Guess Who Should Be Coming to Dinner

July 23rd, 2016

Luke 14:1, 7-14

When it comes to dinner parties, Jesus is not Miss Manners, but it is not because he did not get enough practice. Jesus and the disciples eat their way through the Gospels. They go from place to place, house to house, one meal after another, always looking for the next invitation. Most of us cannot imagine not knowing where we will eat our next meal.

Even at that, it is surprising that Jesus would eat at a Pharisee’s house. The Pharisees criticized Jesus for blasphemy (because he forgave sins), for uncleanness (because he ate with sinners), and for working on the Sabbath (because his disciples plucked grain from a field). As dinner begins, the Pharisees are watching Jesus carefully. Put in Jesus’ place, we would be on our best behavior—careful not to talk with food in our mouth or put our elbows on the table. Dinner at a wealthy Pharisee’s house—and wealthy Pharisee is redundant—is more than two forks ostentatious. You know the rules. RSVP within a reasonable amount of time. Bring a suitable gift. Do not unfold your napkin until your host does. Use your napkin only to gently blot your mouth when needed. Use your utensils from the outside in. Do not push a plate away when you are finished. Place your knife and fork at ten and four o’clock angles to indicate that you are done. Once you have used a piece of silverware, never place it back on the tablecloth. Do not leave a used spoon in a cup. Place it on the saucer. Never lay a napkin on the table until the dinner is over. The host signals the end of the meal by placing his or her napkin on the table. And do not refold it or wad it up!

As we might picture it, the table is magnificent, the crystal chandelier shining, the servants attentive, the centerpiece impressive, and the champagne chilled. All the “right people” are there—bankers, doctors, lawyers, preachers. Jesus is invited not because he is considered an equal but because he is a curiosity who has been in the news. The esteemed guests are watching closely to see how Jesus fits in. The table talk is polite, as expected, centering on the new director of the symphony and the buy-out of a local factory producing matzo balls.

Jesus decides to offend the guests. This scene becomes a lesson in how to lose friends and alienate people. Jesus has noticed how the Pharisees look for ways to move up the social ladder—or up the table, on this occasion. He has seen how they try to sit at the places of honor.

We have been in those awkward situations when we are a guest in someone’s home, standing before the dinner table, not sure where to sit. Most would not take a place at the end of the table, the seat of honor, unless, of course, the host invites us to do so. This kind of common sense would seem to be what Jesus is suggesting, but it is more than that.

Jesus criticizes the guests for striving for status. “When someone invites you to dinner, you take the place of honor. Then when somebody more important than you shows up, you’re red-faced as you make your way to the last table and the only place left. You might as well go and sit at the last place in the first place. Then the host might say, ‘Come, sit with me.’ If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face. Be content to be yourself.”

We still live in a classed society. Ethnic groups, immigrants, the poor, the homeless, the addicted, and the mentally ill face uphill battles. Lower class, middle class, upper class—we know the class in which we reside.

When Jesus finishes insulting the guests, he begins to insult the host for who was included and who did not make the list: “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends, family, and those you’re trying to impress, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite people who don’t have similar interests, who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks, the least of our sisters and brothers, the poorest of the poor. They won’t be able to return the favor, but God will know.”

The disciples want to pull Jesus to the side and say, “You might want to back off a little. First you went after the seating protocol, and as if that wasn’t rude enough, now you’ve gone after the guest list. Our host is an influential person. He could do good things for us. All you have to do is act friendly and keep your elbows off the table. We won’t have any more dinner invitations if you can’t get through the appetizers without infuriating the person who invited us.”

Why does Jesus have to stir up trouble? Why does he criticize people who invite him into their homes? Why can’t Jesus leave a pleasantenough dinner party well enough alone? It is because Jesus understands what is at stake. We have to learn that at God’s table there is no need to jockey for position, because all are equally welcome. There are no throwaways when it comes to human beings. Christians are to honor the least among us—the poor and marginalized. While the Pharisees were striving to move toward the head of a rectangular table, Jesus’ table is a round one where no person is better than another. The character of our guest list—who is on it and who is not—has everything to do with whether or not we are being Christ’s church. The followers of Christ have to learn that any table where Jesus is present is a table where everyone is welcome, a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, a foreshadowing of the kingdom where God cares for all and all we can do is give thanks.

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