In the book Entertaining for Dummies, author Suzanne Pollak writes, “Most people invite the same two or three couples over for dinner, and what happens is that you end up talking about the same thing.” The boring results, she explains, is that, “the conversation just picks up where it left off at the last party…To keep the conversation fresh, Williamson suggests that one should “invite a scandalous acquaintance or an intellectual with something to say that everyone wants to hear.”
Now, I ask you, who would that be? Who would you invite to your next dinner party? A survey of recent college graduates reported that Jesus was at the top of their dream guest list.
I don’t know how popular Jesus actually was as a dinner guest, but I do know that our Lord liked parties and did a lot of “table talk.” Some of Jesus’ most significant discourses, miracles, radical acts and resurrection appearances take place at the dinner table or around a meal: the wedding at Cana, the feeding of the multitudes, the healing of the man with dropsy; the anointing by Mary Magdalene; the washing of feet; the institution of the Lord’s Supper; and my favorite, breakfast on the beach.
Jesus recognized that table companionship – those with whom we eat – made a powerful social commentary and a wonderful teaching opportunity. Our Lord believed and behaved as if all of life was a banquet hosted by God: a party with an open invitation, a table with many seatings, a meal overflowing with the variety and abundance of creation so that all the guests could be satisfied, and plenty of leftovers to be shared with those who for varied reasons couldn’t get there in time.
It was Jesus’ mission on earth to help us clearly see God’s intentions for the abundance of divine grace: to help us to understand and follow God’s rules for table etiquette, as much as (if not more) than we follow those offered by Ms. Manners, Emily Post or Amy Sedaris.
What are these rules, you might ask? They can be summed up in two words: humility and hospitality.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is an invited guest at a dinner party, a banquet given by a leader of the Pharisees. One phrase, “they were watching him closely,” leads us to believe that Jesus was probably the “scandalous acquaintance or the intellectual with something to say that everyone wants to hear.” Without a doubt, the host and other table companions were testing Jesus. And what did Jesus do?
First, he asked a provocative question about healing on the Sabbath. When he got no response, he then healed the man with dropsy.
After this, he agitated the situation further by commenting in parable on the seating arrangements. Waiting until everyone was seated at his or her various places of honor, Jesus told a story that could be interpreted on many levels: economic, social, political, and even theological — suggesting that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
After insulting the party guests, Jesus then insulted his host by criticizing his invitation list. “When you give a luncheon or dinner, don’t invite your friends and relatives who can reciprocate. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind who cannot repay you.”
Can you imagine such a scene? A recent college graduate, perhaps one of those surveyed, has her first major dinner party to celebrate her new high-powered job with a prestigious firm. She invites some of her potentially important colleagues and their spouses. She is ready to impress them with her new apartment, her new dining room furniture, her new tableware, and her newly acquired gourmet cooking skills. She also gets her dream come true — Jesus is among the invited guests. But there is one hitch; our hostess is not allowed to tell anyone who he is.
The dinner guests arrive. They have their cocktails and move to the dining room. Jesus sits quietly at the far end of the table while everyone chooses a seat.
Just as everyone begins to eat, Jesus first insults the guests for their jockeying for power spots at the table. And then to add insult to injury, he turns to the hostess and says, “Next time you have a dinner party, why don’t you invite the men living in the shelter at your church, or the assistants in your office, or the stranger you pass on the street, instead of these new colleagues you’re trying to impress.”
I don’t know what I would have done in her place. But I do know that if God is the host of Jesus’ dinner party, the parable suggests that God raises us up out of our own humility, and God humbles us out of our own arrogance and self-importance.
We are called to welcome the stranger into our community and our lives, and not just strangers who look and act like us; rather, we are to invite strangers who might be very different from us, but who none-the-less are invited to join the party.
A party is a risky act of faith on the part of the host who wants to offer joy and believes that his or her guests are worth the effort. It’s a risk for the host who doesn’t know if anybody will show up, too many people will show up, or there will be enough food and drink to go around. In hosting a party, we risk that we won’t have enough chairs for people to sit, that somebody might spill wine on our favorite chair, or break grandmother’s antique chair. There also is a risk that the guests might not get along, someone might say or do something inappropriate, or we might have to deal unexpectedly with someone’s pain or grief causing a guest to present him or herself more as a stranger than a friend.
The dinner party, as a metaphor for Gospel living, is not about cultivating a society of one’s own kind, or getting ahead through entertaining. Rather, the dinner party is about celebrating life with your neighbor, crossing the boundaries of race and class, and sharing the bounty of the harvest with those less fortunate than you. And may we all remember that in the giving and receiving of hospitality with humility, we might “entertain angels unaware.”