Mark 14:3-9; Luke 22:21
The Rev. Tom Herbek
April 10, 2016
Jesus was always turning the popular wisdom upside down. In an essay on Jesus’ question in Luke, “Who is greater, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves?” minister Sharon Watkins writes:
During what would be his final few days, when Jesus is on the verge of arrest, his followers break into a quarrel about rank among them when Jesus is gone. Perhaps it seems like an odd moment to bring up the subject.
The truth is, however, the question might have come to mind exactly because they were at table. Meals in Jesus’ time were conducted with strict protocol. Everyone had a specific place, depending on their status relative to everyone else in the room. You knew exactly how you rated socially by who was seated on your right and on your left. Jesus had just warned them this was his last meal. They might, indeed, wonder about the seating chart at the next meal. Who would be in charge, and who would be chief of staff?
But Jesus said those were the wrong questions. Jesus told them they needed to focus on serving, not seating. In the realm of God, where love reigns, serving one another is the highest honor. The disciples found it hard to absorb the message.
- What Did Jesus Ask?
In our society, waiters are considered to be less important than the “waitees”, those who are waited upon. One person, who worked as a waitress at a private club to make money for college, told me of how badly she was treated there by the members. Members considered themselves far better than a waitress. I must confess that sometimes when I go to a restaurant, I, too, hardly notice the waiter or waitress- the server. A few years back, there was a popular theory of leadership that contradicted the norm.
In the theory of management called Servant Leadership, created by Robert Greenleaf, he writes that servant leaders embody these characteristics:
- They are servants first, motivated to serve first, not to lead.
- They articulate goals, have a vision.
- They inspire trust.
- They know how to listen.
- They are masters of positive feedback.
- They rely on an intuitive sense to see the future.
- They emphasize personal development, believing that most problems originate inside our hearts, rather than outside of us.
The servant leader philosophy was shown by John Wooden, who coached the UCLA men’s basketball team to an astounding ten national championships: “The great thing about Coach Wooden is that he is what he is,” former player Bill Walton once said. “This is a man with no pretensions. He is a humble, giving person who wants nothing in return but to see other people succeed.”
Yet, for many givers, there is also a downside to always wishing to give to others. For many of us, it is far easier to be the giver, the waiter, the server, than to be the one who is taken care of. It is hard to let ourselves be taken care of, hard to accept help or receive gifts. We feel like we need to pay people back for whatever they have done. Yet, in the other scripture I chose for today, Jesus allowed a woman to take care of him in an extravagant way. Sister Simone Campbell describes it:
Consider this scene: Jesus is in Bethany visiting the home of a man who suffers from a virulent skin disease. In his time, such folk were often considered unclean and rejected by society. It was also thought that they had done something wrong to deserve such punishment.
Into the room comes a woman with an alabaster jar of expensive ointment, who then proceeds to pour this oil over Jesus’ head. Now, this is not a 21st century custom, but in that time it was an act of generosity and extravagance. It was a way of making fragrant a raw-stench world – the equivalent of being treated to a spa day or a stay at a five-star hotel. The woman gives Jesus a gift of abundance.
The men in the room start to grumble at the excess. They say, Why did Jesus let this happen? We could have sold the oil for a lot of money and given it to people who are poor! This would have been the noble (and not embarrassing) thing to do.
Jesus hears their grumbling and says to them: “Why are you bothering this woman?” What a good question!
I have come to think that this question is a sign of how gifts and largesse make us nervous. I know that I can become uncomfortable when others overwhelm me with generosity. On our bus trip, a woman came up to me and gave me $5. She said she was unemployed and didn’t have much but wanted to participate in our work. Her extravagance touched my heart, and I was tempted to give the money back. But in a flash I realized that she was doing the extravagant thing of caring for us. She, like the woman in the Gospel, was reaching out to another and showering her care.
Extravagance can be out of our control. Generous gifts can make us nervous.
In this story in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus holds up a mirror and asks us to look deeply into ourselves. Am I someone who can let go of control and respond in generosity? Am I willing to reflect on those times when I grumble about another’s gift giving? Am I willing to receive the largesse of another?
In short, when I start to grumble, am I willing to answer truthfully this probing question: Why are you bothering this woman?
- What Did Jesus Ask?
What comes out of both of these stories about Jesus is a clear indication that Jesus saw our relationship with God in a completely different way than society does.
In Jesus’ day and in the society in which he lived, some people were seen as better than others: men were better than women, Jews were better than non-Jews, priests were better than shepherds, non-collaborators with the Romans were better than the lowest group, tax collectors. Since wealth and health were considered blessings from God, the poor and sick or disfigured were considered unclean, impure, and their poverty and ill health were considered obvious signs they had done something wrong and were being punished by God.
Marcus Borg, in his first best-seller, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, says that Jesus turned everything upside down, calling for a society based on compassion, not outward purity:
One of his most characteristic activities was an open and inclusive table. “Table fellowship” – sharing a meal with somebody – had a significance in Jesus’ social world that is difficult for us to imagine. It was not a casual act, as it can be in the modern world. In a general way, sharing a meal represented mutual acceptance. More specifically, rules surrounding meals were deeply embedded in the purity system.
The inclusive vision incarnated in Jesus’ table fellowship is reflected in the shape of the Jesus movement itself. It was an inclusive movement, negating the boundaries of the purity system. It included women, untouchables, the poor, the maimed, and the marginalized, as well as some people of stature who found his vision attractive. Within the movement itself, the sharp boundaries of the social world were subverted and an alternative vision affirmed and embodied. It was a “discipleship of equals.”
To get an idea of how revolutionary this was, John Dominic Crossan compares it to something that happened in this country:
Eating is not simply a physiological act to get rid of hunger pangs. Anthropologists tell us that the “rules” of eating are miniature models of a society’s rules about people’s relationships and behavior. What we do at the dinner table serves as a map of economic, social, and political differences.
Think of the furor that erupted at a Woolworth lunch counter when black young people sat there to order a sandwich or a Coke. This modern, enlightened, democratic society had rules about who could eat and drink where, when, and with whom. It was literally against the law for blacks to eat in certain places, and certainly for blacks and whites to eat together. That segregated lunch counter was a miniature model of the patterns of association in the segregated society as a whole. So when young people, black and white, broke the rules and sat around tables together to eat (or rode in the same bus), they were creating a new model of what society should look like. The segregated table symbolized the human separation and discrimination; the open table symbolized human community, oneness, equality. And that is exactly what was going on in the ministry of Jesus.
- Who Is Jesus?
Isn’t it ironic that some followers of Jesus have closed his table to certain people, have put limits on who is acceptable? If there are any boundaries at our table, may we be alert and attentive to even the subtle ones, and work hard to eradicate them.
And in the places we eat, and the people that we eat with – in our homes, at a restaurant, for a family gathering – may we act as waiters when that is what is needed, and may we be the waitees – those who are waited on, when that will be the most gracious, compassionate thing we can do.
May our table always be one of compassion and welcome, a place where boundaries of acceptance are crossed, and every person is nourished by the presence of God’s love.