In John Grisham’s book The Pelican Brief, protagonist Darby Shaw is in law school, number two in her class. Due to events that take place in the book, she had to drop out of school for a while, and she reminisced about the time when she had been a student clawing her way to the top.
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Clawing our way to the top. It seems that the default system of organizing ourselves in life, work and school is in hierarchical systems, in which some people are on top, others in the middle and others on the bottom. We navigate hierarchical systems in business, government, the military, education, medicine and more. And, of course, hierarchies are not all bad. We especially need them in certain institutions, such as the military and medicine.
My father served on a submarine in the Pacific theater in World War II, and even though the skipper commanded the ship, nobody on board went anywhere the skipper didn’t go, too. But Jesus today calls us to reevaluate this impulse to organize ourselves in hierarchical patterns and to reevaluate our desire, our need to get to the top, or at least on top of somebody, anybody, else. And in challenging us in this way, Jesus reveals to us his inner self, the servant-leader.
Why do we do this? Hierarchies can help us to feel safe, secure. They can also contribute to our desire not to have to take responsibility for the health of the group or organization. We can coast while others take the burden of leadership and then simply react when events don’t turn out as we thought they should have.
We often also appear to have a need to feel superior to others; that aspect of human nature plays out in corporations and other organizations in which members do whatever they have to do to accomplish getting ahead, or what they consider to be getting ahead. This need to feel superior to others is the root of jealousy, envy, gossip, slander. If we can make another person feel less good about him or herself, then, theoretically, we feel pumped up. Jesus makes it clear that that is not what he wants from us.
And not many years later, Paul allowed Jesus’ exhortations to flow through him and out to the people of Corinth in a letter:
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
But, again, why? Why do we so often feel the need to reinforce ourselves in this way? Much of it has to do with our pervasive insecurity. It is hard if not impossible for us to grasp just how much God loves us; if we could accept that love, receive that love, it could go a long way toward helping us to feel secure. To feel secure enough not to have to bolster our own feelings of self worth at the expense of another, secure enough not to want the higher seat for ourselves. If we could more fully allow Hosea’s words to ring out within our own hearts:
“When Israel was a child, I (God) loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.”
In The Pelican Brief, Darby Shaw left law school to pursue the bad guys. To try to see that justice was done in a situation in which the perpetrators of evil had gone unidentified and unpunished. She gave up her number two position in the class and risked her life for justice. She took the lower seat but found herself exalted.
In particular, the church, which in many denominations is organized in a hierarchical system, Jesus calls us to live out our lives with each other in a way that demonstrates our understanding that we are all equal, not some above others. That in the Episcopal Church, for example, the four orders – lay, deacon, priest and bishop – are not a succession of achievements to be pursued and attained but are more like a circle of stones, each person contributing her or his gifts to the group.
At the church where I serve, the rector is ultimately responsible for decisions about the liturgy, how our worship services are conducted. That can be a healthy element in a system, to have a designated leader who makes decisions when the group cannot agree or in other situations. But before the rector makes a decision, he listens to various people involved and takes their thoughts into consideration. His intention is to be collaborative.
The service for which I am responsible is called Chapel Mass, held on Sunday evenings at 6:00. Our custom is to gather around the altar for the Eucharist. We stand in a circle, around the holy table, all different but all on the same level. Each one of us contributing our presence, our love for God and each other, our gifts. Together, we are God’s children, God’s royal priesthood.
And so we can remember that it is we whom God has loved since we were a child. It is we whom God loves as God loved Israel. It is we whom God taught to walk, it is we whom God takes up in God’s arms; whom God heals; who leads us with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. It is us whom God lifts to God’s cheeks like infants, and it is us to whom God bends down and feeds.
And when we remember that, when we allow that song to live in our hearts, when we take the majestic power of that love song into our very being, then we know that we have all we need. That we can love ourselves. And we know that we can take the lowest seat and still be assured even then that we are cradled in the very arms of God.