The Upside Down Table and the Matter of Manners
After years and years of the most boring, repetitive, wearisome instructions, finally I saw the point. I had not only learned but also internalized the lessons; I knew what to do instinctively. I was out on a real date with a nice young lady, dining in a restaurant in which the food did not arrive wrapped in paper in a sack with the fries on top. On the table were linens and more than one fork (on the left, of course) cloth napkins, and I knew what to do; my parents had taught me well about table manners.
That’s one reason we need parents – its called primary socialization – to learn table manners and social customs. “Look them in the eye, give a firm hand-shake, speak up, and don’t be cocky, arrogant, or pretentious.”
Is that why we need Jesus?
That’s why we need good parents. Question: is that why we need Jesus? Is this text about proper table manners? Where to sit at the table, how to make an proper invitation list? Practical advice about the value of humility in polite company?
No, no no! No, for all kinds of reasons. No, because that puts Jesus on the level of Miss Manners. If Jesus were that kind of teacher, two things would be true: 1) we would not miss much if we ignored him today; and 2) he would have made no one angry, and certainly no one angry enough to have him killed.
But he did make people that angry, and they did have him killed for what he was teaching! So, if we start with that in mind, perhaps we will look more deeply about his comments about table manners.
Jesus the bad manners teacher
One more reason for the “No!” If Jesus thought he was teaching about table manners and social customs, he was a horribly mistaken teacher. He got it wrong. At least partly wrong. He may have been correct about not trying to grab the head table – getting shamed by being asked to move down with the plebes would certainly have been cause for shame (especially in his culture back then).
But then he made huge mistakes according to accepted custom: he told them that their banquet invitation lists had to include people who would not be able to invite them back to their place latter. That was just crazy advice. In Jesus day, the principle of reciprocity was even stronger than it is today.
You did not just return a favor because you were nice: if you received a favor, like an invitation to a celebration banquet, you were obligated, in fact, indebted to pay it back. Reciprocity was the backbone of society.
You got nowhere unless you are able to invite decent people to your dinners and then get invited to theirs – we would perhaps call it social networking. But Jesus said don’t do it that way. The direction of your invitations should go down the social scale, not up. So Jesus missed that one.
The Invitation List
The other mistake Jesus made in the Manners Advice Business was also about the invitation list: he completely got this upside down. He told people:
13 when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
The issue with these people is not only that they are too poor to reciprocate and therefore will not help your social advancement; no, it’s much more profound than that. The issue with three of the four groups, “the crippled, the blind and the lame” is that they carry the stigma of being specifically marked out for exclusion. (We will get to the fourth group, the poor in a moment).
The Exclusion list Exclusion by whom?
Well, first exclusion by the Law of Moses, at least in terms of exclusion from being priests, fit to approach the holy altar to offer sacrifice (Lev 21:17–23). Whom else made such exclusions? The super-holy, pure people that had moved out to the desert to write the Dead Sea Scrolls excluded that same list too. While they waited for Messiah to come, they developed rules for their separatist community at Qumran. Only the “whole” were fit to be “holy.” They even went so far as to say that deformed people would not even sit at the banquet hosted by Messiah. (1QSa 2:5-22).
So Jesus was way off base recommending that the banquet invitation list should invite, instead of exclude these people. It would be like advising someone to eat with their fingers and chew with their mouths open; exactly opposite of correct custom.
The poor too?
So if “the crippled, the lame, and the blind” were already marked out for exclusion from the inner circle of acceptable people, what about the fourth group in Jesus’ list; what about “the poor”? This is the odd grape in the bunch. The “poor” were not on those exclusion lists. The poor were not excluded by the law of Moses, nor were they excluded by the Qumran community.
In fact, Israel was used to thinking of themselves as “the poor.” They were the people who had been the slaves of Egypt until Moses led them to freedom. They were the ones who had been conquered and driven into exile by the Babylonians. Now they were back in Palestine, as the poor people under the boot of the Roman Empire. They felt like this condition might as well have been a new exile requiring a new exodus-like defeat of the enemy. They were “the poor” – even if some of them had cash.
