Way back in ancient times, I think it was in the 1990’s, Steve and I attended one of his office Christmas parties. These were fancy affairs, only one step removed from black tie.
The cocktail hour was first.
During that time people would decide where they would sit. Women would put their purses at that place and men would tip the chairs up to show they were taken. There seemed to be an undercurrent among the top level of management, where was the bosses table? Where was his wife’s purse? Were there any chairs left at his table?
And when the time came to sit down, there was a rush among them to see who would sit with the boss. Those who weren’t quite quick enough to claim a seat, had to go look for a table where they then could sit, to find a table that wasn’t already full. The gospel today reminded me of those Christmas parties.
James and John ask Jesus to do them a favor. They asked Jesus if they could sit by him, one on his left and the other on his right. A place where they were sure to be noticed. A place of honor. A place higher than the rest of the 10 apostles. The other 10 apostles saw what James and John were doing, and were having none of it: “Who do you two think you are to think you are to sit in the place of honor?”
Now, if you remember, this kind of argument had come up before with the apostles and Jesus. Jesus and his friends were walking through Galilee on their way to Capernaum. Once they were all settled, Jesus asked his friends, “I heard you arguing behind me as we were walking here. What were you arguing about?”
They remained silent, knowing how petty there argument was. They wouldn’t answer Jesus and they didn’t need to, Jesus had heard them. He knew exactly what they were arguing about: Who was the greatest among them? Who was the best? Who did Jesus like best? He told the disciples then “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
So here we are again, James and John seem to be trying to pull a fast one on the other apostles by trying to sit next to Jesus, trying to bask in the glow of the leader.
Jesus reminds them again, that merely sitting with him means nothing. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
Were James and John kind of thick headed? This was the second time Jesus had to tell them. What didn’t they get? Were those teachings of Jesus meant for others, others who weren’t in the inner circle of Jesus? You know, the others who had to sit at the tables at the Christmas party who weren’t in with the boss?
Jesus tells James and John, well, you could sit by me, but you can’t be window dressing. You can’t ride my coattails. You have to live the life I do, do the stuff I do. But even then, I can’t tell you to go ahead and sit in a place of honor. God is the only one who can do that. You have to show God you aren’t window dressing, too.
Let me repeat “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” In simpler words, Jesus is saying that we are all equal to one another, no one greater, no one lesser. We are to help each other, look out for one another and love one another. That’s when we will be able to sit in the places of honor. Not because those places have been assigned, but because they have been earned.
Last week in the gospel, Jesus said told us not form attachments to stuff, to not let the love of possessions or pressure from family come between following him or not. One must be willing to move on from their family if that family prevents one from following their call to follow Jesus.
Jesus even further this week telling us to keep our egos in check to help others, all others, with their daily lives. One could get the impression that doing these things is a sacrifice, or is drudgery. But think with me for moment. How does it feel when we truly help someone? How does it feel to volunteer, to step up and say “I’ll help?” What about the times when we hold a door open for someone, or help someone reach something off the top shelf at the grocery store? Feels pretty good, huh?
When we have volunteered our time, our talent, our treasure to something, how many of us have said we got more out of it that we gave? When we serve others, when we serve others because we WANT to, our ego isn’t in the way to tell us what a good thing we are doing; we get filled with the grace of knowing we are making a difference.
Jesus understood that! That’s why he kept harping at his friends to serve others. And when they forgot they were to serve all others, not just their social class, he reminded them again.
Teaching the same lesson over and over again is what a good teacher does. No guilt. No shame. Just reminders of who they were deep in their hearts. Just reminders of their best selves.
Jesus knew serving others was the way to grace, to remind us that we are loved and valued not only in this world, but also in God’s heart. That is a pretty good thought to have on this Saturday afternoon in October, isn’t it?
Homily shared on Saturday, 16 October 2021, by Rev. Mary Keldermans.