September 2, 2007 - Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
My great aunt beat table manners into me. Auntie Pop watched children at her table with hawk eyes, ready to catch errors such as elbows resting for a moment on the surface or fingers used to push uncooperative peas onto a fork. She had a zero-tolerance policy. She would pick up a table knife and use the handle to rap your elbows out from under you or tap the knuckles of your offending fingers. You definitely asked politely to be excused before being allowed to get up from the table and then carefully carried all your dishes to the kitchen sink. Good manners—use them or suffer the consequences.
When Jesus arrived at a Pharisee’s house one Saturday afternoon, verse 1 tells us that his host and other Pharisee guests were observing Him as closely as Auntie Pop watched us kids. They wanted to catch Jesus in a violation of good manners. Even more, they hoped to trap Him in a trespass against righteousness. They hoped He would flaunt both God’s law and human standards. Instead, He taught them what good behavior at the table really is.
Jesus taught four lessons there while a guest at the Pharisee’s table. Three of them are in this text. The other follows it. Overall you and I are reminded here that the Table is a very important place. The Pharisees and Auntie Pop were right about that. It should be obvious to us as Christians as we gather here this morning around our Lord’s Table. Table manners are a spiritual matter. The way you eat displays your character. So what did Jesus have to say about manners?
At that table in ancient Palestine Jesus taught us lessons about the manners of healing, humility and hospitality. In each case, Jesus taught that the shape of the soul is reflected in behavior at the Table, especially a Table at which He is present. You’ve already heard Mike Fargo deal at length last week with the first lesson about healing, as he preached from Luke 13:10-17. Here again Jesus heals someone on the Sabbath.
Pharisees went to great trouble to avoid any semblance of work on the Sabbath. That included not working at Sabbath meals. Hot dishes were carefully wrapped the afternoon before so they would stay warm. Detailed rules specified that the food only stay warm, but not actually cook once the Sabbath began. It was good Jewish manners. No work of any sort at or around the Sabbath table.
So like my Auntie Pop they watched for Jesus to mess up. They may have set Him up. In verse 2, it sounds like as He walked in the door, Jesus was face to face with a sick man, afflicted with “suffering from abnormal swelling.” “Edema” is our medical term. It can be associated with heart or kidney or liver failure. Limbs are bloated and swollen with water which the body cannot eliminate. The man was probably invited just for the purpose of putting Jesus in an awkward position at that table, to test His Sabbath manners.
Jesus turned the table on them. He tested their manners by asking if it’s right to heal on the Sabbath. They did not answer. Verse 4 says they remained silent. So Jesus offered His own answer by healing the man. We’re also told He sent him away, showing that it really was a set-up. The poor sick man wasn’t a true guest at all.
As in last week’s text, Jesus in verse 5 reminded these Pharisees and lawyers of their own understanding of the manners and rules of the Sabbath. There are pragmatic exceptions to not working on that day. You can pull a child or even an animal out of a hole. Why then not pull another human being out of the hole of suffering?
You might get the idea from all this that Jesus is saying we should just dispense with manners, that He simply ignored all the silly rules of the table and the Sabbath and that we also can ignore them. But Jesus said more than once that He came not to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it. He wasn’t teaching those Pharisees to break the Sabbath, but how to truly keep it. As Mike shared last week, the spirit of God’s gift of Sabbath is a day of worship, of rest, of peace. What could be more in keeping with that spirit than offering healing and help to another person? What could be better manners?
As we share Holy communion this morning, we are eating a Sabbath meal. We are called here to share this meal in a spirit of help toward each other and toward the world. We pray for each other to be healed. We offer each other the peace the Lord wants for everyone. We seek to be a community of healing. That’s good manners at this Table.
Jesus’ next lesson in manners is humility. In verse 1, His hosts watched Him carefully. Now in verse 7, He watches them, noticing how they take their seats, everyone trying to get a good place, a spot in the middle or at the head of the table.
Jesus’ response in verses 8 through 10 could be interpreted as solid, common sense social advice, good etiquette. Don’t put on airs. Don’t assume a higher position than you deserve. Wait to be seated or take a low place. Otherwise you may be humiliated, have to give up your good spot.
Sometimes when boarding a plane I will look around and spot a better seat than mine, more leg room. If it stays empty all through boarding, I’ll hop up and take it, hoping a person who is assigned there won’t show at the last minute. But sometimes he does. Then I have to get up, gather my stuff, and go back to where I belong, feeling a little silly.
