find another place to sit down. “There,” says the host, “sit in that folding chair over there, by the drafty window.” Other people will see this. It might be whispered but others will see it and you will stand out for all the wrong reasons. Much better if you seek out that folding chair, by the drafty window. Cheerfully take that bench or folding chair. 

But don’t sit on it like you’d sit on a folding chair. Sit on it as if it were a throne. If you do that, it may be that your host will notice you sitting in humble estate, and they will say to you, “O dear you, please, don’t sit on that flimsy thing by that drafty window; come over here, sit in 

this chair, by the fireplace. Please, be my guest, my honored guest.” And everyone who sees this will notice you for the right reasons! 

Jesus imparts a lesson that would make Miss Manners proud. It’s the kind of lesson that your parents probably tried to instill in you. It’s about hospitality, humility; it’s about good etiquette at the table. Scholars say Jesus teaching reflects “secular and prudential” wisdom. What’s that? I’m not sure, but if I had to guess, maybe it’s the kind of thing you would hear from a professional coach or perhaps a career counselor. Jesus sounds like a career counselor-slash- parent telling her kids how to behave so they can get ahead in life. Okay, but that’s odd, especially considering the coach in this case is none other than Jesus. As we might recall, his career ended on a cross. And Jesus’ table manners, as we will see in a moment, leave something to be desired, if that’s all they are. 

Indeed, Jesus may sound like a coach but look closer and the picture is all wrong. Strategy or social manners, with Jesus, seem to be in short-supply. And we see the eruption of Jesus’ peculiar manners at meals. Writers say that in Luke’s stories of Jesus, Jesus is either going to a meal, sitting at a meal, or leaving a meal — and frequently leaving controversy in his wake. 

For context, let’s review some of Jesus’ more exceptionally awkward moments at the table. Early in Luke, Jesus joins the tax-collector, Levi, for a “great banquet” in Levi’s house. Jesus was an honored guest in a dishonorable man’s house. Created controversy. Not only because Levi was a disreputable person and all his friends were disreputable with him (fine for them to hang out together), but Jesus was a reputable person with people of ill-repute (that’s bad). If Jesus were ambitious in the way that we might imagine, he would have chosen a better social set. 

And those closest to him, Jesus’ disciples: they liked to eat and drink, apparently with some level of abandon. And people noticed. And people talked. And they said, “You know, the other church down the road, they don’t party like that. But the parties that you put on, they’re loud, disturb the religious peace, and it’s just not right.” 

Case in point, Jesus encouraged his disciples to grab the heads of grain as they were walking through fields, to eat as they were going along, as this were free for the picking. It wasn’t “free for the picking,” at least not on the Sabbath. You just don’t pick grain when it’s posted not to pick grain. Unless you’re with a Jesus-crowd. 

We were in Sacramento, California in August. And this being California, there were oranges growing from every tree down in the capital and the signs were clear, Don’t pick the fruit. And believe me, I didn’t pick any. People were watching. And when they’re watching, I like to be compliant. I commanded my kids, “Don’t pick any oranges!” Not Jesus. If it were him, he would have encouraged them, “Go ahead, pick one for you and while you’re at it, get one for me, too.” Jesus didn’t figure the no trespass signs applied to him. 

A model of meal etiquette Jesus is not. So, there’s controversy, often, around Jesus’ table manners. Who he invites, with whom eats, how eats, when he eats, and the immodesty with which he eats, and the imprudent generosity he shows as host. 

If Jesus sees a couple of thousand people who are hungry, and tired, and distressed, he feeds them. Does he have enough food for that many? No, at least not apparently. But somehow, he breaks the mold of conventional manners, and conventional etiquette, and conventional banquets with unconventional mercy, unconventional love. 

Based on the history of Jesus at table, we would be right to suspect that our text today only seems like Jesus is your typical career counselor, helping you prepare your resume for success. Indeed, look a bit more closely, and we find some tell-tale marks that just beneath the surface is a deeper invitation to community, a form of manners, if you like, that turns our manners inside out and upside down. 

If we work backwards, from the end of the text, we get a sense that Jesus basically reverses our “imagined” best luncheon ever. He lists four types of people we like to party with: our friends, our immediate family, our near relatives, and rich people. We prefer guest lists that glitter. But Jesus says invite four kinds of people who don’t glitter with success or praise, namely, the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame. 

Jesus envisions a different kind of community, bound by a different kind of social etiquette. With that in mind, a couple of words stand out in this text. Luke’s Jesus speaks of the way people will “honor” you if you take a lower seat and are asked by the host to move to a higher seat. The Greek here is doxa, from which we get doxology, or glory. 

