By The Rev. Sherry Crompton
August 29, 2010
Read: Luke 14:1, 7-14
Jesus’ parable from Luke today is really not one that is easy to grasp the meaning of. It would be easy to look at this and say it is a lesson in social skills. But it’s not. Jesus is challenging those present to look at their life in a different way. He was subverting social norms.
What do I mean? I mean, at that time, there were clear distinctions between classes of people – how food is distributed by Roman soldiers for example. Who and how much depended your social status. You knew who was above you and who was beneath you in the social order. We still have some of this today, it’s not as clearly defined, or maybe it is, but nevertheless, it is still with us today. Our emphasis on brands or logos, for example. The car we drive has a way of saying something about us. The logo or brand of a piece of clothing, shoes, accessories says something. It’s not just about the brand, but what the brand means or stands for. Flying first class or coach on an airplane is another example of how we are treated differently depending on a “class”. Some of us may fly coach, but may secretly long to fly first class someday.
Jesus is trying to get us to think differently. This parable is not about false humility either – it is calling into question the way we order our world. Let me explain further by using the example of the old stagecoach practice: (Rev. Dr. John Claypool, IV)
The stagecoach was the main means of transportation in the Wild West and the vehicles back then were relatively small. At most, they carried six passengers. However, there were still classes that were recognized. Tickets were sold just like today on modern airlines in first and second and third class. The distinction, however, did not have to do with the size of the seat or the kind of food that was served, but rather what was expected of the ticket holder in case the stagecoach got into a difficult situation like a deep bog of mud or an incline too steep to be able to negotiate.
It turns out that there were three types of tickets sold. The first class, which, of course, was the most expensive, entitled the ticket owner to remain in the stagecoach no matter what conditions might be faced. When you got the most expensive ticket, what this meant is that you were exempt from having to put forth any kind of effort. A second-class ticket meant that if difficulty arose, you had to get out and walk alongside the stagecoach until the difficulty could be resolved. The cheapest ticket-the third-class one-called on the holder to take responsibility for the difficulty. This meant they not only had to get out of the coach when there was a problem, but they also had to, alongside the driver, get down in the mud and do whatever had to be done so that the vehicle could either get through the mud or get up the hill. They were required to do what today we would call “sweat equity” as part of being a third-class holder of a ticket. Needless to say, this was the least prestigious of all the categories.
This practice on the stagecoach, is reflective of our human nature, namely, to equate the category of first class with privilege and being exempt from having to do the most menial kinds of work. And at the same time, it dawns on us how radically different Jesus’ hierarchy of values were and are. When he came to live upon the earth, he gave a very different interpretation to this metaphor of first class. In the most literal sense, he turned the value system of the world upside down and dared to say that in God’s eyes the really first-class reality was not the privilege of having everything done for you, but rather lay in a willingness to do the opposite and assume the role of a servant who is willing to deal with the difficulty and is more concerned to solve a problem than to simply be waited on by others.
When Jesus walked the earth, he gave a very different interpretation to this metaphor of first class. In the most literal sense, he turned the value system of the world upside down and dared to say that in God’s eyes the really first-class reality was not the privilege of having everything done for you, but rather lay in a willingness to do the opposite and assume the role of a servant who is willing to deal with the difficulty and is more concerned to solve a problem than to simply be waited on by others.
Do you recall the last night of our Lord’s earthly life, when he so longed to share a meal with his beloved companions? They had gathered that Passover eve in an upper room, but an awkward mood settled over that little group that night. You see, they had been walking all day on the dirt roads, and their feet very much needed to be washed before they could recline around the table to eat. However, that very day the disciples had been heatedly arguing about who among them was going to be the greatest; that is, who was going to get to occupy the places of preeminence in what they thought was the coming kingdom. A spirit of competition had badly divided that little band of brothers, and not one of them wanted to do the dirty work of washing somebody else’s feet.
Let’s face it. When your overwhelming desire is to get ahead of someone else, the last thing you want to do is to have to stoop over and appear to be beneath that other person. In that moment of awkward impasse, it was Jesus who moved redemptively. In an utterly magnificent phrase, the writer of the fourth gospel says, “Jesus, knowing he came from God and was going to God, got up from the table, laid aside his garment, wrapped himself in a towel, and proceeded to deal with the dirt; that is, to do the work of a servant and wash the feet of his 12 companions. And when he had finished, he resumed his place at table and said in effect, ‘I have modeled for you who I am and who you are. This is the true secret of greatness, not the one who lords himself or herself over you as if they were superior, but the one who is free to do whatever the situation demands because their ego needs have already been met by the grace of God.'”
Here is the foundation of Jesus’ radical counter revolution when it comes to what is first class, second class, and third class in terms of behavior. The willingness to serve is the greatest of all the values in the Christian hierarchy of understanding. The true first-class status, according to Jesus, is not one of exemption or privilege where you pay the most so you’ll have to do the least. It is, rather, the eager willingness to do whatever a problem situation requires no matter how menial or seemingly disagreeable. This servant willingness represents the highest of all values. And one is free to live in this way by the realization that our worth as human beings comes from an act of God and not from our own competitive achievements. What was said of Jesus is the deepest truth about each one of us. We, too, came from God and are going to God. Our worth is given to us as a gift, and realizing this, in the depths of our being, is the great freeing reality.
So at the heart of this quality of humility is an attitude of the heart which realizes that all of our gifts come from God. All of our talent. All of our money. All our personality traits which allow us to advance in life. Everything that we have is a gift from God. Humility is grounded in this deep psychological awareness. We cannot have genuine humility without it.
And so I will repeat it. Humility is grounded in a deep core psychological awareness that everything I am and everything I have is totally a gift from God. Therefore, how can I boast? How can I use these God-given gifts as a measuring stick to elevate myself above others?
In St. Paul’s wonderful image, we are what we are by the grace of God. We find the mainspring of the freedom, which enables us figuratively, to wash each others’ feet and to deal creatively with whatever dirt we may encounter as we make our way through the world. Amen.
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