For many, the recent royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle was a storybook moment, a fairy tale that hints at an enchanted world where we can all be seen as Princes and Princesses. As we imagine ourselves in the place of these figures of privilege, we can for a brief moment dream of the specialness of who we are. But it is all a mirage: we are who we are. And in God’s eyes there is no royalty. Each of us is unique and special to the all Powerful and all Knowing.
But it is a very human, and some would say ‘natural,’ thing to see all of life in a hierarchical pattern. (There are some that say that this way of seeing life is very much bound up with male patriarchal modes of understanding, but we leave this to the sociologists to hammer out!) In most communities and social entities, there is this principle that divides us and forms a clearly defined sense of who is on top and who is on the bottom.
I remember as a kid we used to play a game called ‘King of the Hill’. One of the gang proclaimed himself King of the hill, usually on some mound in an empty lot! He was then physically attacked by the rest of us until we pulled him down and one of the other members who clawed their way to the top yelled at the top of his voice: “I am King of the hill!” Unfortunately, this futile and violent game is carried out in many fields of endeavor with a more genteel veneer, but with the same violent intent (e. g. Academic institutions, corporations, work places, even the Church!).
This rat race of competition is the product of envy and the insecurities of life. We think that we are deficient and we revolt against this by trying to prove our superiority. It’s crazy, but this is the terrible development of envy. Envy was the first sin when the devil convinced Eve and Adam that they were being kept in a deficient mode by God who did not want them to be equal to Himself. So they ate the forbidden fruit. Their son Cain followed the same fatal logic and could not abide his brother Abel so he killed him. Envy is so elemental a sin that even animals will get jealous if you show affection to some other animal or even a human being!
The Chosen People were conceived by God as a Kingdom of priests. Everyone was equal before God who was the only King. But they were, you guessed it, envious of other nations, and so they asked God for a king even though God warned them of what they were giving up. Notwithstanding the person of King David, Kingship was not a happy experience for the Jews.
Even the Apostles succumbed to this temptation. They argued who was the greatest. The mother of the Zebedee boys actually tried to run an ‘end play’ (with I am sure the approval of her sons!) by going to Jesus and asking that James and John be given preference over the other ten apostles when Jesus formed his revolutionary government (Matthew 20:20-28); boy was she off the mark! Predictably, the other ten were not amused. Jesus, whose patience began to wear thin, had to call a special meeting to tell them that they have His kingdom completely wrong. The last shall be first. Period. This concern for the pecking order invades everything and it shows the countercultural power of Christ’s vision that even today is a disturbing but liberating view of seeing leadership.
Just in case the Apostles still did not get it, the night before He died, at the Last Supper, He gave them a prophetic action of what he means by this new community of His. He put a towel around His waist and did what only a slave would do in that culture: He washed the feet of his disciples.
Jesus was never ambiguous about this since He knew our tendencies to dismiss the difficult in what we learn: “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do (John 13:15).” Earlier, when Mrs. Zebedee gave Him the aforementioned ‘teachable moment,’ he spoke about the pecking order in the pagan world and then acerbically and clearly stated: “But it shall not be so among you (Matthew 20:26).” Could Jesus get any clearer?
The pecking-order mentality permeates all cultures and is responsible for many wars and other more personal strifes, especially in families.
The saints like Francis and Thérèse understood the liberating joy of going to the last place. What freedom! To give up the fight to the top and the resentments it builds and only to taste the freedom that the great King Lear felt when he was reunited with his beloved Cordelia! Lear found that even prison could be paradise when love destroys the constant quest for domination and control!
It seems that only the saints and the poets understand this!