Every day of my fourth grade year, my class lined up at the end of recess to go back inside. The bell rang, and we raced to our spots in the queue. But the race was in vain because no matter who arrived at the door first, we always lined up alphabetically by last name. By last name. What I wouldn’t have given to line up by first name. Then (Oh happy day!) I would have been at the very front of the line. No Aarons or Abigails in my class. No. Adam would have been the first name on the list. But those days were cruel. Every morning, I stood on tiptoes to see over the twenty-three heads in front of me, and only one boy – stricken with a name beginning with the letter “Y” – was worse off than I.
Then, on the day when all the mothers began insisting that their fourth graders wear winter coats to school, something happened. Mrs. Hughes, my math teacher, challenged us to line up in reverse alphabetical order. And for one cold, drizzly, glorious day, I stood at the front of the queue and only one head obstructed my view of the playground doors.
Standing at the front of the line feels good and the benefits are numerous. Being in front means that the concert tickets aren’t sold out. The first baseman hasn’t tired of signing autographs. The stalls of the women’s bathroom remain unoccupied. The bucket of fried chicken at the church potluck retains its full complement of chicken legs. Certainly, perks abound for those in front. Go to any shopping center in the wee hours of the morning on the day after Thanksgiving and witness the millions of Americans attempting be first in line simply to purchase a GPS system for twenty percent off retail.
Of course, these benefits are all about me. I get the tickets and the autograph and the preferred piece of chicken. I get the deal on the GPS. I get all these things because I got in line before you. You are behind me and someone else is behind you and countless faceless others line up behind that someone else. So we stand in our line and stare at the backs of the heads in front of us. In this linear configuration, no one can converse. No one can relate. No one can do anything more than slowly shuffle forward, both surrounded and isolated at the same time.
This isolation is the danger Jesus envisions when he places a little child among his disciples. They’ve been arguing about which one of them is the greatest (in other words, which one of them should be first in line). The prevailing linear culture has thoroughly molded the disciples. They only understand relationships in terms of hierarchy based on class, gender, and age. But they’ve been hanging around Jesus long enough to know that Jesus is thoroughly countercultural. He talks with women. He eats with outcasts. He touches the unclean. And so the disciples lapse into embarrassed silence when Jesus asks them about the content of their argument. They know that they’ve provided Jesus with what would now be called a “teachable moment.”
Now, we know Jesus is about to [drop some knowledge] on the disciples because he sits down, which is the preferred position of any self-respecting Jewish teacher. The disciples expect something countercultural and that’s exactly what Jesus gives them: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” To illustrate the revolutionary nature of this statement, Jesus brings a small child and places the child among the disciples – not before them or after them, but among them. In Jesus’ day, this child was the last of the last. The hierarchy of the society placed children just below farm animals because you could get a lot more out of a goat than a toddler, and the goat would probably live longer. Children had no rights or protections. They weren’t even considered people until they were old enough to work.
But Jesus ignores this cruel stratification when he says: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Jesus commands his disciples and us to welcome those whom society deems lowest of all. With this welcome comes the opportunity to see the faces and learn the stories of those who until now were at the end of the line, too far removed from us to register on our radar. As we hear the stories of the lowest, we seek ways to serve them.
One of the greatest mistakes of our time has been the Western presumption that we know what’s best for the people we serve. But this imperialistic attitude only perpetuates the linear model, which our service attempts to supplant. However, with his command to welcome, Jesus doesn’t allow us to develop a “Serve first and ask questions later” mentality. Welcoming provides the framework through which service leads to the building up of relationships.
With his emphasis on relationships, Jesus changes the existing linear model into a circular one. In the line, you can’t welcome anyone because all you see are the backs of heads. You can’t serve anyone because the implied hierarchy of the line makes isolation the norm. You can only count the number of people ahead of you and nurse your own indignation over your rotten place in line. But in the circle, there is no first and no last. We grasp hands in welcome because we are unable to quantify our position in the continuous round. And relationships have a chance to flourish because we look not at backs but at each other’s faces.
This circular model of welcome and service stands in laughable contrast to the current situation in this country. A declining economy makes people cling ever tighter to their presumed spot in line. Distrust and belligerence and hate disfigure our political discourse. The gap between the first and last grows ever wider. Jesus is challenging us to do something, and if his words don’t make us squirm, then we aren’t listening.
To be first you must be last of all and servant of all, he says. Let go of linear relationships based on power and ambition and embrace circular relationship based on welcome and service. If you are at the front of the line now, start walking to the back. Grab the hand of the last person in line and form the circle. Welcome the least among us. Listen to their needs. Serve them because we are only as strong as our weakest member. Jesus commands us to accomplish these things. And the good news is this: Jesus never issues a command without simultaneously offering the gifts needed to carry it out.
So to every fourth grader queuing up after recess and every suit lining up at Starbucks and to everyone, myself included, whose ambition blinds him or her to those standing on tiptoes in the back:
Give up your place in line.