What was Jesus doing when he advised them to make out a banquet invitation list that put together such strangers with each other – the poor Israelites along with the excludables, the crippled, the lame and the blind? Why did he say that if all four were on your invitation list, “you will be blessed, … at the resurrection of the righteous”?
The Kingdom of God, not table manners
Because this whole scene from Jesus’ life is not about table manners and polite custom. This is crucial teaching about the Kingdom of God. Is this important? This is teaching about the resurrection of the righteous. I think Jesus considered this important. And yes, they were watching him closely, and he knew it; and yes, this teaching made them angry. Remember, we are still following Jesus on his long journey from Galilee to Jerusalem which will end in his arrest, trial, and execution by crucifixion; this is serious.
So what is going on if this is not table manners and politeness advice? This is about God, and what God is doing in the world. It is about God’s will and God’s purpose.
The Purpose of God, coming to fruition
The story goes like this: Jesus, and all the Israelites who knew the bible, believed that God created a good world, blessed it, including blessing the people he made in his image, but that something had gone wrong. Evil had entered the story and made a mess of things.
But God did not abandon the world. He had a plan by which he would put things right again. It would take time. He would start with one family, Abraham and Sarah. He would promise to bless them and to make them the source of blessing for all of humanity. He spoke of them and their descendants as the “light to the nations.” (Genesis 12)
This plan was now coming to its climax. Jesus knew that his calling, his vocation, was to be the one God would use as his anointed, or Messiah, to finally confront the powers of evil and to be the means of God’s victory. He accepted that this vocation would mean his suffering and death, but he also believed that God would vindicate him in resurrection as he triumphed over the powers of evil.
All of this is God’s purpose and plan to put right what had gone wrong so long ago when evil messed up the world. God was restoring humanity to its original, blessed condition.
Now everyone who was made in God’s image – including “the poor”, and including “the crippled, the lame, and the blind” are invited to the great banquet, hosted by Messiah!
A Telling Moment has come Is this important to God? Well, is participating in the resurrection important? It seems that this is one of those telling moments. It reminds me of another telling moment from Matthew. Remember his scene of the sheep and the goats being separated by the King at the end of time? The king says:
34…‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
“We like the same things!”
When you were first in love, what made you think that “she might be the one”? What made you think “he is the one for me?” What was the sign that this relationship was a match made in heaven?
Wasn’t it important that you had a lot of “me too” moments? “You like that song? Me too! You like that movie? Me too! You like to go there? Me too!”
How do we know that we are in a right relationship with God? Is it not the same? That we share “me too” moments; that we like what God likes, values what God values, love what God loves?
In fact, isn’t the opposite true as well? That if we do not like what God likes, if we do not value what God values, if we do not love what God loves, then we are really not in relationship with him at all.
Loving God means No Exclusions
Loving God means loving people, without qualification, and without distinction. There are no categories of exclusion with God; there cannot be with those who call him Father.
But look around. Look literally around the room today, and look around the neighborhoods where we live. Look at the guy on the TV news and the way he talks about people who are different from us. That too can be a telling moment.
There is good news here. There is a blessing here. Jesus said, when you do invite to the banquet “the poor, the crippled the blind and the lame.”
14 you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
There will be a banquet hosted by Messiah. It will be an occasion of joy and celebration if we have learned to welcome the people who we will be dining with.
Where do we stand?
Who are the excluded of today? We have made great progress in some areas, and have a long way to go in others, don’t we? We have realized how wrong our past exclusion was of people with disabilities – though we are still working on full integration. We have come along ways since the civil rights movement, though racism has not gone away. We are struggling to make the work place an level playing field for women and men. But we still have a long way to go with Muslims, with aliens, with gays, and even with people in the “wrong” political party.
The question of the day is this: am I in a right relationship with God? How do I know? Do I like what God likes? Do I love whom God loves? Is this a telling “me too” moment?