Banquet Etiquette

Jijo Kandamkulathy, CMF

Claretian Publications, Macau


Lk 14:1, 7-14

The question of rank and order when breaking bread may have been a problem in the community of Luke just as it was in Corinth (1 Cor 11). There may have been people rushing for places of importance on such occasions. So, this story of Jesus serves to explain to people that they should not actively seek positions of importance. Understanding this passage in the context of the Eucharistic celebration gives a different flavor to the meaning of the text. But we will reflect on that later. First let us try to understand the cultural underpinnings of banquets and sharing food.

Banquet etiquette differs from culture to culture. The order of seating is highly hierarchized in many cultures, while some cultures admit no hierarchy before meals. A banquet is not about food but more about galvanizing social status. Had it been about food, none would bother about the position of sitting. What does it matter where you sit if you eat the same food, whether seated on a golden chair or a wooden one. So a banquet has a different purpose. Many anthropologists have identified the significance of sharing food in creating and maintaining social order and structure. The type of food you serve, how you serve it, where you serve it, to whom you serve it, and with whom you eat it are significant social codes that need more than ordinary perception to identify.

In cultures where avoiding shame is a major motive of human behavior, seating someone on the wrong table and with the wrong company is equal to losing face and denigrating the guests. Great care is taken in the seating arrangements in these places. In the past in India, in some places even today, sharing even cooking utensils between castes was a taboo. The lower castes were often given food in the courtyard of the house, on a leaf spread in a small pit which could curve the leaf enough to hold the rice porridge. The practice was to prevent being contaminated by the culture and practices of a lower caste person. How inhuman we are capable of becoming! Jesus would break the taboos on food sharing among the Jews as an example for the humanity to follow.

When Christ is the food, everything else is tasteless. When Christ is the wealth, everything else is valueless.

A way to understand the Gospel passage more deeply is to look at the banquets that Jesus organized and participated in. There are two banquets that we remember specifically. The Last Supper and the one in the house of Zacchaeus. Both were occasions of immense learning of the values of the Kingdom. At the Last Supper, Jesus offered himself as food. Then, he taught them an extraordinary symbol of  humility by washing the feet of the disciples. At the other meal, where Jesus invited himself to the house of Zacchaeus, the man gave away everything he had because of the worth of knowing Christ. When Christ is the food, everything else is tasteless. When Christ is the wealth, everything else is valueless.

That meal with Zacchaeus and other tax collectors raised the eyebrows of the Pharisees. Jesus was accused of eating with the tax collectors and sinners with whom the Pharisees found it unacceptable to eat. Jesus moved between the estates of the Pharisees and the so-called sinners very easily. The Pharisees found it difficult to share a table with Jesus because he was sharing a friendship with sinners. The sharing of meals represented sharing of habits and status. When Jesus shared the food of the sinners, the Pharisees held on to scruples that Jesus also shared in their status and habits. Jesus, instead, gave them their self-respect by sitting to dine with them. Sharing a meal with the unwanted is a matter of great appreciation for them. One meal with them can change the whole orientation of their lives as that of Zacchaeus. One meal can teach a lot!

Jesus dared to break all taboos on commensality and found everyone equal in the Kingdom of God, accepting no hierarchical limitations there. Or if any, all the worldly standards of measuring ranks have been nullified. Now we are all familiar with the metaphor of the banquet of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus also gives us some parables where God is the host of a banquet. He calls all the people from the streets and alleys to participate in the wedding feast. God does not care about the ranks of people, or he reverses the ranks. At the Divine Banquet, the Master finds out that those who were invited in advance had different reasons to skip the banquet. Did they not find the invitation giving them sufficient honor? The banquet hall of the Lord was filled with the homeless and the poor ultimately. In the Kingdom of God, those who consider themselves the first are likely to be the last. In this world, if the status of a person is evaluated by the position one sits in for a banquet, in God’s banquet hall, the very invitation is a matter of pride; the one who hosts the heavenly banquet has made the guests, us, invaluable.

The lesson that Jesus gives us is not just about humility but about discernment of the value of the invitation itself to the heavenly banquet where Christ gives himself as food and drink.