We all do things like that, grabbing the biggest piece of pie, the shadiest parking spot, those good seats in the back row at church. It often doesn’t seem to matter, but Jesus reminds us here that it’s not good manners, not at His Table. In verse 11 Jesus explains that something big is at stake in such little displays of self-interest. He said, “all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He was reminding the Pharisees of manners they already knew from reading Proverbs 25:6-7 and Ezekiel 21:26. Over and over Scripture says that God will bring the proud down and lift up the humble. Humility is good spiritual manners, what Jesus wants at His Table.
Unless God clearly calls us to some honor, we’re better off in lower places. Like Jesus Himself, we are meant to rise high by being willing to sink low. Jesus left His place at the head of the Table in heaven to be with us. We forsake our own high places in order to belong to Him. Jesus would like Garth Brooks’ song, “I’ve got friends in low places.”
As we come to the Lord’s Table this morning, you may want to think about where you sit. It’s obvious that being in the front rows is not desirable here. So would you be willing to take a seat no one else wants? But even more, I ask you to think about whether you, like Jesus, have friends in low places? Are you willing to be where the low people of the world are, alongside them to offer those good manners of healing through the good manners of humility? If you are, then you are ready for Jesus’ third lesson in manners, a lesson on hospitality.
In verses 12 through 14, Jesus is talking to His host. He’s concerned with the etiquette of inviting people into our homes and lives. He noticed that all the guests were important people. He remembered the sick man who had to be sent away because he wasn’t invited to stay for dinner. Jesus saw His host’s true reasons for the dinner party. It wasn’t healing and humility. It was social climbing. He invited people who would invite him in return. He invited those who would enhance his own pleasure and status.
Hospitality was a sacred virtue in ancient times. There was a whole code of manners honoring and protecting guests. Once welcomed into someone’s home, your life was sacred even if it was discovered you were an enemy. The manners of hospitality completely forbade doing any harm to a guest.
One result of such a code, however, was that people were very careful about whom they invited. Even offering a drink of water might commit you to a visitor as host to guest. So you were careful about extending even such a small gesture to a stranger. It was better to stick with guests you knew or who were well off enough to repay your hospitality, just as Jesus points out: your friends, relatives and rich acquaintances.
Jesus’ lesson was that such limitations on hospitality are a violation of its spirit. In verse 13 He tells us to invite undesirable guests, people who will never be able to repay the invitation: the poor and the handicapped. These are the guests Jesus wants around His Table with the rest of us. He wants us to have His manner of hospitality.
Hospitality is often in short supply in our time. It’s a wonderful thing that some of us are welcoming each other through Supper 6 gatherings. God bless you. Dinner in someone else’s home doesn’t happen much these days and it’s a very Christian thing to deliberately offer such an invitation. Yet it’s even more Christian when those we invite are strangers, or poor, or handicapped, or simply someone we would not ordinarily choose to invite.
As we come forward round our Lord’s Table this morning, I encourage you in the good manners of hospitality to consider all those who might be here with us if we did as Jesus asked in these last few verses. Who might be standing shoulder to shoulder with us sharing the bread and the cup if we took Jesus seriously about inviting “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind”? A woman from the apartments next door? A student who eats the free lunch offered at your school? A man from off the street?
Let there be no doubt. Jesus has invited you. No one needs be ashamed about being here to receive the gifts of His Table, His body and blood poured out in grace for your sins. Yet because we are here, because He has invited and welcomed us so graciously, we want to learn the manners of His Table. We want to be people like Him. We want to be a community of healing, of humility, of hospitality.
These good manners of the Lord’s Table are the way we all acknowledge one basic fact: none of us deserves to be here. We all come in need of healing. We all come needing to lose our pride in humility. We all come in grave need of Jesus’ hospitality. We are all poor in spirit. We are all crippled in soul. We are all terribly blind. We are all sinners. So we come asking our Lord to help us put on good manners, to help us become the healing, humble, hospitable community He desires.
That’s why I invite you in a moment to stand and with me confess once again to our sins, to our lack of manners, to our discourtesy to God, to each other and to the world around us. But then I have the humble privilege of inviting you to receive in answer to that confession the Lord Jesus Christ’s own promise that you are forgiven and that you are welcome at His Table, along with all of the rest of us undeserving, ill-mannered guests. He welcomes us, and gently, slowly, graciously teaches us His manners. Let us all put on those holy manners. Let us all eat and drink together as invited, honored guests of God.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj