Jesus as Miss Manners?
Today’s gospel lesson has been called by some the most boring gospel lesson in our whole lectionary. “Oh, ho hum,” this thinking goes, “why should I care where anyone sits at a dinner party? What possible bearing could this lesson have on our lives today? We don’t need Jesus to be Miss Manners!”
I have to admit, I used to think this, too. But a funny thing happened while I was praying and reflecting on the message to share today. I noticed for the first time that more than Miss Manners is going on in this passage.
Our text tells us that Jesus was eating at the house of a leader of the Pharisees. “Wait a minute,” Jesus at a meal with a Pharisee? And not just any old Pharisee, but a LEADER of the Pharisees? I hadn’t remembered that Jesus had done this. I knew that he had eaten a lot of meals, spent a lot of time, with marginated sinners. However, I hadn’t known that Jesus ate with elite sinners, as well. And yet, here Jesus is going off to dinner at the home of a Pharisee big-wig.
Did you notice that this dinner party was on the Sabbath? This is where we think, “Ut oh.” Jesus usually gets into a lot of trouble on the Sabbath—healing people on the Sabbath, picking and eating food on the Sabbath, and upsetting the Pharisees greatly by his cavalier attitude towards the “social norms of his day. So we begin to look for trouble.
Our sense of expectation is heightened by hearing that the Pharisees were watching Jesus closely, alert for his deviations from the Law of God, as they perceived the Law. What would the Pharisees find when they closely examined Jesus and his actions?
After getting myself all hyped for a confrontation, none was evident. I was disappointed, actually. Instead, Jesus gave etiquette advice to the Pharisees on how to not embarrass ones’ self at a dinner party. “Pick the lowly spot,” Jesus instructed the Pharisees, “so that you might be invited to a place of honor, instead of picking the best seat and being put in a lower place, demoted for all to see.”
What our text glosses over in telling this story is this one phrase, “When [Jesus] noticed how the guests chose the places of honor… [he began to instruct them on how to best pick a seat].” What we begin to see is that while the Pharisees were watching Jesus closely, Jesus was watching them. And what Jesus was seeing was a whole lot of pride being displayed, a whole lot of Pharisees choosing places of honor for themselves.
So why DID Jesus channel Miss Manners? What Jesus knew—what each and every Pharisee would or should have known—was a tiny little passage from Proverbs that was an alternative choice for our Old Testament lesson today:
Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.
Ah. The Pharisees were watching Jesus to see if he measured up to “Biblical standards.” But—as is often the case when we look for shortcomings in others—the Pharisees themselves were the ones who didn’t measure up.
So there WAS a confrontation during dinner: Jesus dissed his host and the other guests. Or rather, the other guests dissed themselves by their actions. And just in case the Pharisees didn’t understand Jesus’ critique of them, Jesus told his host that he should not have invited the high and mighty to dinner, but rather “the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” In short, his host should have invited the very same kinds of people with whom Jesus more usually ate. “[Invite] those who cannot repay you,” Jesus said, and he added that by doing so we will be blessed.
Well, Jesus managed to not only diss the Pharisees with whom he ate that day, Jesus has managed to reach through time and space and culture to diss ME, as well. Don’t I DESERVE to eat with the elite, and sit in the best place? Who do I invite to dinner? What do I expect to get in return? Do I desire to be blessed, or to be a blessing to others?
Our first lesson today from the book of Sirach in the Bible tells us that “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord,” and that when we begin to have pride our “heart has withdrawn from its Maker.” This is interesting. We don’t stray from God because of our pride. What this passage teaches us is that pride is a result of already having turned away from God. Pride is the symptom, not the cause.
This is a double whammy on the Pharisees with whom Jesus ate dinner. Jesus judged them and found them wanting. He found them full of pride, a sure sign that they had already turned from the righteous path that they tried so hard to follow. They were full of themselves, leaving no room for God.
So what about THIS house, in which we will dine with Jesus today? What will Jesus see, how will Jesus judge, when he looks around this room? Have we reserved the place of honor for ourselves, placed ourselves first in our own hearts? Have we invited others to dine here thinking about what they can do for us? Or have we truly opened our hearts and doors to all who need Resurrection?
We can be rightfully confident (if not proud) that our diversity is very wide, indeed.
- We have single people and married people.
- We have adults and children.
- We have men and women.
- We have gay people and straight people.
- We have employed people, unemployed people, and retired people.
- We have white people and people of color.
- We have people who live in homes, in apartments, in condos, and “other.”
- We have Tea Party members, Republicans, Independents, and Democrats.
- We have high school dropouts and people with advanced degrees.
- We have people who believe in God, and people who struggle with their belief.
- We have the truly wealthy and the desperately poor.
- We have able-bodied people and those who need various kinds of assistance.