Leonard Bernstein, the celebrated orchestra conductor, was once asked, “What is the hardest instrument to play?” Without a moment’s hesitation he replied, “Second violin. I can always get plenty of first violinists. But to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm, or second French horn, or second flute, now that’s a problem! And yet if no one plays second, we have no harmony.”
How good are you at playing second fiddle? Not so easy a lot of the time, is it?
It’s said that it’s possible to know the price of everything and the value of nothing. That basically describes Will Freeman in the movie “About a Boy.”
“About A Boy” is the story of a loner of a man who is taught to grow up through a totally unexpected relationship to an eleven-year-old boy. The movie was made in 2002 with Hugh Grant playing Will and Nicholas Hoult playing Marcus. Will’s father wrote a famous Christmas song in England that permits Will to live off its income. He chooses to isolate himself in his own little world of short-term female relationships and basically nobody else. When he finally meets a woman he falls in love with, he’s got nothing of real substance to bring to the relationship.
Marcus is a boy whose mom is a hippie-type with a serious depression problem, and can’t seem to find happiness in her life. She tells her son Marcus she’s happy when he sings. When his mom starts to get seriously depressed again, Marcus decides to sign up for the school talent show to sing a song he knows his mom will enjoy (but the school will not). Will shows up just in time to beg Marcus not to go out on that stage.
We’re going to stop right here. I promise to show you what happens next later on.
How do we make ourselves happy?
In our scripture, Jesus is pointing out how easy it is for anyone and everyone to fall victim to status-seeking and worth-worrying. Here clergymen are sitting around a table bound and restricted by their fear of whether or not their value is being recognized. Their overriding concern is whether or not they are properly positioned in the hierarchy of who’s more important. While someone is blessing the food they’re judging whether or
not they could have prayed better. Instead of remaining God’s servants they are enslaved to status-seeking. They’ve lost their way.
We lose our way when we focus on reaching a position instead of doing our best. We mustn’t worry about getting what’s coming to us. Christ’s joy comes to those who have brought life down to its most Christian component: Serving God and others.
Real humility frees us from running the rat race. Serving God frees us to put faith in to action. Putting others first frees us to love them.
There’s an interesting thing about stagecoaches that you may not know. Back when they were the main means of transportation in the West, all passengers sat together. Even so, class or status was still recognized. Tickets were sold similarly to today on airlines in first and second and third class. The distinction, however, didn’t have to do with the size of the seat or the kind of food served. It had to do with what was expected of the ticket holder in case the stagecoach got into a difficult situation, like a deep bog of mud or a very steep incline.
First class entitled the ticket owner to remain in the stagecoach no matter what conditions might be faced. 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 called on the holder to take responsibility for the difficulty. They not only had to get out of the coach when there was a problem, but they also had to get down in the mud and do whatever had to be done so the vehicle could either get through the mud or up the hill. “Sweat equity” was part of being a third-class holder. Needless to say, this was the least prestigious of all the categories.
That’s the way people often want to go about their lives. “Boy, getting to first class so I can’t be disturbed, so I can take it easy, so others can do the work for me, that’d be great.” But haven’t we already tried that in different ways? Didn’t we try that as teenagers? You know, get your parents to do all the work. Fight over whether to do the dishes, cut the lawn, do the laundry.
We always had better things to do back then. Funny how they were always things for ourselves. We thought we knew what would make us happy: concentrating on ourselves.
We weren’t so happy then, were we? And teenagers today don’t look and act so happy either, do they?
Heck, today too many parents still act like they’re teenagers, giving in so easily when children first refuse healthier food over easier food, or not cook much at all; neglecting to serve their children with their attention and focus; many parents share instead unkind hearts and words; many parents today seem to have little time or patience.
Instead, moms and dads can’t get their kids “grown up” fast enough, that way they can consider their children old enough to take care of themselves. This frees mom and dad from having to be responsible for or servants, you might say, of their children. Parents grow up when they realize God has called them to serve whole-heartedly in the most important capacity they’ll ever have.
