Stacks Image 5401
Table etiquette

Psalm 81
Luke 14:1, 7-14

August 30, 2015

This scripture lesson from Luke gets us thinking about table etiquette and what it says about us as a people. Anthropologists have long suggested that how people eat tells a lot about their lives. Who we eat with, how we eat and in what order we eat can tell us a great deal about whom we are.

Table etiquette is a somewhat unsettling idea to me because as much as my Aunt tried to teach me the proper rules of table etiquette, there was always a part of me that resisted. Of course, you can invite me over for dinner and I generally know how to behave. I know that it is not polite to burp, talk with food in my mouth, or eat with my elbows on the table. But if you have too many utensils – say – rows and rows of forks and spoons I may get confused.

However, I did spend some time looking at my Aunt’s old etiquette books and what I found was most interesting. Did you know that you are not supposed to unfold your napkin until your host does and the napkin should never be placed on the table until the dinner is over? In fact, the host signals the end of the meal by placing his or her napkin on the table. And, don’t refold it, or wad it up.

Moreover, did you know that a formal dinner plate should be divided into right and left – liquids are to the left, solids are to the right? A way to sometimes remember that in Saskatchewan is that if you move to the right you’ve got some substance and if you move to the left you will quench your thirst and what you need is a little of both.

Here are just a few international tips: in Japan, it is impolite to blow your nose at the table; in Italy, if you use a fork and a spoon while eating spaghetti they will know you are probably from the U.S. or Canada. In Korea, you don’t start eating until the more elderly people begin first. Some people might think this is way to persnickety, but much of it is just good common sense. Nobody wants to look at your food while you’re chewing it and it’s good to respect your elders.

Some commentators suggest that this is all Jesus is doing when at verse 1 he is invited to the home of a prominent religious leader; he’s just offering some common sense. We’ve all been in those awkward situations when we are a guest in someone’s home and standing before the dinner table and we are not sure where to sit. If it were a rectangular table, most of us would not dare take a place at the end of the table, the seat of honour, unless, of course, the host invites us to do so.

At the wedding banquet it would seem that this is what Jesus is suggesting when he says, “Do not sit down at the place of honour, 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 embarrassment you would start to take the lowest place. We all understand how wedding banquets work, the seating is organised in a hierarchal manner with the important people sitting closer to the newly married couple and others of less importance sit further away.

Jesus continues, what you should do is this - 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 honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. Good common sense.

On the other hand, Jesus has sat back and watched all this seating arrangement happen - the people are already seated at the places of honour. Why did he wait until everyone was in place to make his views known? This could make Jesus appear to be a very rude guest. And then, as if that doesn’t seem rude enough, he goes on to say: “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, or your brothers and sisters, or other relatives, or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the disabled, the marginalised, those who cannot see or hear and you will be blessed, because they cannot pay you. He tells you something like, “You will be rewarded.”

At this point, the host might feel like yanking this man Jesus aside and saying,”Back off! Not only have you critiqued the seating protocol but the guest list, too.” Come on, he might want to say to Jesus, There are important and influential people here. Some good things could happen if you’ll just try to fit in and remember, don’t burp after dinner! Keep you elbows off the table.

Maybe at this point, however, it is important to say that in Luke’s gospel, how Jesus eats tells us a lot about who he is. So if you are put off by this story then maybe we ought to take a second look.

Luke’s Christology is defined by hospitality and the dining etiquette that goes along with his hospitality. Jesus, in Luke, is always going to and coming from a meal and the guest list for these meals causes quite a stir. He is constantly attacked for associating with outcasts, those on the fringe and sinners. Let’s look at some of those stories.

Think of the story of Zaacheaus, the hated tax collector and a Roman collaborator, who climbs into a tree to get a look at Jesus. Jesus says to him, “Come down, for today I must come to your house for dinner.” The people grumble because they know Zaacheaus is a sinner. In our world, it might be like Jesus having dinner with the chief executives of
Wal-mart whose economic practices are under constant critique. In his defence Jesus says, I’ve come to redeem and to teach sinners, which apparently includes even those who are perceived as ogres. (Orcus – god of the underworld)

Then Jesus tells the story about the rich man and the beggar Lazarus. The rich man eats lavish meals and dines alone, while Lazarus desires only the crumbs but gets nothing. But when they both die, in the afterlife their situations are reversed, which suggests there is an eschatological (end times) dimension to dining etiquette. In the creation of the coming kingdom we are asked to think about what we eat and whom we eat with. Remember we are creating the kingdom here on earth – and Luke is saying that in this new creation the roles in this story at least will be reversed.

Then there is the story we know best, the one where Jesus speaks to the crowd of some 5000 people in a deserted place and the disciples wanted to send them away to surrounding villages to get something to eat and Jesus says to the disciples “You give them something to eat.” As we know, someone came forward with fish and bread and then someone else came up with more food and soon there was plenty for everyone.

All of these stories suggest and the feeding of the five thousand in particular, that God’s guest list includes all who come to the table and if we will only share what we have, then there will be enough and therein is the foretaste of the kingdom of God.

Then in the very last chapter of Luke the risen Christ is walking along the road to Emmaus with two very dull disciples who don’t recognise him, but in a moment of insight, when he walks ahead as if he were going on without them, they invite him to dine with them. When he is at the table he blesses and breaks the bread and then they recognise him.

The Eucharistic imagery here is compelling and it suggests, as do all of the stories about the nature of our guest list – who is on it and who is not – has everything to do with whether or not we are being the church.

The communion meal is made up of elements that we commonly recognise in our culture – such as bread and wine, the setting of the table and the following of certain protocols

It stands in marked contrast to an invitation only meal where guests are expected to reply to the invitation. Guests bring a suitable gift and somehow where you sit is clear - at a wedding banquet there might be cards that place you beside the appropriate person, someone with whom you feel comfortable, or whose influence is sought and napkins are folded in proper fashion, utensils are used from the outside in and used plates and utensils are removed after every course. You don’t put used utensils on the tablecloth and never put your spoon in your beverage cup.

All of these are good things to know and very useful in their proper setting, but today’s parable asks us to think about who gets invited and who is left out.

That brings us back to communion where no one is left out. Communion remains for us a feast, a meal that we don’t quite understand. It’s always meant to be a feast for all.

Communion became a part of the church after Jesus was gone. The church wasn’t created until about 60 years after his death.
Communion was developed through his actions with his friends, and colleagues.
Spong says it grew out of their life together.
John Spong believes that it might have happened something like this: When Jesus’ friends sat at their evening meal and ate bread and shared wine together - they might have passed the bread and said, remember him and they would have told stories, and they would have raised their glasses and drank to one another and to him. This story telling while people ate and drank became part of and led to what we call communion. It doesn’t much resemble what it was in the beginning.

But, we can share food just like the 5000 shared of the meal that was made available for them. It’s not gourmet but it fills us up. We can practice today when we get home. We can be satisfied even though our plates are not piled high. We can share together, with friends and family, a common meal that fills us up because it promises that there are ways to be community, ways that we never imagined possible.

Indeed, from Luke’s perspective, if there is anyone whom you won’t share lunch with today then we have not realised fully what the Spirit Creator God has in mind for the church.

I invite you this week to think about whom you would invite for dinner, in what order will you sit and what you will serve.

Sharon Ferguson-Hood