Jesus of Nazareth is pretty widely known these days as a teacher/holy man, but in his own time he also collected quite a little fame as a party boy. The most casual reader of the gospels cannot fail to notice that he spends at least half his time at parties of one sort or another, usually dinner parties. And of course he himself hosted what has become the most famous dinner party in history.
Small wonder then that he developed a number of opinions about dinner party etiquette, both from the point of view of the guest and from the point of view of the host.
As a guest...
- Never refuse an invitation, and if you don't get one, invite yourself.
Jesus was willing to dine with his friends (Martha, Mary and Lazarus Luke 10:38), social scum like traitors and prostitutes (Matthew 9:10), his bitterest enemies (Luke 7:44), or people he hardly knew (Luke 19:1). Anyone. There is no reference to him ever turning down an invitation. The attentive reader will notice that the host in the last reference (Luke 19), Zacchaeus, didn't, strictly speaking, invite Jesus over at all: Jesus declared upon meeting him - the first thing he said to Zack, actually - that he meant to have dinner at Zack's house that day. It also seems likely from the context that Jesus and his raggle-taggle of followers were not, strictly speaking, so much "guests" at the famous wedding at Cana (John 2) as party-crashers. It was probably only his mother who was actually invited. This extra horde may have been the reason they ran out of wine (see the next item).
- Don't spare the wine.
Though we never see him actually drunk, Jesus was well known to his enemies (who are so often more willing to tell the truth than one's partisans) as a "wine-drinker" (Luke 7:34, Matthew 11:19), with the implication that maybe he drank quite a lot of it from time to time. (These same enemies criticized John the Baptist for not drinking at all. They do seem to have been, as Jesus pointed out, somewhat difficult to please.)
When the wedding party at Cana ran out of wine, Jesus created quite a bit more for them: the Greek indicates six stone jars each holding twenty to thirty gallons (75 to 115 liters). That's from one hundred to one hundred twenty gallons (450 to 690 liters) of wine. No one knows how many people were at this little village wedding, but I think we may rest assured that they weren't going to run out of wine again any time soon.
- Don't worry too much about the amenities.
These same rather prissy enemies complained that Jesus and his followers weren't too good about washing their hands before they ate. (Matthew 15:1) Jesus countered this by calling them names, which hardly answers the question, but does give a key to his attitude.
- Dress properly.
Given his loosey-goosey view on hand washing, one would expect a similar indifference to dress, but here we meet a surprise. He told one entire story about a wedding banquet (Matthew 22) which ends with someone who was not in formal wear being bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness, rather a strict punishment, one would think, for not wearing a tie. Be warned, however.
- Sit in the least conspicuous place.
Even if you are dressed properly, apparently it is a good strategy, according to Jesus, to slink in and lie low. The payoff is when the host notices you lurking in the corner, and you are then invited to ruffle up your feathers and strut up into the limelight. (Luke 14) Why this invitation to public display is meritorious advice from a spiritual leader is not explained.
As a host...
- Take care of the details of hospitality.
Because guests can show up with unwashed hands does not absolve the host from the rigors of correct behavior.
For first century Palestinians, getting around involved a lot of walking about in sandals on dusty roads. Hence evolved the convention that guests should have their feet washed, ordinarily by a slave, before dinner. When Simon the Leper (a Pharisee) did not see to it that Jesus received this courtesy, he was publicly rebuked for it at his own dinner party. (Luke 7:44) Partly to make a larger point, but perhaps partly also to get the job done, Jesus himself, the host at his own, later very famous, dinner party took off his cloak, wrapped himself in a towel, and performed this duty himself for his followers.
- Don't spare the food.
There are several accounts of Jesus feeding four or five thousand strangers with miraculously produced food, leaving abundant leftovers. Whereas most of us do not have his powers in this area, it still would seem, in line with the abundance of the wine when he's in charge, that he would suggest that no one go away hungry.
- Invite everyone, especially the charmless.
This is where we see The Jesus Guide veering sharply away from Emily Post. Traditional etiquette assumes social equality, perhaps affection, at a minimum obligation, among the personnel at the table; Jesus advises the contrary. (Luke 14:12) (In fact, Jesus himself hung around with a terrible crowd: whores and traitors and thieves, and seems to have thoroughly enjoyed their company. The only people he didn't have much use for were the righteous religious people of his day.) When throwing a dinner party, he advises, don't confine yourself to your friends: invite the homeless and the impoverished handicapped, because they cannot pay you back. He's hinting around here, I believe, at the principle which drives his entire approach to the subject, which is -
Give your love away freely, whether as guest or as host.
There is a lack of caution in Jesus' approach to the dinner party, a big-hearted generosity, both in receiving and in giving, in eating and drinking on the one hand, and on providing food and drink on the other. Christians say he (symbolically or actually, depending on which branch you ask) gave himself away, his body and blood, at his own famous party.
Indeed, Jesus on more than one occasion spoke of heaven as one big dinner party, the heavenly banquet. One assumes that at that party all the rules of his etiquette guide will be observed.