Be Penguins, Not Cows

Proper 20, Year B, RCL, Track 1

Proverbs 31:10-31, Psalm 1, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37

Driving down the road my mother looks in the rear view mirror almost smirking to herself as she listens to my brother and I argue.

“You touched me first.” “No. You did.” “Stop touching me.” “But you touched me last.”

Sometimes these arguments remained somewhat calm but if they began to get out of control my mom would threaten to pull over, though I only remember her doing this once.

Jesus teaching his disciples, From a 1684 Arabic manuscript of the Gospels, copied in Egypt by Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib (likely a Coptic monk). In the collection of The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Md. (folio 10a of the .pdf copy of the document released by the museum under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license).

Today Jesus is driving down the road with the disciples. They are arguing over who is Jesus’s BFF, his greatest follower, or most faithful servant. We don’t know the exact details but we know they were arguing. Jesus doesn’t pull over. They get to their destination and he asks the kids, “What were you arguing about on the way?” And like many children caught in the act, their eyes are wide and their lips are sealed. “They were silent;” just crickets chirping in the background. It didn’t matter that they were silent because like many good parents Jesus knows what was going on. They were arguing over who was the greatest.

For some reason, we seem to be wired for competition. Whether the competition is over politics, LeBron vs. Jordan, or even UT vs. A & M, we contend with each other. Some of us even battle on an unconscious level. We may think to ourselves, “My neighbor just got a new car,” or “My best friend just got the iPhone 12X.” And with this thought, we have some desire to equalize or even outdo the “status” of our neighbor. Whether or not we actually find that it is time to buy a new car or a new phone, just having this thought somehow puts us in competition. We, like the disciples, compete. Sometimes we compete over serious things, sometimes it is out of pride or arrogance, and yet other times it is simply friendly banter.

Jesus, expressing his idea of being the greatest by saying, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And I wonder what it means to be ‘last of all or servant of all?’ I don’t think it means that we always open the door for another person so we enter last or that we wait on them hand and foot. To clarify his message, Jesus then grabs one of the kids running around the house. For the most part, we should remember that a child has less standing than a slave in Jesus’ society. But he takes this child and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Jesus is saying that we are to offer hospitality, even to a child. We are to recognize that the least in the world are equals to ourselves. And if the least in the world are equals, then so are those who are competing to get ahead of us. And since all of humanity is equal, then the only one who is greatest is Jesus himself. To some extent, I think that we need to have the innocence of a child to behave this way.

When we look at children on a playground, especially young children, we notice that they just play together. They are not concerned about how the other is dressed, how they talk, or if they wear a diaper or not. They accept one another as equals; just as God has made them; just as God made each one of us. This is exactly how I think Christ is inviting us to see one another.

God invites us to be penguins, not cows. If we look at a feedlot, cows are often doing one of two things. They are trying to stand at the top of a pile or if it is a hot day they are trying to find shade. If you take the time to watch, you may see them jockeying for position, 50 cows slowly trying to be at the top of a pile or 20 cows all trying to get under the shade of one small tree. Emperor penguins, on the other hand, work together. In the coldest part of winter they huddle together to stay warm. But they slowly move from the outside of the huddle to the inside, and then from the inside back out again. The penguins near the center are the warmest and the ones on the outer most edge could freeze to death in a short amount of time. But they slowly do this dance so that everyone is warm most of the time and none are threatened by the others. Every few second they move a few inches; moving either deeper into the center or moving further to the outer edge. There is what seems to be a recognizable equality amongst them. Yet I wonder if we are being called to do more than just see each other as equals.

If we see ourselves simply as equals we wouldn’t desire to see the other succeed; for that means we are no longer equal. Christ’s view of equality is one in which we do not lose our individuality. We don’t have to get paid the same or live the same lives. We are called to be uniquely equal. In such a utopia we would be lifting up, building up, and honoring each other to succeed. While at the same time we do not feel threatened or in competition with those who are more successful because they are also trying to help us succeed.

This is actually the equality that I think our reading from Proverbs is trying to portray. The writer bestows the value of his wife in a deeply patriarchal society. It is the holding up of the menial duties that probably rub us the wrong way. But when we look, this “ideal wife” does more than any other in the house. From cooking, weaving, sewing, selling goods, taking care of the family in every way; and as if this isn’t enough, she is generous to the poor and needy. This image actually reminds me of most of the women I know. They are strong, hardworking, and will give their all for their family. The unusual part of this passage, especially from the era it was written, is that the husband has let go and gives his wife the equality; to buy land, manage the vineyard, and have a share in the profits. When in the city, he is to give her public credit for her work. The man who wrote this does not see his wife as property but as a partner. He even holds her up and says, yes there are many women like this one but this one, my wife, surpasses them all. The only way we can have this much adoration for another person is through love, respect, and seeing them as an equal in life. He is not arguing over who is the greatest, he is saying she is the greatest. And from what we read, she would probably say he is the greatest as well.

What we don’t see in our bulletin insert is that Proverbs is poetry. It is set out in lines of verse just like the Psalms are. And like any poetry, within it, we can find a metaphor. This poem shows us someone who sustains and cares for the rest of her family. Someone works tirelessly for their benefit. And this is where I see God. God is active in the world, sustaining our lives. Through God the plants grow, goods are bought and sold. And we like the husband should be giving Her the credit, giving God credit for all that She provides for us.

When the disciples argue amongst themselves, we find that they should be seeing Christ as the greatest; not one of their own. When we see others in the world, we see people who are all made in the likeness of God, and it is God who should receive the credit, not each other. For God sees each of us equally. And it is from our sinfulness that we claim to be better than our neighbor. This is why Christ says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

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