Dinner Party Decorum

Luke 14:1, 7-14

Don’t think of this dinner party as a casual gathering of old friends. This is one of the social occasions of the year. The party is being held at the home of the “host and hostess with the most-est.” This gathering will be featured in next week’s Hello! with pictures showing fortunate attendees holding glasses of champagne. The accompanying article will say things like: “Guests included Isaac Gold, whose father, the late Simon Gold, cornered the market on the precious metal that bears the family name. Sophie Stein, Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, wore a simple dress with a string of pearls purchased from Cartier last spring. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for Religious Issues, Rabbi Israel Caiaphas, was accompanied by his wife and daughter.”

This is the crème de la crème of the town. If attendees are not already at the top of the social ladder, this invitation will put them there. Of course, Jesus doesn’t usually share a foothold on the top rung of that ladder. He’s been invited because he has been in the news lately. The Pharisees want to see if he is as good as his reputation. The local movers and shakers want to check him out. “Is he one of us? Could he be the replacement when Rabbi Caiaphas retires? Is Jesus sufficiently prominent that his name needs added to the list of regular guests?” No wonder Luke says that the other guests were “watching him closely.”

The dining room is magnificent. The crystal chandelier came from Paris. It has so many baubles three servants needed four days to clean it. The buffet is opulent: beluga caviar, smoked salmon, sterling silver serving platters, and an orchid centrepiece. Deciding the seating arrangement has taken hours. In fact, the hostess used a dinner party consultant to be certain that the right people got seated in the right order. In spite of that, Jesus notices that when he thought no-one was watching, young Joe Cohen moved his place card from near the bottom of the table to up near the host.

The butler signals “Dinner is served.” The rabbi offers a much too long grace. People find their places and the meal begins. Most of the polite table talk concerns the recently announced hostile takeover of the local matzo ball factory, and how the neighbourhood took a nose dive when the Roman governor bought the house down the street. During the dinner’s third course, Jesus says in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “I have been talking with my new friend Amos here and he tells me that he has a serious problem with swollen ankles. He’s just miserable and so I am going to see if I can heal him.”

At that point, the hostess nearly swallows her tongue. She gasps, “Well, I never!”

“Clear off the table so Amos can stretch out,” Jesus says. “Careful with the creamed asparagus. Amos, crawl up there and elevate your feet over your head. That’s important with swollen ankles.” Amos crawls on the table. Rests his head on the bread tray and his wife’s face turns as red as her glass of Merlot. This is definitely not the dignified behaviour one expects at a party for Pharisees. Mr. Stein turns to his wife and says, “what will people think when word of this hits the streets?” Jesus makes matters even worse when he leaps into the middle of the dining table. He grabs Amos’ swollen ankles and begins to massage them and pray over them.

At this point, Rabbi Caiaphas goes ballistic. He begins to lecture Jesus on his inappropriate behaviour. “Is it not enough that you behave boorishly? Now you heal on the Sabbath. Romans, Greeks, and assorted other pagans work on the Sabbath, not faithful Jews. You are undermining what it means to be identified as God’s chosen people.”

Jesus responds, “hold on a minute now. Amos’s feet hurt. I wanted to give him some relief. The religious law permits rescuing a donkey from a well on the Sabbath. Certainly it should permit the rescue of one of God’s children on the Sabbath. You people are fussing about being decent and following the rules, but should not the needs of people take precedence?”

Then Jesus brings up the issue of the order of seating at the table. He talks about how embarrassing it is to take one of the preferred seats at the table only to have a more important person come along and “bump” you into less prestigious seating. Joe Cohen, the young man Jesus saw switching place cards before the dinner started, drops his eyes and looks like a child caught with a hand in the biscuit barrel.

Then Jesus launches into a discourse about who should be invited to a dinner party. Don’t just invite your relatives, business associates, and rich friends, he tells them. All of those people will turn around and invite you to their next party. Instead of calculated reciprocity, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. “They cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous”.

The Hebrew people of Jesus’ time were not unlike people of every generation. They wanted to know, “what gives my life meaning?” The Pharisees in Jesus’ time answered that question by saying, “our lives have meaning because God has a covenant with us. We are the chosen people of God. We stay faithful to God by the careful observance of the Hebrew Law. When we keep the religious law, God is pleased with us and the world knows we are the chosen people of God.”

Jesus answered that question in a different way. He took his relationship to God very seriously, but he didn’t observe all the rules and regulations. Jesus understood that the Jews had a special relationship to God. Just as the scripture taught, they were God’s chosen people. However, Jesus expands on that to insist that God has a special relationship with all of creation. We are all in the same family – God’s family. We’re all the chosen people of God. Our identity, our worth comes from the fact that we are God’s children. We keep faith with the family membership, not by observing the law, but by loving one another. For Jesus to be faithful to God, he had to set a higher priority on healing Amos’ swollen ankles than he put on keeping the Sabbath or maintaining the dignified ethos of the dinner party. By doing so, he demonstrated his faithfulness to God.

From this I that we can see that we’re worthwhile simply because of whose we are. Our value as a person does not rely on having our name on the social register. We’re the loved child of God. We cannot improve on that social standing. To be successful in life, we don’t have to sneak our place card a little higher up the table. Our worth comes from being a loved family member, not from having a better seat at the dinner party. We’re members of the family of God.

A hundred years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson noted three qualities he deemed marks of true success:
the ability to discern and appreciate beauty;
the ability to see the best in others, and;
a commitment to leaving the world a better place;
Notice that Emerson doesn’t say that success comes in having the best seat at the table, acquiring more material possessions, or in belonging to the best clubs. Emerson contends that success comes with appreciating God’s world, developing loving relationships with God’s people, and with working to improve God’s world. Jesus would surely agree heartily.

Our reading for today ends with a wonderful suggestion of how to work to make the world a better place. Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind to dinner. They’re all members of our family. Just think how much richer our table talk will be if we don’t just associate with our business associates and closest relatives. Remember around the table such wonderful things happen. Invite everyone to the table. They’re all members of the extended family.

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