Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 2, 2001
The Gospel: Luke 14: 1, 7-14
Sermon: "Humility and the Finger Bowl"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, 'Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
Luke 14: 1, 7-14
Humility and the Finger Bowl
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost - September 2, 2001
The banquet in the palace of the Mediterranean country was a huge state affair. Ambassadors and dignitaries from all over the world were present. All of the guests arrived in limousines. The men were dressed in tuxedos. The women wore beautiful evening gowns. After everyone had arrived the guests were invited to the beautiful banquet room. Places had been set according to rank and country. The long table was exquisitely set.
Before the meal was to be served, the host country had an interesting custom. A small bowl was sent around the table with a white linen cloth. The water was scented with lemon and other spices. Each guest dipped their fingers into the bowl and dried their hands with the white linen cloth. The bowl began its journey around the table. When it reached the wife of the British Ambassador she gently passed the bowl to her husband. She did not dip her fingers into the bowl. She did not want to dip her fingers into a bowl after so many others had preceded her. As a result, no one spoke to her for the entire evening. Her husband received several phone calls the next day about the 'incident. His wife had made a horrible mistake.
You see, the custom was not designed to actually clean your fingers. Everyone was expected to have clean hands already. Dipping one's hands into the bowl had a major symbolic meaning. Dipping one's hands into the bowl meant everyone was equal. The community gathered had no one above anyone else. Rank and status were put aside and everyone was gathered around the meal. When this woman refused to dip her fingers into the water she placed herself above everyone else in the room. Her refusal made the claim that she was better than everyone else present including the host. Therefore, she was treated accordingly. Since she believed she was better, then no one else could talk to her first. They could only respond if spoken to. No one would have dared to speak to her first. Not only did she commit a grievous mistake for herself, she also damaged her husband's career as an ambassador. He did not stay long in that position. Her faux pas resulted in his dismissal from that post.
This true story is a vivid example of the Gospel reading today. Jesus was invited to a meal at the home of a Pharisee. The custom of the day was for the honored guests to sit close to the host. Those individuals in favor received seats of honor, the best cuts of food, and the best wine. As one was seated farther down the table one's status with the host and the community was less favorable. The food was not as well prepared and the type and flavor of the wine became poorer. When Jesus arrives he sees the guests jockeying for position at the table. They are trying to get as close to the host as possible. Each person is trying to improve their personal status at the dinner and in the community. Jesus sees a teachable moment. He tells them they should go to the lowest seat first and then be invited closer to the host by the host himself. Now, at first glance Jesus appears to be teaching table etiquette at social functions. The lesson could be seen as how do you make yourself look good in front of everyone.
One of the major themes is about humility. Only a truly humble person will take the lowest seat at an important social affair. Only a truly humble person will allow others to receive the best food and the best drink. Jesus uses the guests at the banquet to begin this teaching. He drives the point home when he moves each person from the position of guest to host. As a host in Jesus' day people achieved status not only by being invited to important gatherings. They also achieved status by inviting important people to their gatherings. Today's world isn't very different. Go to the grocery store and buy any entertainment magazine and read who attended certain parties. Watch Entertainment Tonight and the program is a Who's Who of who has been seen with whom at certain gatherings. Pick up a copy of the New Yorker magazine in the springtime. There is always a section on the debutante parties. The information often includes a list of prominent people in attendance at the various parties and gatherings. The host is prominently displayed in a photograph.
By contrast, as hosts we are called not to invite people of status for personal gain. Instead we are called to gather the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. They are to be invited to our table to eat and drink. They are to receive our best efforts at inclusion. We are to humble ourselves enough to include the hungry, the poor, the sick, the people we like, and even the people we hate at our table. We are called to put our humility into practice.
We, as a community of the faithful, do put our humility into practice to some degree. The Outreach Center, the Soup Kitchen and the Thanksgiving Day Dinner are a few examples. On Sundays we are open and welcoming to all who come to the Lord's Table. However, the question we have to wrestle with is how are we as individuals doing? How do we greet the poor and the hungry on the street? How do we respond to the sick and the needy in our homes? How do we treat those in our lives who have hurt us badly? When we are able to respond to these situations with compassion, inclusion and true forgiveness then we will begin to understand true humility.
If we were at table with the poor, the sick, and the hungry would we dip our hands into the scented bowl of water or would we pass the bowl by us?