Humility and Hospitality
By Carol Cavin-Dillon
Back in the day when people got their news from newspapers rather than online, one of the most popular newspaper columnists was Miss Manners. Miss Manners had a lot to teach us about etiquette: how to write good thank-you notes, how to navigate family tension at weddings and funerals, and among other things, how to host a good dinner party.
In Luke 14, we find ourselves at a dinner party with Jesus. We don’t often think of Jesus going to dinner parties, but he accepted many invitations from many different kinds of people throughout the course of his ministry. Often when we see him in the Gospels, he is eating in someone’s home. He eats in the homes of tax collectors, of households run by women, and, in this Gospel lesson, of a leader of the Pharisees.
Just as Miss Manners holds up the expectations of dinner parties in our day, there were standards of behavior in Jesus’ day, too. At most dinner parties, the guests would be seated at the table according to their rank or their value to the host. So, those who held the highest rank in the culture or were most valued by the host would sit closest to the host. The lowest ranked or least connected to the host would sit at the end. The hierarchy was clear.
Also, the host of the dinner would invite to his table his friends and colleagues, who would then be expected to reciprocate. They would be obligated to honor him in some way. As a result, dinner parties were all about power and rank, and they created inner circles of exchanged favors.
To find Jesus at the table of a leading Pharisee is interesting. Was the Pharisee showing Jesus honor? Was he hoping that Jesus would return the favor by easing up on his criticism of the Pharisees? Was he simply curious to hear more from Jesus? Did he look upon him with suspicion and want to keep a closer eye on him? We don’t really know. His motives aren’t clear.
What we do know is that Jesus did not behave like a guest should. A well-mannered guest would not question the other guests or the host. He would eat his food gratefully and try not to stir up trouble.
But, this is Jesus we’re talking about, and he seized the opportunity to teach the host and the guests about the kingdom of God. First, he addressed the guests. Obviously, he had observed them shuffling for the seats of honor at the table. He called them out and let them know that the godly thing to do is to give up any rank you think you have, assume the lowest seat. In the kingdom of God, your earthly rank doesn’t matter. Leave it at the door.
Then he addressed his host, which is, honestly, not very good manners. But his host was a Pharisee, a teacher of the law, who should have understood the ways of God. Jesus reminded him that the ways of God are different from the ways of the world. We shouldn’t host dinner parties to show off our rank or to curry favor with the powerful. We should generously and compassionately invite those who cannot pay us back—the poor, the blind, the lame—because God’s special favor is for those whom the world discards.
Jesus stepped into a well-mannered dinner party and announced the kingdom of God. If Jesus were to come to one of our dinner parties, what might he see? Do we welcome into our homes and into our circles of friendship only those who are of the same “rank” as we are? What about our churches? Do we go out of our way to invite those who are left out, ignored, even ill-mannered, into our churches? When someone walks in the doors of the church and they don’t know the “etiquette” of the congregation, do we welcome them and put them in places of honor? Or is our discomfort palpable?
In so many different places in the Gospels, Jesus talks about the kingdom of God as a banquet. But the rules of engagement at God’s banquet are totally different from the rules of our day.
How can we, in very real and concrete ways, live by God’s rules—at our tables, in our homes, and in our churches? To find the answers, I think we’d better look to Jesus rather than to Miss Manners.
Rev. Dr. Carol Cavin-Dillon is the Senior Pastor at West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, TN. An ordained elder in the Tennessee Conference, she and her husband David have two children.