Luke 14:1, 7-14
Remember Jay Leno. One night he offered some etiquette tips for those who plan, or attend, weddings. Politely waiting in the receiving line for 10 minutes to kiss the bride … Good Etiquette. Kissing the bride for 10 minutes … Bad Etiquette. The guests place their gifts by the sign reading “Gift Table” … Good Etiquette.The groom replaces those gifts by the sign reading “Yard Sale” … Bad Etiquette. The bride and the groom thank Uncle Harold for his check … Good Etiquette. They ask Uncle Harold for two forms of ID before accepting the check …Bad Etiquette
Etiquette is a word that seems to be disappearing from the culture. Back in the 80s a group of us at our church ran a little midweek Kids Klub for some Eritrean and Vietnamese immigrant children. One of the parishioners would bring them to church on Sundays. We showed them bible cartoons and played some games. It was a chance for them to develop their English and learn a little about Jesus in the process.
I noticed that these kids were very shy around the other adults in the parish. Now I went to high school with kids from very well-off families. And a lot of these kids were very comfortable and confident around our teachers. Almost peer level with them. That didn’t just happen. Their parents schooled them at an early age on correct social behavior. And that schooling gave the comfort and confidence in all social situations. It’s what we used to call – good breeding.
I realized that we could help these immigrant children a lot if we schooled them in some basic etiquette. So we did.
We started with introductions. When you are introduced to an adult, you do three things. Give them a firm handshake. Look them square in the eye. And use their name when you respond. “Very nice to meet you Mr. Jones.” Simple stuff, but somebody has to teach you. Then we went on to table manners. Boys, when you are called to the table, DON’T SIT DOWN. Wait until all the women are seated. Then you can sit down and place your napkin on your lap. But DON’T EAT! I got a lot of quizzical looks. You don’t eat until the hostess lifts her fork. What if everyone else starts eating? You wait.
So we practiced. I set out plates of chocolate cake and called them to the table. All the boys stood until all the girls were seated. The boys started to sit. I called out, “Wait!” and pointed to Donna walking to the table. Donna was one of the adult advisors and she took the hostess seat at the head of the table.
There they were all seated in front of their chocolate cake waiting for Donna to lift her fork. But Donna was engaged in a conversation with one of the girls who sat next to her. Donna kept on talking oblivious to the rest of the group. On purpose.The kids thought she’d never shut up!
Finally, Donna shifted her attention to the table and looked with mock surprise at her plate of cake. And, as one, all of the kids around the table ever so slightly leaned in. Donna reached for her fork and all hands were on deck.
Now it might have seemed a little cruel to be toying with those kids. We did it because we loved them. We wanted them to remember. And the day would come when they would be at a certain dinner party. They would feel comfortable and confident knowing how to behave. Their manners would set the apart and stand them in good stead.
In this morning’s Gospel, we have a group of high achievers – the elite of Jerusalem. A leading Pharisee has invited Jesus to Sabbath dinner. The host was an expert in the law. He was very conscientious to live his life according to the law. The guests he invited had similar backgrounds. They would enjoy a good dinner with the visiting rabbi followed by intellectual conversation late into the evening. You would expect with a group like that that Jesus would engage them in some very erudite conversation. But he doesn’t. Because while this elite group has been watching Jesus very closely all evening, Jesus has been watching them And he didn’t have to watch them all that closely to observe some behavior that needed to be addressed.
When these guests arrived, they had presumed to take the honored places at the table. They didn’t wait to be invited. Now these folks weren’t a bunch of country peasants. So you would expect their behavior to be up to the level of expertise. It wasn’t. Jesus looks right through their expertise and offers them a parable about etiquette.
Now when Jesus calls this a parable, that’s a clue to us that this is about more than etiquette. Just as the parable of the sower is about more than sowing seed. Jesus tells them: “When you are invited by anyone to a marriage feast, do not sit down in the place of honor, lest a more eminent man than you be invited by him; and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give place to this man.’”
