Table Manners

Luke 14:1, 7-14     

12th Sunday after Pentecost

I want to ask all of you who are sitting, how much thought did you give it?  Sitting, I mean.  Not how to sit, but where to sit and why.  Are you in the back row or the front?  And with whom are you sitting?  Maybe you just come and sit in the same space every Sunday and so by now you don’t think about it much.  But if you have ever organized a wedding reception, you must.  If you don’t assign tables, nobody will sit with your crazy aunt.  Is the space large enough for separate tables for cousin Sue and cousin Mary, who swore a solemn oath never to be in the same room with each other?   If you’ve attended a reception, most likely you have thought about the seating arrangements as you walk into the banquet hall and look for your seat…  “Oh, table 23!  This is not a good sign.  It’s over there in the corner, by the kitchen.  Let’s see, do I know anyone at my table?  Who did they seat up front?”

The answer to that comes after everyone finds their place and voices hush, the mother of the bride stands up, and with a smile says, “I would like to thank you all for coming here today to celebrate my daughters wedding.  Just for your information, the seating arrangement has been specially organized such that all of the people that bought large presents are sitting towards the front and those that bought cheaper smaller presents at the back.  (Pause)  There is a special thanks for Uncle Fred, who is all the way in the back, for the oven glove.  (Pause)  The bride would like to ask Uncle Fred if she could have the other glove for their silver wedding anniversary.”

Jesus tells of a similar banquet, one given by a top leader of the Pharisees. You can place odds on who is invited. The governor, the city attorney, CEOs of various corporations, the president of the university and the head of the arts council.  Everyone who is anyone is there. As Jesus steps through the doorway, everyone’s eyes turn toward him; they’ve been keeping close watch lately.  But as they are eye-ing him,  Jesus’ eyes are on them.  He sees them jostling for position as they make their way toward the tables.  It’s the governor in the lead, but the arts council is gaining on the outside.  Coming from behind, the reverend doctor almost sideswipes the president.  They’re neck in neck. You see, the closer you sit to the host, the higher yoursocial status becomes.

The Pharisees made note of where people were seated, who ate with whom, what was eaten, and who washed their hands.  Dinner parties were a matter of honor and pride. This was true whether one was the host or the guest.  Gatherings became a vehicle for self-serving pride. It’s this pride that Jesus rails against, the kind of pride Ted Turner had when he said, “If only I had a little humility, I would be perfect.”

Miss Manners explains this issue this way:  “It is extremely difficult to make others acquainted with how very much one has to be humble about.  No, that’s not quite what Miss Manners meant to say.  What is difficult is to establish gracefully that one has cause to be proud and haughty, before one can be contrastingly humble.”

It is the Pharisee’s lack of humility, their self-serving pride and the jostling for position that cause Jesus to put on his “Mr. Manners hat.”    “When you are invited to dinner, go and sit at the last place,” he advises the guests. Turning toward the host he says, “Don’t ask people to your party because you expect a big gift when it comes time for the wedding.  The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, in case they invite you in return, and you would be repaid.”

Jesus warns his guests, and us, “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  In God’s social strata, “The last shall be first, and the first will be last.”  God is unimpressed with our social credentials.  Whether we are of the Vanderbilt family or the Smith’s doesn’t matter.  If we are president of Apple, God doesn’t care.  If Oprah is our best friend, that won’t change God’s view of us.  The protocol of God’s kingdom is different than ours. Honor and glory are given to us by God, not because we are rich, powerful or successful, but because we are faithful. And when it comes right down to it, God’s approval is the only one that matters.  Perhaps its time we learn new table manners.

What Jesus teaches us holds true whether we are hosting a party, sitting in a classroom or riding the bus.  Time and energy spent trying to impress others, and trying to elevate our status is wasted time. Giving because we expect to get more than one glove for the wedding puts our focus on what we think we deserve because we earned it.  In God’s economy, there is nothing we can do to earn God’s love.  God loves us first, unconditionally.  Our love for God and each other is our response to God’s love for us.  Because God loves us, we use the hours and talents that God gives us to help others who cannot help us in return.

On this day of installing teachers and blessing backpacks, we are reminded of the many moments of great kindness without expectations of return.  Our Preschoolers share with each other. Teachers stoop to listen intently to a child.   Parents give their time to help with Winter Carnival.  Placing value on children is what Jesus is talking about; they are people who aren’t expected to further our social standing.

Jesus turns the tables on our human priorities and values.  God knows that when we strive to be the most important person in the room, the richest, the most intelligent,–when we place our value and our values on these things, we end up anxious, alone, stressed and disappointed.

That God cares so much for the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind is good news, because we are them.  We are the poor who struggle to give more than we receive.  We are crippled by our fears of failure. We are the lame who cannot take a step forward into the unknown.  We are blind,– blind to God’s passionate love for us.  This morning, we come together in community to care for each other.   We are reminded that those things that we cannot do for each other and for ourselves, Jesus does for us on the cross.

Today is the social event of the season, and we are on Jesus’ guest list to celebrate at his banquet.  God’s kingdom is one of abundance, of generosity and hospitality. Jesus puts us in our place, opening our hands to receive salvation in bread and wine.  We are invited to the table to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ.  The thing about God’s table is that all the seats are in first-class.  It is a gift that we do not deserve and we cannot repay,– a foretaste of God’s feast to come.  Jesus is our host who says to us, “Friend, you there, in the back, come up to the front.”

~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin

Author: Pastor Cheryl Griffin

Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin thinks God has a sense of humor for leading her into ministry, but can’t imagine doing anything else! Pastor Griffin received her BA degree from the College of William and Mary. She worked as an accountant before God led her to the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, where she received her Master of Divinity degree. In the Virginia Synod, Pastor Griffin is a member of the Ministerium Team and frequently leads small groups at synod youth events. She is also a representative to the VA Synod Council.