It boggles my mind to think that there was a time, not too long ago, that this gospel was preached shamelessly in churches where wealthy parishioners had private padded pews, sheltered from drafts, while the poor were banished to bare back benches, and others excluded entirely. It’s a sad reminder that there’s a persistent, primitive urge in most social animals to establish a fixed order of dominance and submission. First studied in chickens, the phenomenon was labelled “the pecking order.” Further study revealed that what was true for chickens also applied to chimps, wolves, hyenas, horses, lions and on and on. In this morning’s gospel, we see it also applies to apostles and it applies to us, too.
Potentially we all have that hair-trigger “Hey, what about me?” reflex. From birth we’ve developed extremely sharp peripheral vision to feed our brains with a steady stream of comparative performance data on siblings, classmates and colleagues. Consciously or unconsciously, we are continually taking the measure of those around us. Over a lifetime of calculation, many of us develop a heightened sense of entitlement, coupled with a resentment of the recognition that others receive. It’s natural. We’re human, competitive, carnivorous creatures.
And all of this is no news to Jesus. He is human, too. One reason he became human was to show us how to rise above reflex. He’s here to shake things up with a message of love that is totally counter-intuitive. His challenge to us is to stand human nature on its head. In its stead: the first will be last and the last will be first; whatever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me; love those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you. Over and over the challenge of Christianity is to turn away from the pecking order instinct and the rule of the jungle and replace them with rules that are golden. Love of God and love of neighbor are the new paradigm that Jesus preaches, Jesus lives… and Jesus is willing to die for.
All of this “last-will-be-first” message is tough for the apostles to take. But to make things tougher, Jesus is also back at predicting his betrayal, death and Resurrection. While the apostles don’t say a word, they are in turmoil: What’s this all about? Is this what we left our boats and nets for? And who can blame them?
It’s hard to escape the powerful conceptual economy of this gospel. Jesus covers redemption and resurrection along with the foundation of the Christian ethos in seven sparse verses. No wonder the apostles are stunned into silence. Twenty centuries later it is still a jaw-dropping concept.
You’d think that living with Jesus for three years might have been enough instruction to make the point. But later on in Luke’s account of the Last Supper, we see that the apostles are still squabbling about which one of them is the most important. Jesus expands on the lesson of this week’s gospel by asking them: Who is more important: the one sitting at the table or the one serving? And on this last night before Calvary he drives home the point: I am like a servant among you.
On an intellectual level, none of the good news of this gospel is really news to any of us. We’ve heard it so often before. But are we living it. Or are we living by reflex, still too preoccupied with the world’s pecking order and our place in it? Has our competitive peripheral vision made us blind to Christ’s clear message of love right before our eyes? By the grace of God, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostles finally got it. They understood what Jesus had told them over and over. And they not only understood the gospel, they lived it and they passed it on to us.
Now it’s our turn… yours and mine. Our pecking order instinct is powerful. But God is all powerful. In him all things are possible, even changing a nagging “What about me?” reflex into a loving “What would Jesus do?” response. Let’s leave the pecking order to the chickens and humbly share the saving love of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The Reverend David Sellery, Episcopal Priest, Author, and Coach. Fr. Sellery presently serves as Priest-in-Charge, St. John’s Salisbury, CT. Fr. Sellery has excelled at using new media to increase outreach beyond the Church doors via his website, blog posts, and podcasts.