That word doxa would have caught the attention of Luke’s intended audience. Doxa isn’t something humans give to one another. Theologians will say that glory goes out from God and returns to God. To God be the glory. We reflect God’s glory, or we mirror in some subtle way God’s glory. We don’t win it by success or wealth or because we’re likable people. We get the sense that the honor here is less something that people give and more something they see, that they glimpse. It’s something unusual and beautiful at the same time. 

Luke’s Jesus also speaks of a kind of humility that does not depend on the praise of whoever is watching. The person with this kind of humility doesn’t long for the warm bath of affirmation so many of us feel we need. Nor is it identical with feeling low about ourselves, and therefore artificially assessing ourselves negatively. Rather, this humility rises from a sense of worth that comes from knowing our worth comes from God’s love. 

When you know your worth, there isn’t a seat so low that can rob you of that. No prison so dark as to extinguish your hope. You know your worth comes from God and God came down to us, the least of us, and God delights in that place, being with us. God in Jesus doesn’t become a low-self-esteem God because he’s hanging out with us. It’s like Jesus enjoys us; his humility is perfect. 

The next word-clue is that Jesus speaks not of one’s success in winning friends and influencing people but talks about the real world that our different table manners anticipate, a world of unconventional love, unconventional freedom, unconventional guests. 

When you sit down at a table where the etiquette anticipates resurrection, you’re not going to find the standard slate of glittering guests. In his book, The Second Mountain, New York Times columnist David Brooks tells the story of a family that basically opened its doors to thirty or so kids, some living troubled lives, unofficial orphans. No stable home life, that kind of thing. And each week, they got together for dinner. It was an odd collection of people but a loving one. When Brooks showed up, a self-described non-hugger, he was welcomed at the door by a young guy who hugged him. First suggestion to him that this community operated under different kind of table etiquette. 

And then at table, everyone shared. Not only bread, but they shared something that gave them joy, or something they were thinking about. Real things. Some of them shared really thorny questions, like being pregnant and not knowing what to do next. It’s amazing how real life becomes when you eat with real people who reflect God’s glory rather than the glitter we take as success and good taste. 

It’s almost like resurrection

It’s almost like a church I heard about. My guess is some of you have heard this story before. But it’s a good story and it bears repeating. Maybe it was in the sixties. But a young person wandered into the church one Sunday morning. He didn’t come in at 10:30 a.m. Maybe he came around 11:15 a.m., most of the way through the sermon, after the ushers had sat down. And he didn’t come in like you or I would come to church, if we happened to be that late. I know none of us have ever been that late, but if were we wouldn’t come in like this: he didn’t slip in modestly; he sauntered down the middle of the church, took his time like this was all perfectly normal. Imagine how he might have been dressed. Maybe he was not your typical dyed-in-the- wool Presbyterian. 

And all eyes were on him. His hair wasn’t right. His walk wasn’t normal. His clothes didn’t blend in. Who wouldn’t watch this freak of nature? And where does he sit? You’d think he’d want to be inconspicuous, but no, he sits right in front of the pulpit, in the aisle, on the floor. 

Good grief! Somebody do something! I’m very uncomfortable with this! 

And somebody, finally, did. A silver-haired saint saw the commotion, the discomfort, and decided to do something about it. Thank God . . . finally! And everyone watched with rapt anticipation as he made his way to the young man sitting in the middle aisle in the front of the church, listening to the sermon that, of course, no one was listening to. Instead, they were listening to a sermon lived in real time. And the suspense was palpable. Maybe they thought the silver-haired saint would gently guide this orphan to his senses and to his manners, i.e. to a pew — thank you! But no, he didn’t do that. It was almost as if he knew church manners deeper, resurrection deeper. Loving God deeper. Like he knew Christ poured out love deeper. . . . 

So what did he do? Well, that silver-haired saint sat down next to that young saint, both of them awkward as hell and beautiful as God’s own glory reflected here on earth. 

Where are you sitting today? I guess we all found our place alright this morning. Ushers helped you. You got the flight plan for the service, our bulletin. Even so, maybe every one of us is a little self-conscious about how we are in this place, with whom we are in this place. You ever see a bird that finds its way into a place like this? They flutter, panicky, they fret; or, somehow, they inhabit glory as if it were their natural habitat; they find a place, by some invisible grace, and their they raise their young. I think that’s our soul, a blur of panic, not sure where to land, where to go. Maybe that’s your own soul. If that’s you, don’t be surprised if you find Jesus nearby, a tender presence, and a strong love, beside you, with you, as if reflecting God’s glory were your natural home. 

One of the psalms says that even the sparrow has found herself a home in God’s temple. May it be so for all of us. Amen.