If there was ever a gospel reading that invited a polite yawn however this might be it. Jesus comes off in this scene as a bit of a Miss Manners with worldly advice on etiquette, handy hints on the do’s and don’ts of table decorum, where there’s a pecking order and tact matters. And the message seems to be pretty straightforward: Decent manners get you places in the end.
And, of course, that’s true up to a point. And that’s why, for many people, being humble means little more than courtesy, civility, being ready with a self-deferring gesture, a “No, ma’am,” “Yes, sir,” “After you,” “Ladies first,” “Pardon me, did I interrupt?” “You were going to say?” The reduction of humility to well-bred niceness is common, even in the church. Why? Because, frankly, it gets you places. After all, who wants a rude pastor? Nobody will be a friend to someone who’s rude.
Sort of reminds me of the guy who walks into a bar, sits down, and orders a beer. As he sips the beer, he hears a soothing voice say, “Nice tie!” Looking around, he notices that the bar is empty except for the bartender at the other end. A few sips later the voice says, “Beautiful shirt.” With this, the man calls the bartender over. “Hey, I must be losing my mind. I keep hearing these voices say nice things, but there’s not a soul in here but us.” “It’s the peanuts,” answers the bartender. “Say what?”
“You heard me,” says the bartender. “It’s the peanuts. They’re complimentary.” Even peanuts are know how to give compliments.
There’s no doubt about it: this kind of humility can reap rich rewards. Easy or cheap humility is a social tool with which we learn to hold back to wait your turn. And eventually, when you do get asked to the front, everyone will like you. You’ll be honored, to use the word of the parable.
That’s one reading of this parable: A nugget of worldly wisdom about how to get places. Proverbs 25:6-7 says, “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told ‘Come up here’ than to be put lower in the presence of the prince.”
But this isn’t real humility. This is strategizing, ambition hidden in sheep’s clothing, awaiting opportunity. This is our sense of worth tied to others’ approval of us. This is doing something in order to get something back. Blessed are those who serve and who won’t get repaid.
Blessed are those who sing to the deaf.
A nursing school graduate took a job in a long-term care facility. One of her first patients was a woman named Eileen. Eileen’s major health problem was that she had had a brain aneurysm burst leaving her totally unconscious and apparently unaware of anything that was going on around her. It was necessary to turn Eileen several times a day to prevent bedsores, and she had to be fed through her stomach tube twice a day.
Eileen never had visitors. She apparently had no one who cared about her. One of the other nurses said, “When it’s this bad you have to detach yourself emotionally from the whole situation….” As a result, Eileen came to be treated more and more as a thing, with people just going in and doing their work and then leaving again as quickly as they could.
But this young nurse decided she, in living out her Christian faith, would treat her differently. She talked to Eileen, said encouraging things to her, brought her little gifts, and sang to her.
On Thanksgiving Day, however, the young nurse came to work reluctantly, wanting to be home on the holiday. As she entered Eileen’s room, even though she knew she would be doing the normal tasks with no thanks whatsoever, she decided to talk to Eileen. She sat down on the side of Eileen’s bed for a moment and said, “I was in a cruddy mood this morning, Eileen, because it was supposed to be a day off. But now that I’m here, I’m glad. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss seeing you on Thanksgiving. Do you know today is Thanksgiving Day?”
Just then the telephone rang and the nurse turned away from the bed to answer it. As she was talking, she turned to look back at Eileen. Suddenly, she said, Eileen was “looking at me…crying. Big damp circles stained her pillow and she was shaking all over.” That was the only emotion Eileen ever showed, but it was enough to change the attitude of the entire staff toward her.
Not much later Eileen died.
The young nurse closed her story this way: “I keep thinking about her…. It occurred to me that I owe her an awful lot. (If it weren’t) for Eileen, I might never have known what it’s like to give myself to someone who can’t give back.”
That’s the kingdom of God in action: Giving to someone who can’t give back. Singing to the deaf is pure humility, pure joy, pure religion.
God has called and commanded us to be those who serve a higher calling. God created you in such a way that we won’t find ultimate happiness until we’re serving others.
Now let’s see what happened to Marcus and Will.