The Place of Honor
I recently spent 3 months with women who had been entrenched in the brutality of the red light area of Kolkata. Having found their freedom, they spend their days making beautiful products out of used saris – a perfect picture of redemption.
During our Christmas party they arrived, 60+ women decked out in their finest jewelry and gorgeous saris. And for lunch, the few men with whom they work served these women whose services were demanded and exploited for years. The men served with love and joy and huge smiles, eager to provide second helpings to all the women before sitting down for lunch themselves. They weren’t worried about being first in the Kingdom, but simply concerned with serving and honoring these women who have always served.
Servant Leadership Won’t Make us First in the Kingdom of Heaven
“Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” – Jesus
Some of the crazy stuff that Jesus said like this used to make me a tidbit nervous. I had a lot going for me in high school: strong academics, youth group leadership, numerous jaunts around the world on our beloved short-term-trips. If I wasn’t careful about my pride, my good-thing-going might make me a candidate for “last” in the kingdom of heaven. Yikes.
Christian college had the answer for me: Servant Leadership. We were the best and brightest, they told us. We were destined for great things – positions of influence and leadership, so we simply read language about first and last and servant of all through the eyes of privilege and power. We will lead the church and the world – with humility.
Indeed the King of Kings washing his disciples’ feet can be a good example for would-be leaders. And leadership with humility is a necessary alternative to selfish and arrogant leadership. I was always grateful in previous jobs to see leaders instinctively pick up a broom at the end of a long day of work.
Still, we need to get out of the habit of interpreting prophetic words through the lens of privilege and power that those same words may actually be critiquing. Many of Jesus’ listeners were, after all, oppressed people of no power. And those with power wanted to kill him. Then they did.
Scapegoats and Footwashers
In Saved From Sacrifice Mark Heim delves into Rene Girard’s work on ancient societies’ tendency to blame individual victims for societal problems – lack of rain, loss in battle, an impending conflict. A scapegoat is identified and sacrificed to bring peace and calm, avoiding violence and destruction. This was done all over the ancient world, with mythology built around the system to gloss over the victimhood of the individual scapegoat.
Jesus’ death on the cross, then, (amidst other atonement possibilities) must be seen to be a specific act of vindicating scapegoats as innocent victims of an unjust machine that kills one to bring peace to the community. His death as a scapegoat pulls back the veil of injustice, sheds light on the truth that it was for the sins of the community (and not the scapegoat) that they are sacrificed, and points us to all other victims of scapegoating.
Maybe in the same way Jesus on his knees washing his disciples’ feet doesn’t point us only to CEOs who are humble, but to those who are designated to perform a function reserved for the lowest of society’s low. The servants. The foot-washers.
These are the Servants of All
When we drive around narrow mountain roads on a motorcycle or in a mountain-friendly SUV I watch the men on the side of the road – young and old – as they swing pick-axes and shovels to dig a trench. Rocks and sand and chunks of road spill away from the trench, making the already narrow roads smaller. They lay tubing down in the trench; I’m told they are fiber-optic cables to provide 4G service to the people who drive by them in vehicles on their way to expensive homes in the hills of Northern India.
Across the street, just beyond the enormous cow grazing on everything-but-grass, a home is being built. Women in dusty clothes carry bricks on their heads. They wear gloves with finger-cut-offs to better grip the pickaxes that blast the rocks, or shovels that mix the gravel and cement. Sometimes they pause from their work and look across the narrow road, that massive divide, to watch the foreigners – like me – dipping their french fries in chili-ketchup. If I’m there I smile, a little tempted to sink behind the partially-eaten apple on the other side of our silver MacBook Pro.
I have a special affection for those kids that some call rag-pickers. They roam the streets picking trash, plastic, all that has been discarded by those with more. Their hair unkempt and their clothes unwashed, they diligently search for anything that can be recycled for a few rupees. I know they are vulnerable to predators. That’s why my heart goes out to them.
The people who build our homes and lay our fiber-optic cables and make our clothes and grow our food and pick through our trash (and in the process clean up our streets) – whose backs break as a busy world whirls by un-noticing – these are the servants of all. They are the ones who make it possible for us to live our lives of privilege and comfort. Maybe in the Kingdom of Heaven, they will be first. Maybe at the table, they will be given the place of honor. And maybe I shouldn’t be worried about that.
At the Table in the Red Light Area
Watching men serve the women of the red light district was a glimpse of the feast of the Kingdom, a symbol of hope. It was a beautiful moment and an example of what the community values, and whom they honor. I know that in our world, the level of inequity between the served and those who serve and who receives honor and who does not should be turned on its head in more than a single Christmas lunch (my friends at Sari Bari are certainly living this out in all their work). It may also require we fall down at the feet of those who serve and repent, and confess that they are the ones whom God loves. Then we might join the table with a place to belong, join in the honoring of those who spent their lives serving others. May that repentance and honor (in word and deed) be given on earth today as in heaven.