Jesus Never Rode a School Bus
Episode 31 – September 3, 2019
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Bri-anne was never the cool kid in school. Jesus is the worst dinner guest ever. Calling out the Pharisees with a lesson about humility. God does not value what the world values. You are loved and beloved. Reading by Jess Swance from Algonquin Park, Ontario. Music by Claire Schofield and LILI. Words by Kahlil Gibran.
Claire Schofield – “Summer Song”
LILI – “At Seventeen” by Janis Ian
Reading No. 1
Reading No. 2
“The Greater Self” from The Forerunner (1920) by Kahlil Gibran
I grew up in the countryside of Central Ontario. I wasn’t too far from my elementary school — about 5 kilometres — but much further from the high school I attended. It was about a 20-minute drive if you did it by car. But when I went to school, the bus had to wind its way through all of the dirt side roads. All those farm kids, kilometres apart, so that by the time the bus got to the school it was about an hour run in total. Unfortunately, my house was the very first stop on the route. Since classes started at 7:50 in the morning (and I think there is a side note about the inherent cruelty in expecting teenagers to learn anything at 7:50 in the morning), that meant I was on the bus at about 6:45 am. I used to bring a pillow and a blanket on the bus with me just to get a little bit more sleep. At least I wasn’t walking to school, uphill, both ways…
However, I’m not sure how many of you needed to take a bus to get to high school — they can be dangerous if you don’t have your wits or awareness about you. Teenagers can be cruel. Really cruel. And nowhere is the social hierarchy on display more plainly than in a country school bus. It is very, very obvious by where kids sit, who is in and who is not. The cool kids, those with the highest social clout, sat at the back…the most highly coveted marker of status. So, even though I was the very first person on the bus in the morning, and could sit anywhere I wanted, I knew…I knew…that the back was not my seat. Not only was it not my seat, but it would cause me significant problems if I were to try and claim it. I had 99 problems fueling my teenage angst and trying to sit at the back of the bus wasn’t going to be one of them.
Except for one day when I was on the bus heading home, somebody threw a half-full can of Coca-Cola at the back of my head. Covered in sticky pop and seeing stars, I was done. Just so, so done. So the next day, I sat in the back of the bus. Nobody can pelt you from behind if you’re the one who’s behind. I got on in the morning and just sat there. When the regular occupants of the seat showed up and told me to move, I ignored them. I was silent. Same thing that night: I went straight from my last class to the bus and sat in the back seat. This time folks were really, really angry. So disproportionately angry to simply not being able to sit in the seat they wanted to.
That’s because it wasn’t really about the seat. It was about disrupting their spot within the adolescent social order we’d fallen into. I’ve often thought about the ways in which my school bus, and the two hours I experienced in it every day, were a microcosm of the greater society.
Now, despite his great suffering, Jesus never had to go through the challenges of riding a rural school bus in the early 2000s. He was, at least, afforded that small mercy.
In our reading today, it sounds like Jesus is responding to an Ann Landers advice column sort of question: “Where is the most appropriate place for me to sit when invited to a dinner party?” But just like the dudes freaking out on the bus weren’t really upset about the seat itself, Jesus isn’t really talking about dinner party etiquette.
So, here we have Jesus, invited into the home of a leader of the Pharisees. We remember Jesus eating with Tax collectors, sex workers, the under-housed and underfed, and it’s noteworthy that Jesus is also rubbing shoulders with the powerful. At least, powerful within this particular community. We’re still in a Roman-occupied area here, so the Judean leadership are still subject to the whims of the Empire. And the Pharisees themselves are kind of a resistance movement. The Sadducees were the more elite class of religious leadership, connected to the temple and more embracing of the Hellenization of the Jewish community. The Pharisees, in contrast, were closer to the common Jewish population, placed more emphasis on Mosaic Law than on the Temple and its rituals, and recognized not only the written Torah but also the Oral Torah, records from the Prophets and other writings. In early Christian Scripture, like what we read in the Gospel account of Jesus’ life, there is conflict with the Pharisees because they are the ones Jesus and common people would have been interacting with. It is from the Pharisees that the Rabbinic Tradition in Judaism emerged.
So, Jesus is over with the Pharisees for dinner. He performs a healing on the way (which the Revised Common Lectionary for this week skips over) and then observes the invited guests jockeying for the best spot at the table. This would be a completely socially acceptable practice. Humility was not a particularly well-embraced virtue in Roman times, or even current times. Look at our current political leaders. But more on that in a bit…
When Jesus suggests to those present that they should sit at the lowest setting, this would have been a counter-cultural concept. And he quotes scripture from his own tradition — from the book of Proverbs — to make his point. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” Tables turning over and over again…
As I mentioned earlier, Jesus spent a lot of time with those living on the margins of their society, but he saves the teaching about humility for those who hold status and position within the Jewish community. In our current North American culture, Humility is a virtue that gets talked about but rarely embraced by those at the top of the social ladder. However, it often gets thrown at minority groups in an attempt to maintain status-quo power balances. Muhammed Alli was accused of being too arrogant by (mostly white) journalists. Some Americans cited Hillary Clinton’s arrogance as the reason they voted for Donald Trump…which seems absolutely astonishing if you take even a millisecond to mull that over.
I wonder if the Pharisees falling over themselves to sit in the seats of honour were doing so because this was really all they had. This little bit of social standing within the Jewish community. Their autonomy was still impinged upon by the Roman State. The Sudducees were the more elite class of Religious Leaders. And, as Luke is portraying them in this story, they had bought into the cultural notion of defining their personal worth by worldly status, instead of identifying their self worth in what God values. This is what Jesus is talking about when he’s discussing humility. Jesus is not asking people to devalue themselves. He is also not inviting people into a competition for the Humble Brag Award. He is explaining that our value is not dependent upon our station within the world. God does not value what the world values. I find that an incredibly freeing thought.
And so I’m thinking back to those kids on the school bus so many years ago, and how upset they were that they were forced out of their teenage equivalent to places of honour. Because it wasn’t as if the back of the bus had the best view or was the most comfortable. It’s that it was a visible demonstration of their status within this tiny little community. And perhaps this was the only place in their world where they held any kind of power or status, and they had to hold on tight to whatever they could grab. I have no idea what their home lives were like. I do know that not many of them graduated from high school. In a society that places so much emphasis on attaining formal post-secondary education, I can only imagine where they are currently standing on the ladder of earthly power and influence.
God does not measure value in the same was that the world does. We are all loved, and beloved. We do not need to trample upon each other to demonstrate our significance. Our self-worth does not rest in how the world measures us. Being able to sit in this knowledge…that is the humility Jesus is talking about here, and I imagine it will be incredibly freeing when my heart is fully able to take that all in.
I am, as we all are, a work in progress.