Etiquette for heaven

Homily for the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Years ago, one of my college friends—who remains among the best judges of character I know—gave me as a gift a book by Judith Martin, otherwise known as Miss Manners.  I said, “Miss Manners, huh?  Is this a hint?”  And she said, “Yes.”  

My friend has assured me that my social skills have improved over the past 20 years, but, more than that, the value of the book is that Judith Martin—who is an elegant, witty writer—explains the reason why we should care about manners.  We might think that manners are about things like what to do with all the extra forks at a fancy restaurant, but Miss Manners reminds her readers that the fundamental purpose behind all manners is to facilitate harmonious relationships with other people.  It doesn’t matter how fancy you are; if you make your guests or your hosts or your friends or your acquaintances feel uncomfortable, then you’re being rude.  

The best definition of justice is “right relationship.”  Manners are not the only thing that goes into right relationships, but they are one way of making interpersonal justice a little smoother. Fundamentally, having good manners means being considerate of other people.

A story illustrates this point.  Jackie Kennedy, a First Lady admired all over the world for her elegance, hosted a State Dinner at the White House.  At the dinner, as part of the place settings, there were finger bowls filled with water to wash off your fingers between courses—fancy.  Mrs. Kennedy was sitting next to the ambassador from a distant country, and the ambassador, not knowing what the finger bowls were for, picked his up and drank the water.  And Mrs. Kennedy, so that her guest wouldn’t know he had made a mistake, picked up her bowl and drank the water too.  Because she understood that a right relationship with one’s neighbor is the most important rule of etiquette. 

On one level, Jesus’ advice to take the lowest place at a banquet is a matter of good manners.  If you understand manners correctly, that’s not such a small thing, but there are deeper levels to the story too.  The Gospel, along with the first reading, is about humility, a deeper character trait, a virtue.  Humility does not mean being a doormat or having low self-esteem—something that undermines right relationships, that means acting unjustly toward oneself.  Rather, it means seeing oneself truthfully in relationship to others, recognizing both oneself and others as created and loved by God and therefore possessing worth and dignity.  It means having an attitude of gratitude rather than entitlement toward the blessings we’ve been given.  The opposite of humility is pride, having an inflated ego, thinking of oneself as the center of the universe.

One of the deepest expressions of humility, I think, is setting aside personal grudges and vendettas, being willing to brush off slights in order to give others the benefit of the doubt, being strong enough to forgive in order to achieve common and greater goods.  Humility is a virtue, in other words, with great practical value.  

In the Gospel, Jesus, too, argues that taking the lowest place can have practical benefits.  This summer I’ve been listening to a biography of Abraham Lincoln, and one of the most striking features of Lincoln’s character was his magnanimity.  Lincoln never held a grudge.  And it was a secret of his success.  Rising from poverty, educating himself, winning the presidency, saving the Union, bringing the millennia-old institution of slavery to an end, Lincoln was a busy man.  He didn’t have time for petty vendettas, griping over old wounds, or settling scores.  When he was a young Illinois lawyer, he once spent weeks working on the legal brief for an important case.  He had to traveled out east for the trial, and when he arrived, he found that the senior lawyer on the case, Edwin Stanton, from a prestigious firm, treated him with such contempt that not only did he ignore Lincoln’s brief, not even opening it, but he wouldn’t eat at the same table as the bumpkin lawyer from the Midwest.  Not only did Lincoln not hold a grudge; when he became president, he made Edwin Stanton his Secretary of War.  The moral strength of Abraham Lincoln has been matched by few men in history, yet it was his humility—his willingness to put ego aside—that made him truly great and, probably, saved our country.

Beyond the practical value of humility, there is one more still deeper level of meaning behind Jesus’ dining advice.  It may be good manners; it may hint at winsome character traits; even more than that, the story Jesus tells is meant to teach us about who God is.  For who deserves the highest spot, not at a banquet, but in the universe, in the order of existence?  God.  And who has humbled himself to take the lowest spot, born in a stable, executed like a criminal?  God, Jesus himself.  Jesus humbles himself so that, with him, we might be exalted.

What might seem like a homely bit of social etiquette is, at its deepest level, a window into God’s redeeming action and how we might, in little ways, imitate that action.  Our relationship with God, broken by man’s pride, is made right through the humility of Jesus.  The banquet in the parable, like the banquet that we share this morning, is no mere get-together among friends, not even a State Dinner; it is the cosmic feast of God’s justice to which we are invited because God’s nature is to give himself. 

The Church Father St. Irenaeus said that even though God does not need us, he wants to need us.  We are the poor guests at the feast, who can offer in repayment for such generosity only our own presence, and yet that is enough.  That is precisely what God asks of us—our real presence—all that he desires.  Blessed indeed are those called to the Supper of the Lamb.

Readings: Sir 3:17-18, 20, 28-29; Heb 12:18-19,22-24a; Lk 14:1, 7-14

St. Isaac Jogues, Rapid City, SD

St. Isaac Jogues, Rapid City

August 28, 2022

Author: Anthony Lusvardi, SJ

Anthony R. Lusvardi, S.J., teaches sacramental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He writes on a variety of theological, cultural, and literary topics.

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