Table Manners


image courtesy of Joan Vicent Canto Riog,

Author Ian Frazier once wrote a fun piece about children’s table manners couched in the style of Old Testament ethical codes. If you’ve heard it from me before, then I’m sure you’ll remember it. He advises his children about “laws when at table.” He says things like, “If you are seated in your high chair, or in a chair such as a greater person might use, keep your legs and feet below you as they were. Neither raise up your knees, nor place your feet upon the table, for that is an abomination to me …. Drink your milk as it is given you, neither use on it any utensils, nor fork, nor knife, nor spoon, for that is not what they are for; if you will dip your blocks in the milk, and lick it off, you will be sent away ….”

“And though your stick of carrot does indeed resemble a marker, draw not with it upon the table, even in pretend, for we do not do that, that is why. And though the pieces of broccoli are very like small trees, do not stand them upright to make a forest, because we do not do that, that is why. Sit just as I have told you, and do not lean to one side or the other, nor slide down until you are nearly slid away. Heed me; for if you sit like that, your hair will go into the syrup. And now behold, even as I have said, it has come to pass.[1]

Like Ian Frazier, the apostle Paul experienced frustration about the poor behavior of his spiritual children. They were the Corinthian Christians. In our text from the 11th chapter of 1 Corinthians, we hear that Paul was troubled by their table manners. In Paul’s time, the Lord’s Supper was a little less ceremonial meal, and a little more church potluck. The salaried people were ducking out of work a little bit early to get the good seats. But the hourly workers had to wait to punch out at 5:00 PM. By the time they arrived, the evening’s special entrée had been consumed. Those with much were full, even drunk; those with little were hungry. You’d think the solution might have been expressed in simple terms: “Don’t eat everything!” “Wait for your sisters and brothers to show up!” “Share!” Instead, Paul provided detailed instructions to the Corinthians, showing, a kind of fatherly exasperation. I can almost hear Paul, in Frazier’s “Laws of Dessert”:

“For we judge between the plate that is unclean and the plate that is clean, saying first, if the plate is clean, then you shall have dessert. But of the unclean plate, the laws are these: If you have eaten most of your meat, and two bites of your peas with each bite consisting of not less than three peas each, or in total six peas, eaten where I can see, and you have also eaten enough of your potatoes to fill two forks, both forkfuls eaten where I can see, then you shall have dessert …. And if you try to deceive by moving the potatoes or peas around with a fork, that it may appear you have eaten what you have not, you will fall into iniquity. And I will know, and you shall have no dessert . . . . Hear me then, and avoid my wrath, O children of me.”[2]

When I was a child, I thought the text from 1 Corinthians advocated personal purity. I thought that in order to be worthy to receive communion, I must be cleansed of all bad thoughts, and feel God’s presence, in a mystical sense. Now I see that Paul’s advice is more tangible than that. It is as practical as learning and practicing table manners.

Long ago, I was given a lesson in table manners by one of my youth group leaders, a woman named Edie. Like our youth groups here, my youth group went on trips each summer. Sometimes, Edie went along in her Ford van, filled with a portable kitchen. Though I enjoyed these trips, I did not always enjoy Edie’s menu planning. One year, it seemed to me that Edie had a gotten a bulk discount on green peas: peas with meatloaf, peas in the tuna salad, even peas in the jello. I was not shy about expressing my disdain for peas. One morning, Edie took me aside. In a brilliant piece of psychological gamesmanship, she struck a deal with me. For every meal during which I refrained from complaining, she would pay me 25 cents. This was 1975, and 25 cents three times a day seemed like a reasonably good price for silence. During the rest of the week, I found myself saying things like, “Peas again? Mmmm. I sure do love green peas.”

By the end of the trip, three things happened.

  • First, I earned about three dollars.
  • Second, I discovered something about positive thinking: if I imagined I liked green peas, then they really weren’t so bad after all. Today, I like green peas.
  • Third, I learned about the power of words, the potential that I possessed – that each of us possesses – to build up the body of Christ through compliments rather than to tear it apart with complaints. That, too, is an important part of learning and practicing table manners.

Like Ian Frazier’s family, relationships are the source of both joy and frustration, even in the church. People do things that irritate you. Remember that you may do things that irritate them, too, that leave the taste of green peas in their mouths.

To eat the bread and drink the cup in a worthy manner means paying attention to how our words and actions affect other people. We know about each other’s faults and shortcomings, and still we choose to value and support one another, just as God does. We help one another work on traits that are less than appealing. We make peace by practicing patient correction and offering gracious forgiveness.[3]

As we join in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we affirm that each of us has strengths and contributions to make, that together we can do much more than any one of us can do alone. In our unity at the table, we are Christ for our world today.

[1] The two long passages quoted in this sermon are by Ian Frazier, “Laws Concerning Food and Drink; Household Principles; Lamentations of the Father,” The Atlantic Monthly, Feb. 1997; also may be found in the archives at

[2] Frazier, “Laws Concerning Food and Drink . . . .”

[3] A similar interpretation is used by Kenneth L. Gibble, ““Minding our Manners at the Table,” The Christian Ministry July-August, 1989, pp 37-38.


~ by JohnH1962 on August 2, 2015.

4 Responses to “Table Manners”

  1. Great Message! Thank you for sharing!


    Regina Bright

  2. You’re welcome Regina. Thanks for taking time to comment. It’s a sermon that probably was more effective heard than it is read.

  3. Peas were never my favorite either. I used the moving technique all the time, but never got away with it, we had to clean our plates. Enjoyed your illustrations, John. I can picture Paul walking around the table giving a lecture. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thanks, Leslie, for taking the time to read. Glad you enjoyed the illustrations!

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