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Table Talk and Etiquette in Luke

August 22, 2016
Emmaus cropped
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C - August 28, 2016
Jesus’ most important teaching moments in Luke’s Gospel take place at meals, parties, and celebrations, and we learn that each meal has a far greater significance than simply eating and drinking with others.
Today’s table talk takes place in the context of the journey up to Jerusalem begun at 9:51. Nothing can be more serious for Luke than a dining table. Both the Eucharist and the revelations of the Risen Christ occur there (24:28-32). It was while eating together that Christ gave his disciples the promise of the Holy Spirit and their commission (Acts 1:8), and it was by table fellowship that Jews and Gentiles were able to be the Church (Acts 10:9-16; 11:1-18).
Table fellowship laden with meaning
Today’s banquet scene, found only in Luke (14:1; 7-14), provides the opportunity for Jesus’ teachings on humility and presents a setting to display Luke’s interest in Jesus’ attitude toward the rich and the poor. For Judaism, for Jesus, and for the Early Church, table fellowship was laden with very important religious, social, and economic meanings.
Luke 14:1 sets the stage for verses 7-11. Jesus is at dinner in the home of a Pharisee and, while there, observes the social behaviour of both the guests and their host. Jesus’ attention to and observation of everyday activity provided him not only insights into the true character of his listeners, but also opportunities to reveal the way of life in the Kingdom of God. The frequent and familiar are not to be overlooked in defining life in God’s presence.
God exalts, not humans
What is the central point of today’s Gospel story? Our human egos are quite clever, and upon hearing that taking a low seat may not only avoid embarrassment but lead to elevation to the head table, may translate the instruction about humility into a new strategy for self-exaltation. Taking the low seat because one is humble is one thing; taking the low seat as a way to move up is another! This entire message can also be ridiculous if there is a mad dash for the lowest place, with ears cocked toward the host, waiting for the call to ascend.
Those who lift themselves up over others will be brought down. Those who regard themselves as among the “lowly” – as human as anyone else – will be raised up. Raising up and exaltation belong to God; recognition of one’s lowliness is the proper stance for human beings. The act of humbling oneself is not an end for its own sake, but for the sake either of God or of Christ.
Today’s first reading from the book of Sirach (3:17-18, 20, 28-29) speaks about authentic humility giving a true estimation of self (3:7-19). Through it, a man performs his duty and avoids what is beyond his strength and understanding (3:20-22). Pride, however, begets false greatness, misjudgment, stubbornness, sorrow, affliction, and perdition (3:23-27).
The only real security
The rich, the powerful, and the “just” find it very difficult to be humbly open to God; they are full of confidence in their own treasures and securities. The only real security is the one based on friendship with God and service of God: to be a servant of human beings and of God after the example of Jesus Christ. Exalting oneself is a form of self-reliance as opposed to reliance on God. This makes clear why being rich, prosperous, and satisfied almost naturally imply being arrogant, proud, and godless.
The second lesson of today’s Gospel goes against the accepted, normal practice of inviting only those who can be expected to return the favour, in one form or another. Jesus reverses this norm: do not invite anyone to share a meal with you who will some day reciprocate or even outdo you; instead, invite those who are never invited out – the poor, those who live on the fringes of society: those from whom no favours can be expected.
Etiquette “chez” Luke
Being a host carries with it many pleasant and positive connotations: friendliness, generosity, graciousness, and concern for the comfort of others. However Jesus also observes (Luke 14:12-14) that hosting can be distorted and terribly misused when the host does his/her work with strings attached! A host who expects a return on his or her behaviour will not offer service or food to those who cannot repay, and so guest lists consist only of persons who are able to return the favour.
Jesus calls for “kingdom behaviour”: inviting those with neither property nor place in society. God is our ultimate host, and we as hosts are really behaving as guests, making no claims, setting no conditions, expecting no return. Luke’s fourfold list of the poor, the maimed, the lame, and blind (14:13) is no surprise to the reader. We have known about these groups since Mary sang about them in her Magnificat at the beginning of this Gospel (Luke 1:46-55) and Jesus addressed them in his inaugural sermon in the Nazareth synagogue (4:16-30).
