Table Manners

For 29 October 2022, Saturday of week 30 in Ordinary Time, based on Luke 14:1,7-11

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 honour, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, 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 honoured 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.’
When I was in primary school, we had a reward system whereby good behaviour or a good piece of work was rewarded by a gold star, which was called a ‘merit’. Every person in the class had their merit score board up on the wall so we could keep count – and so we could compare ourselves with each other. If you got enough merits in a term, you had a big reward at the end of term – like the front row seat at the school play or being the first to go to lunch and so getting the best dinner. I loved scoring merits – and not much has changed since those early days.
The attitude of the guests at the dinner party in today’s Gospel seem to show a similar keenness and awareness of their own merit. We are not told who these guests are – whether they were religious leaders, or observant Jews, or the great and the good of the social hierarchy. What we do know is that they presumed to take the places of honour at the dinner table. This is an indication that they were self-assured in their own status, their own merit. They have assessed themselves – their religious observance, their good behaviour – and they look for their reward for all the hard work they have done. This reward is not the treasure in Heaven Jesus told his disciples to store up, but rather the consolations of the world – social recognition, self-assurance and indeed, the best place at the table.
The first thing to say is that the Catholic understanding of merit – or the fact that we have the concept of merit at all – has often been a point of accusation or contention between Catholics and other Christians, as they argue that we adopt this same Pharasaical attitude to trying to earn our way into Heaven through a scoreboard of merits. It is true that some Catholics do approach ‘good works’ in this way and this can indeed be the ‘trap’ of pursuing virtuous action at all. We must keep in mind that merit is to be ascribed in the first place to the grace of God, and secondly to our collaboration. We can have merit in God’s sight only because of God’s will to associate human beings with the work of His grace – all merit is ultimately due to God and is His gift we offer back to Him (Catechism 2025).
As Catholics, and even more so if we are also priests and religious, we have renounced many of the obvious satisfactions of the world – we may not be competing on the world’s standards through fast cars, facelifts and Facebook. So what is left? The heart is devious, it finds its ways. Perhaps our desire to be successful, to be noticed, to be competitive, comes out through our pursuit of good works. They remain good works, but done with wrong motivations, our hearts are astray.
Perhaps we start doing good because we genuinely want to – of course we can clean the Church or visit that housebound parishioner. But then we get noticed – in an overstretched parish or a small community, this is sometimes inevitable. The attention and gratitude of others feels good. Then we start working a bit harder – perhaps we strive to show ourselves generous in service, hospitable in welcoming, a dependable parishioner, an excellent preacher. Then we can end up trading on our good works, and the good name and reputation we earn by these good works. We are honoured in Churchworld, a minor celebrity, a social climber – what a good Christian she is, what a saint! Bring her to the front of the Church, give her a platform to preach from, invite her to tea. The honour and the accolades come in. And perhaps we start thinking: indeed, I have earnt my place at the table.
St Thomas Aquinas says that honour is one of four main substitutes from our seeking of God. It can become an addiction. We started off doing good, but now the honour it accords us becomes our end goal. At this point, our lives have started to disintegrate because virtue is not just doing-a-thing-that-is-good but choosing to do a good thing as a consequence of the harmony between my intention, my understanding and my behaviour.
The insights of modern psychology – particularly with the unconscious – have certainly brought to light our inner conflicts and mixed motivations. It is worth asking: what is it that motivates our good works? Is it the attempt to earn merit? Is it the desire for honour? If you uncover something uncomfortable, do not let it lead you into despair but instead into humility. Both St Catherine of Siena and St Teresa of Avila put self-knowledge and humility at the centre of their spiritual doctrine. This illumination of ourselves as we truly are primarily comes through prayer and this self-knowledge is far different from the self-appraisal of the Pharisees. Humility means being insecure about everything – our spiritual state, our good works – apart from the knowledge of the love of God. If we are secure enough in the Father’s love for us, being known in His sight alone will become enough for us – we will no longer need to compete and compare like children, jostling for a place at the table, because we will be truly convicted of Jesus’ promise that He has prepared a place for us.
Where are the places of honour in our churches today, and who is invited to sit at them? How does it apply in your parish, your religious community, the national Church, the global Church? Does your church honour music ministry but neglect hospitality? Do you acclaim the sister with the highest stipend in the community but forget the one who always does the housework? Where am I reassuring myself of my merit, where am I looking for an earthly reward – is it through my preaching, my serving? Where am I looking for that top seat at the table?
This Gospel reading is taken from a longer section of Luke chapter fourteen – today we read about the events of a dinner party, further on in the chapter and we hear the Parable of the Great Banquet. These two events are intimately linked: one story foreshadows the other. One of the key messages in this chapter is Jesus’ prediction of a reversal of fortune – the ones who exalt themselves will be humbled, and “not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.” These people have had their reward. So, let us be reminded that the Father welcomes the poor and the little ones to the eat at His table, and this their eternal reward in Heaven.

Scripture passage from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright 1989, 1993, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sr. Rose Rolling, OP

About Sr. Rose Rolling OP

Sr Rose is a newly professed sister with the English Dominican Congregation of St Catherine of Siena, based in Cambridge, UK.