Jesus loved to eat with people. Apart from teaching and healing, it’s probably the thing he does most in the gospels. He eats with friends, and with strangers; with rich people, and with poor people; with people who have a high status, and with people who have bad reputations.
Jesus loved to eat with everybody, and he did some of his most important teaching over a meal. He learned people’s names and looked them right in the eye. He talked about God over bread or fish or meat or wine or figs or whatever else was on hand. The gospel writers don’t seem too interested in sharing the menu with us. I guess, in this case, it wasn’t really about the food.
Jesus loved to eat with people. He loved to eat with everybody, no matter what was on the menu, and he loved to teach while he was at it. In today’s story from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is eating with a group of rich and important people at the house of a local leader, and he notices that everyone there is trying to get the best seat. It seems like a teaching moment. So Jesus offers some advice on mealtime etiquette. This is Miss Manners, the Jesus edition.
What does Jesus say? He says a lot, but it boils down to two rules:
1. If you’re a guest, Don’t go for the good seats. Don’t try to sit with the bride at a wedding; or next to the birthday boy at a birthday party. Don’t pick the biggest bean bag, or the cushiest couch, or the chair at the head of the table. When you’re a guest, be humble and considerate of others. Maybe you’ll end up in the best spot anyway; but make sure to give everyone else a chance first.
2. If you’re a host, change the rules of the dinner party altogether. Don’t invite the people you know and love the best. Don’t invite the people who are the most wealthy and well-known. To throw the best parties, Jesus says, fill your home with the people who are lonely and hungry and hurting. You don’t need formal invitations and RSVPs. No need — no one decides if they’re coming until the very last minute anyway (apparently this is not just a 21st century problem. Did you hear the excuses those folks gave in Jesus’ story for why they couldn’t come to a dinner party? I just got some new oxen! I need to look at some land! ). If you’re a host, don’t worry about any of that; just find whoever is on the street, and fill the room. Don’t be shy about inviting folks who may not be on the A list. It’s the c-listers, the f-listers, who you really want to include.
I’m not sure that Jesus and Ms. Manners agree about very much when it comes to etiquette. You may not be so sure about Jesus’ rules of etiquette, either, but we’re here in church to learn from him, so let’s give them a chance. Remember:
1. If you’re a guest, be humble and considerate of others.
2. If you’re a host, include everyone, especially the people who most need an invitation.
Jesus has two rules of mealtime ettiquete. Just two! Simple enough. But do they sound easy to follow? As a guest, do you ever want the spot next to your closest friend, or the plate with the biggest piece of cake? As a host, do you want to invite the people you know and like, or the people you want to know?
All of these things are natural; but if that’s all we do, especially those of us with power and wealth and privilege and love in the world, like the people at the dinner that night with Jesus – if that’s all we do, terrible things happen.
People who are already lonely get lonelier. People who are already hungry get hungrier. The stranger and the new kid and the person who’s different somehow get left out again. We separate ourselves even further from our fellow children of God. We make an invisible wall between those we think are like us, or better than us; and everyone else. Outside of that wall, too many children of God go without food and company.
Jesus didn’t just give us advice about dinner parties. He also gave us an example or two. He hosted a few meals himself during his time here on earth. He fed 5,000 men and uncounted women and children in a deserted place with pieces of five loaves and two fish. He fed 4,000 men and uncounted women and children who had been out listening to his teaching for three days with pieces of seven loaves and a few small fish.
I’m guessing there wasn’t much in the way of decorations or china or cutlery. It wasn’t fancy. But what those meals lacked in elegance, they made up for with another kind of extravagance. Everyone was invited, and everyone got fed.
Jesus shared his last meal, too. We call it The Last Supper. It was a smaller gathering; Jesus broke his own rule by mostly inviting his closest friends. But he showed a different kind of extravagant generosity there, offering communion as a parting gift for all who loved him. He showed a different kind of extravagant generosity, offering up his life in the service of truth and love.
Jesus doesn’t just give us advice; like the best teachers he leads by example. Both his words and his actions teach that the food of the earth is for everyone equally, to fill our bodies with daily bread. And mealtime is for everyone, too, to meet the needs of both body and soul.
We have a lot to learn, if we’re going to be the kind of guests, and the kind of hosts, that Jesus asks us to be. We’ve got a lot to learn, to be truly humble and considerate. We’ve got a lot to learn, to be extravagantly generous. We’ve got a lot to learn. The best way I know to learn is to practice.
This is part of the beauty of Jesus’ gift of communion. It’s a way of practicing our Christian meal etiquette. When we share a meal here, in the sanctuary, we try to make it at least a little bit more like his means than the rest of the meals we eat. We keep the food simple, and widen the welcome. We try to be humble and considerate, because Jesus is our host. We try to be extravagantly generous, because Jesus is among us, as our guest.
Think about this, as we share communion today. What can we learn from the meal we share here, that could change all out other meals?
Jesus, may we learn from you how to be good guests. May we learn from you how to be good hosts. May we receive from you the gift of your communion: a meal that unites us across divisions of life and death, wealth and poverty, friend and stranger. May your communion bind us together with those who are gathered here and with so many others, near at hand, and around the world. Amen.