It might seem that offering etiquette lessons to such an august gathering of men would be condescending. But Jesus wasn’t being condescending. He was being loving, just as we were loving to our immigrant children. The Renaissance philosopher Plutarch once observed that it is in the small, apparently trivial act that character is reflected. When you consider that God chose to leave his heaven and condescend to live among us, then you got believe that God is concerned even about our everyday and trivial behaviors. It matters to him. That’s because behavior reflects character. In God’s kingdom, those who humble themselves are exalted. That applies not just to the dinner table, but to our everyday interactions.
I remember dealing with a bank teller who seemed to take forever to handle my transaction. I’m not the most patient person in the world and I started to feel a little annoyed. But then the teller looked up and said, “Thank you for being so patient with me. This is my first day on the job.”
Completely disarmed me! Her humble manner took all the wind out of my sail because we all know what it is like on the first day of a new job. My opinion of her instantly changed. She was no longer an incompetent imbecile. Instantly she became the aspiring, conscientious teller with a bright future ahead. A humble attitude toward others actually reflects your own confidence. A humble attitude says that you don’t need to defend or prove your own worth. You are comfortable with yourself.
I think Pope Francis understands the value of the humble approach. Up until the 19th century, visitors would kiss the pope’s shoes when meeting him. Today the tradition holds that all visitors bow to him. But when Queen Rania of Jordon visited the Vatican with her husband King Abdullah II, the Pope bowed very reverently to her. Imagine how disarming that must be to have the leader of 1.2 billion worldwide Catholics bow to you.
Jesus said, “When you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host cme, 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.” Now the human ego is quite clever. And some of those dinner guests might have been hearing Jesus offer a strategy for self-exaltation. Take the lowest seat and you will be asked to come up higher. Suddenly, everyone is making a mad dash for the lowest seat. But Jesus is clear that he is not offering strategies for competitive advantage. He’s giving tips on good breeding in kingdom living. Those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Jesus goes on to offer kingdom etiquette for hosts. Now every gracious host knows that the first rule of etiquette for a host is to make your guests comfortable. That’s why Queen Victoria lifted her finger bowl and drank from it. You see her guest, the Shaw of Persia, had just done the same with his finger bowl. It’s also why King of Morroco plunged fingers in his teacup at a dinner he gave at his Washington Embassy. His guest, President Kennedy, had done it first. Being a host is to be generous and gracious to your guests.
But there is a dark side to being a host. Many times hosting is offered to gain power over others and put them in your debt. It’s like gifts with strings attached. This kind of a host will not offer hospitality to those who cannot repay him. His guest list is carefully drawn with those who can return the favor.
But in God’s kingdom, God is the host. And who is of sufficient import or means to be able to repay God? If God followed the world’s rules, none of us would be invited to his table this morning. We come as his guests making no claim, setting no conditions, expecting no return.
Jesus says, When you give a dinner, do not invite those who can repay you. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Invite those who cannot repay.
Now consider what Jesus is telling these people. These are the elite. He’s not telling them: When you pass the poor on the street, don’t hold back on your alms. Give generously to them.
Giving to the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind….that’s a given. They are probably already doing that.
Jesus goes a step further. He says that in the kingdom, we invite them in to the dinner party. The poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. Those who will never be able to repay you. Those who will not give you any benefit or reward. Invite them in.
Jesus gives a new meaning to hospitality. It’s not having each other over on Friday evenings. But welcoming those who will never host you in return. You don’t send a meal down to the family in need. Instead, the host and the guest sit at table together. Because in God’s kingdom, no one is a project. In Gods’ kingdom, we’re all sinners, but now redeemed. Once, we were on the outside looking in. But now we are children of the king.
It’s breaking bread together. It’s recognizing one another as equals. It’s fellowship that cements relationships and grows the kingdom. That is what a host looks like practicing Kingdom etiquette. The King wants our behavior to reflect HIS character in His Kingdom. So he teaches us his Kingdom etiquette. It’s the same thing we did with those immigrant children. And he does it because he loves us.
I catch glimpses of them on Facebook now and then. They’ve grown up, married and have families of their own. As they have grown up in our culture, they have thoroughly assimilate to our ways. They speak English without an accent. And they conduct themselves with confidence and grace.
I pray that as we grow up in God’s Kingdom, we too might thoroughly assimilate to his ways,,.practicing Kingdom etiquette.