The last shall be first, and the first shall be last. Service is the path to greatness. Welcome children, and people who are the most vulnerable and powerless. It all makes you wonder what kind of hippie commune Jesus was raised in. Do you really believe the last should be first, or do you just hope the last don’t suffer too much? Do we want the first to be last, or just knocked down a bit when they get arrogant? What if you might be first? What if you end up last?
When I was in college, we hosted a fund raiser for world hunger. Oxfam America created an ingenious educational moment. Everyone pays $10 to participate in the dinner. As more than 100 of us came into the cafeteria, we were randomly assigned to specific seats. The vast majority of us were given a spot on the floor. About 15 or 20 people were seated at tables that were set with set with the standard cafeteria silverware. And up on a platform there was a table for two, with a white tablecloth, a lit candle, and a bottle of sparkling apple cider (after all we were Baptists!) When the meal was ready, most of were sent to the cafeteria line and where we received two scoops of rice and a glass of water. Well, it is a fund raiser, after all, you have keep the costs down. While we are standing in line, we see waiters coming out and serving the 20 people at the tables hamburgers and fries. Their food smelled really good, as we shoveled our rice into our watering mouths. We noticed that the two people at the table were finishing their salads, and a waiter with white gloves came and cleared their plates. After a moment another waiter came out with two full plates with steak, baked potatoes, green beans and a basket of dinner rolls.
Some people had the same look on their face as our cats watching us eat shrimp. Others stared at their pile of rice in disbelief, poking at it with plastic forks, and a few were wielding their plastic knives like weapons. As random luck would have it, the guy at the table of honor was a football player from New Jersey, who fit all the stereotypes ,being loud and obnoxious. He was laughing and asking everyone with rice how their dinner was, and having the time of his life, while seated with the head cheerleader. To stop an insurrection, the program began and revealed that our meals reflected the rough breakdown of the distribution of wealth in the world.
While many people reacted to this news with surprise, sadness and a renewed sense of empathy for people around the world, others just could not get past the unfairness of the exercise, and need to vent and express their outrage at paying $10 for a plate of rice, and it was just so unfair.
Teaching empathy is never easy, just ask Jesus. Our reading from Mark 9:30-37 begins with his second prediction of being rejected and his impending and unjust death. This news is met with a fearful silence. We can understand that. Peter spoke up last time (Mark 8:31) and Jesus said “Get behind me Satan and if you want to be my disciple, pick up your cross and follow me.” Who knows what he might say this time? They are going to sit this one out. This is human nature. Controversial topics come up and we are not going there. I know what they just said is racist, but he is a jerk and it won’t do any good to confront him. I’m going to bite my tongue. I feel bad they are suffering with cancer, but I don’t know what to say, so I don’t say anything. I’m uncomfortable walking by a person on the street asking for money. I’ll just walk by and pretend I don’t notice them and they will leave me alone. Fear produces silence. It’s especially true in today when the Facebook and Twitter barbarians are at the gate, waiting to make your life miserable if you say something they find disagreeable.
The disciples are silent as long as Jesus is within hearing distance, but as they continue their journey, they pull out their phones and open up Snap Chat. Jesus asks, “What are you talking about on the road?” as their thumbs are poised on the send button. Nothing. More silence. Because they had been talking about who among them was the greatest. If I was Jesus, I would want to shout, what is wrong with you? I’m caring a heavy burden, my life under threat and you are all working out your place in the pecking order. Don’t you know there are no raises this year for disciples? No promotions to hand out? I admire that Jesus persists to use these occasions as teaching moments. Let’s cover this again, the last shall be first and the first shall be last. God does not order life according to the hierarchies of the status quo. Love means everyone, no matter how inconvenient you find them, and it even means you.
Empathy is hard work. Political philosophers try to make the case that empathy is actually in your self-interest. It is in our enlightened self-interest to help others because we all need help sometimes. We might believe that in our heads, but in our hearts, we are influenced by scarcity. There might not be enough left for us. Can we trust that anyone will really be there for us? I’m so far removed from some peoples’ experience, I don’t know if I can really understand what it is like to be a woman walking alone at night, or someone who is in a wheelchair trying to maneuver the obstacles. I don’t always see, so how can I have empathy with situations beyond my awareness?
Political philosopher John Rawls proposed a thought experiment in his book “A Theory of Justice.” Imagine that you are creating the structure of a just community, and then you are going to be randomly placed in that society. How should things be if you were you might end up in any station, living with what you put in place? You might be born with trust fund in a safe and affluent neighborhood, or to parents wrestling with addiction, you might be a born athlete, or unable to walk, you might be a man or a woman; gay, straight or non-binary, black, brown or light skinned, the child of a hunter in the Kahlihari desert, or an investment banker at JP Morgan. What should a just society be like if you might end up anywhere? What is a fair wage, the best way to do health care, how to handle crime, education, if you your status could change? This is the Oxford Hunger Banquet writ large.
Lets try it with this week’s headlines. You live in Guatemala, a society spiraling into violence, now more violent than Afghanistan. If You want a better life for your children, would you walk across a desert, pay everything you have for a chance to live better, even if it was dangerous and illegal? If you know you could be assign that place in life, what would you want our immigration policies to be like? Would you create a path to citizenship, build a wall, or perhaps look for a foreign policy and foreign aid to relieve countries in distress?
We live in a moment of rising awareness of sexual violence. What message do you want your 15 year-old daughter to hear? That boys will be boys, that they make stupid mistakes while drinking, but it isn’t fair to hold them accountable, it might ruin their lives or chance to be Supreme Court justice today. If you were Christine Blasey Ford, and you knew your story is true, what would you want from a Senate hearing?
As a middle aged white male, generally in a privileged position who is given the benefit of the doubt, what kind of process would I want if I was accused of sexual harassment? It is a real fear for many of us that someone who is unbalanced or has an axe to grind, will come after us with a made up charge. That is all the more reason to want a fair legal process, because if there is no justice for a woman coming forward, their won’t be any justice for men if we are falsely accused. No one will believe me if I defend myself, because so many men who were guilty got away with it. If we cover up and overlook this injustice, in the end we undermine the credibility of everything good we believe in.
Jesus kept trying his best to teach his disciples empathy and a way of service and inclusion. Words didn’t always work, so he demonstrated the last shall be first many times.
- He pointed to the poor widow who gave her last penny at the temple and said she had given the greatest gift, because it was all she had.
- He stood by a woman caught in adultery (note there was not a man caught in adultery, but it takes two for this to happen) and said whoever is without sin caste the first stone. Suddenly no one wants to be first in that line.
- Whatever you have done for the least of these, you have done for me.
So too, we are called to step away from the rat race, the life-defeating game of comparing ourselves to others, and treating people according to status rather than seeing their real value.
Instead of comparing, we make more room, instead of building walls, we expand our tables, and as we live to serve, we become more fully human ourselves.