I’m still waiting for another priest, whoever he may be, to send me a copy, or tell me where to find one, of that immortal classic, “The Gentlemanly Priest,” which was read to us periodically in the seminary dining hall so many years ago. I remember just enough of its contents to know that I’d get many a laugh out of reading it now, some 58 years later.
One section on table manners for the gentlemanly priest instructed him on what to do in the event that he discovered, while dining with friends, a worm or some other insect on his salad plate. The author said that he was to give no indication, by word or even a glance, that he had discovered the creature but was instead to lift a piece of lettuce with his fork and discreetly usher the little critter under it. Now, them’s manners, folks!
Handbooks like the one I speak of, manuals of social graces, have been around a long time, and we find frequent references to them in the bible. The Book of Proverbs and the Book of Sirach, from which our first reading was taken today, contain such advice – how the proper Jew was to conduct himself in a way that would make him worthy of social acceptance. You heard at least hints of that theme just minutes ago.
Jesus, an observant Jew, well trained in the laws of his people and his tradition, gives in the Gospel passage just proclaimed advice which would be certain to get him rejected by society.
But remember always that we’re not to take these words of his literally any more than we are to tear out our eyes (also his words, remember) to prevent us from sinning with them, or chop off our hands when they become the instruments of our immoral behavior.
And of course we are to have family meals – regularly. Of course we are to invite our friends to dine with us, whatever their economic status may be. Jesus appears to be using one of those rabbinical techniques designed to stimulate deeper, more comprehensive thought – to push out the boundaries of prejudice and break down moral and mental calcification.
As I understand it, the important point that Jesus is underscoring is that we should learn to give as God gives – freely, with no strings attached and with no expectation of a return in kind. On the contrary, have you ever heard, or have you ever thought or said, “Well, she’s not getting a Christmas card from me this year – we haven’t received one from her in over three years”? Or, “We’ve got to buy him a very expensive gift. Remember, he’s Daddy’s boss, and don’t forget what he gave us last year.”
The gifts of God are given freely, with only one expectation: that we pass on the love they represent. Name any of God’s countless gifts to us and it says what they all say: you are mine, and you are wildly loved! What we in turn give to others must bear the same message: you are lovable, of great value, and full of love to share with others. Pass on the gift in your own way!
We are made, we have been told, in the image and likeness of God, the Creative Spirit, but we are never forced to act the part. How we choose to give says much about how we choose to live.