Jesus’ impropriety and lax mercy
As with so many things he did, Jesus’ befriending such types of people and eating with them angered his opponents. They murmured against him: “He has gone in to be a guest of a man who is a sinner,” or “Look at him who eats with tax-collectors and prostitutes!” But where others saw only sinners, people on the fringe, public pariahs to be hated and isolated, Jesus saw something different. He saw human beings, people trapped in their own failure, desperately trying to be something better, awkwardly trying to make amends for a life of injustice. Jesus of Nazareth would exclaim: “Today salvation has come to this house, since this man also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9-10).
To seek and save the lost, to exalt the poor and the lowly, to humble the rich, godless, haughty, and arrogant: this was Jesus’ ministry. His opponents took offense at such impropriety and lax mercy. Yet all of those who Jesus recommends to be on our invitation lists are those who will receive the places of honour in the banquet of the Kingdom: the poor, those who are maimed, lame, blind, the Gentiles, those who cannot repay us, those who because of their status had not been allowed entrance into the centre of the old Temple. But the walls of the new temple are to exclude no one.
Assemblies of the Old and New Covenants
In today’s second reading from Hebrews (12:18-19, 22-24a), the two covenants, of Moses and of Christ, are compared. This remarkably beautiful passage contrasts two great assemblies of people: that of the Israelites gathered at Mount Sinai for the sealing of the Old Covenant and the promulgation of the Mosaic Law, and that of the followers of Jesus gathered at Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the assembly of the New Covenant. This latter scene, marked by the presence of countless angels and of Jesus with his redeeming blood, is reminiscent of the celestial liturgies of the Book of Revelation.
The Mosaic covenant is shown to have originated in fear of God and threats of divine punishment (12:18-21). The covenant in Christ gives us direct access to God (12:22), and makes us members of the Christian community, God’s children, a sanctified people (12:23), who have Jesus our mediator to speak on our behalf (12:24). Not to heed the voice of the Risen Christ is a sin more grave than rejecting the word of Moses (12:25-26). Though Christians fall away, God’s Kingdom in Christ will remain and his justice will punish those guilty of deserting it (12:28-29).
Cardinal Newman’s weapons of saints
It is good to reflect on the words of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman in one of his memorable sermons on today’s Gospel entitled: “The Weapons of Saints.” He writes:
There is a mysterious connexion between real advancement and self-abasement. If you minister to the humble and despised, if you feed the hungry, tend the sick, succour the distressed; if you bear with the froward, submit to insult, endure ingratitude, render good for evil, you are, as by a divine charm, getting power over the world and rising among the creatures. God has established this law. Thus He does His wonderful works. His instruments are poor and despised; the world hardly knows their names, or not at all. They are busied about what the world thinks petty actions, and no one minds them. They are apparently set on no great works; nothing is seen to come of what they do: they seem to fail. Nay, even as regards religious objects which they themselves profess to desire, there is no natural and visible connexion between their doings and sufferings and these desirable ends; but there is an unseen connexion in the kingdom of God. They rise by falling. Plainly so, for no condescension can be so great as that of our Lord Himself. Now the more they abase themselves the more like they are to Him; and the more like they are to Him, the greater must be their power with Him.
Mother Teresa’s etiquette
With the birthday of Mother Teresa of Calcutta on August 26 and the anniversary of her death on September 5, this time of year is particularly fitting to reflect on the words of “The Paradoxical Commandments.” This year these words are especially fitting, as the beloved saint of the poor will be canonized by Pope Francis on Sunday, September 4th. When Mother Teresa first heard “The Paradoxical Commandments,” written by Dr. Kent M. Keith, she was moved to put them on the wall of one of her homes for children in Calcutta. They are powerful guidelines for finding personal meaning in the face of adversity and transcend all creeds and cultures. Dr. Keith’s “creed” very aptly describes Mother Teresa’s way of dealing personally with such a huge number of people throughout her lifetime.  She understood well the table talk and etiquette of Luke and of Jesus. Let us allow them to ring in our ears and in our communities:
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centred.
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.
Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.
Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.
Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten.
Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.
Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.
[The readings for the Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29; Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24a; and Luke 14:1, 7-14.]
(Image: Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio)

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