Many years ago now when I was living in the great Southwest, I learned an interesting detail that reminded me that for all the ways we humans have changed there are certain habits that continue to persist and need to be challenged by the vision of reality Jesus came into the world to embody.
The detail to which I refer was a practice when the stagecoach was the main means of transportation in the Wild West. The vehicles back then were relatively small. At most, they carried six passengers. However, there were still classes that were recognized. Tickets were sold just like today on modern airlines in first and second and third class. The distinction, however, did not have to do with the size of the seat or the kind of food that was served, but rather what was expected of the ticket holder in case the stagecoach got into a difficult situation like a deep bog of mud or an incline too steep to be able to negotiate.
It turns out that there were three types of tickets sold. The first class, which, of course, was the most expensive, entitled the ticket owner to remain in the stagecoach no matter what conditions might be faced. When you got the most expensive ticket, what this meant is that you were exempt from having to put forth any kind of effort. A second-class ticket meant that if difficulty arose, you had to get out and walk alongside the stagecoach until the difficulty could be resolved. The cheapest ticket-the third-class one-called on the holder to take responsibility for the difficulty. This meant they not only had to get out of the coach when there was a problem, but they also had to, alongside the driver, get down in the mud and do whatever had to be done so that the vehicle could either get through the mud or get up the hill. They were required what today we would call "sweat equity" as part of being a third-class holder of a ticket. Needless to say, this was the least prestigious of all the categories.
When I first learned of this practice on the stagecoach, I remember thinking that this is reflective of our human nature, namely, to equate the category of first class with privilege and being exempt from having to do the most menial kinds of work. And at the same time, it dawned on me how radically different Jesus' hierarchy of values were. When he came to live upon the earth, he gave a very different interpretation to this metaphor of first class. In the most literal sense, he turned the value system of the world upside down and dared to say that in God's eyes the really first-class reality was not the privilege of having everything done for you, but rather lay in a willingness to do the opposite and assume the role of a servant who is willing to deal with the difficulty and is more concerned to solve a problem than to simply be waited on by others.
Do you recall the last night of our Lord's earthly life, when he so longed to share a meal with his beloved companions? They had gathered that Passover eve in an upper room, but an awkward mood settled over that little group that night. You see, they had been walking all day on the dirt roads, and their feet very much needed to be washed before they could recline around the table to eat. However, that very day the disciples had been heatedly arguing about who among them was going to be the greatest; that is, who was going to get to occupy the places of preeminence in what they thought was the coming kingdom. A spirit of competition had badly divided that little band of brothers, and not one of them wanted to do the dirty work of washing somebody else's feet.
Let's face it. When your overwhelming desire is to get ahead of someone else, the last thing you want to do is to have to stoop over and appear to be beneath that other person. In that moment of awkward impasse, it was Jesus who moved redemptively. In an utterly magnificent phrase, the writer of the fourth gospel says, "Jesus, knowing he came from God and was going to God, got up from the table, laid aside his garment, wrapped himself in a towel, and proceeded to deal with the dirt; that is, to do the work of a servant and wash the feet of his 12 companions. And when he had finished, he resumed his place at table and said in effect, 'I have modeled for you who I am and who you are. This is the true secret of greatness, not the one who lords himself or herself over you as if they were superior, but the one who is free to do whatever the situation demands because their ego needs have already been met by the grace of God.'"
Here is the foundation of Jesus' radical counter revolution when it comes to what is first class, second class, and third class in terms of behavior. The willingness to serve is the greatest of all the values in the Christian hierarchy of understanding. The true first-class status, according to Jesus, is not one of exemption or privilege where you pay the most so you'll have to do the least. It is, rather, the eager willingness to do whatever a problem situation requires no matter how menial or seemingly disagreeable. This servant willingness represents the highest of all values. And one is free to live in this way by the realization that our worth as human beings comes from an act of God and not from our own competitive achievements. What was said of Jesus is the deepest truth about each one of us. We, too, came from God and are going to God. Our worth is given to us as a gift, and realizing this in the depths of our being, is the great freeing reality.
In St. Paul's wonderful image, we are what we are by the grace of God. You find the mainspring of the freedom, which enables us figuratively, to wash each other's feet and to deal creatively with whatever dirt we may encounter as we make our way through the world.
I sense this is the real theme of today's Scripture reading about the willingness to take a lower seat when invited to a dinner and not to walk in anxiously trying to gain preeminence by errantly taking a front row seat. We do not need these outward props to our ego because the truth is all of our personal needs have already been met by God's totally abundant grace. The same is true when we decide to give a party ourselves. Instead of compiling a guest list of folk who can up our status and help us with our social standing, Jesus suggests that we should be free to ask who probably needs a meal or party most of all and then to use our entertainment as a way to bless others rather than to impress people with our own prominence.
Nothing I can think of would make life in our world more radically different or genuinely better than following the example and teaching of our Lord in this area. What is really first class in the eyes of God-a person who is freed by grace to be a servant that is part of the answer and not part of the problem-that would make all the difference. And the good news is that this is possible here and now for all of us. You already are totally and completely the beloved of God. Once that gracious truth takes root in the depths of your being, then you too can begin to act out what is truly first class in God's eyes. You, too, can become a servant of the needs of the world.
I invite you to see yourself as you truly are and thus be free to do that truth in love.
O God, who made servanthood the highest of all the human vocations, enable us to deal with the dirt as you did. Amen.