Last week I was finally able to have my first home visit with a new friend. She was recently baptized into the Coptic Orthodox Church, and I had bought her a little gift, so we arranged to meet at her place and have dinner together.
When I arrived, she was busy in the kitchen cooking a big pot of muttar paneer, which she served with naan. She then disappeared into her walk-in pantry asking me what I wanted to drink. She had so many options! I chose cider. We decimated everything.
After the main course, she fixed me a cup of herbal tea from David’s, and I commented that it smelled exactly like an After Eight chocolate. “OH I have those!” she exclaimed, and brought them over.
Those of you who are or have friends of Middle Eastern and Central Asian descent can probably predict what happened next. It didn’t end there. She had more treats: a slice of pineapple cheesecake! A glass of orange juice! Fruit and wine! She offered all of it with abandon. And it didn’t even end there. She put two neck warmers in the microwave – one for her and one for me. She had some skin cream she wanted to try, so she brought the tube over so we could both use it. She had a bag of scarves her sister had given her and encouraged me to take what I wanted.
As I’ve made friends within the Sufi community where I met her, I’ve been astonished by the hospitality displayed to total strangers as well as friends, no matter what economic station one occupies in life. I still laugh about the time I went to dinner with three friends – one Turkish, one Syrian, and one Pakistani – and sneakily managed to pick up the cheque, and how I really thought they were going to murder me when they found out! Anyone who’s ever met someone from those cultures knows the dance of, “No please, I insist.”
Personally, while I know plenty of individual Western folks who are similarly oriented, it’s not something I’ve ever expected as a matter of course, and even when it is displayed, it’s not usually as extravagant.
I was thinking of this as I read today’s Gospel passage. Jesus was from a culture of extravagant hospitality. The foundational Jewish myths he grew up with show Abraham entertaining angels and a widow offering her last loaf to Elijah. When sending out the disciples, Jesus confidently told them to depend on the kindness of strangers, who offered hospitality to travelers as a matter of course.
In Chapter 10, Jesus has just taught the disciples that only those who are like little children will enter the Kingdom of God, and those unwilling to sell all they own cannot enter. Finally, they turn toward Jerusalem, and for the third time Jesus explains what is going to happen to him there. Today’s reading begins immediately after that moment.
I’m always shocked by the presumptuousness of James and John here. They’re as clueless as Peter but seem to lack his humility. Looking at this scene through that cultural lens, this is incredibly inappropriate. The normal posture of students is one of humility, obedience, and deep listening. The anger of the other disciples is perfectly in keeping with their cultural milieu.
Mark often depicts the disciples in an unflattering light, but we can also read this moment as a sign that Jesus’s teaching is working. It’s become clear over the course of several chapters that Jesus wants to challenge traditional social conventions. Back in verse 29, he told the disciples that those who left behind their families will receive “a hundredfold now in this age.” He wants to create a new community based in service and mutual love. A chosen family. And he’s shown the disciples, many times, that he is a powerful healer, and can provide bread for all who hunger, with leftovers, yet! This is someone who truly owns and uses his privilege well! Who wouldn’t want to sit at the right and left of someone like that?
This isn’t a fanciful reading if we take note of Jesus’s response to James and John, which is not, “How dare you order me around?” but “What is it you want me to do for you?” Even in this moment, he is showing them that he’s different. He’s doing something new. Again, he owns and uses his privilege well. Maybe what they want is totally within his power. Even if you’re the kind of person who believes Jesus was omnipotent and knew everything, he still wanted to model this new way of leadership for them. He reads them generously. He offers hospitality.
But they prove that they still don’t understand how this community is to be built. And he still acts as a gentle host. He doesn’t say, “Haven’t you knuckleheads been paying attention?” He doesn’t take out his red pen and write F across their foreheads. Whenever I read this passage, I imagine his tone becoming so, so gentle. “You do not know what you are asking.”
The cup that Jesus drinks is the drink of ultimate hospitality: the laying down of one’s life for others. The baptism with which he was baptized is the baptism of dying to oneself in order to live for God in service to the world, of offering up what you would normally only do for those you loved the most to not just everyone, but everything. The whole created universe. James and John still insist they can do it, and again Jesus allows that they are sure to understand in the end…but humbles himself by saying it is not in his power to grant what they ask. Again, upsetting the hierarchy, showing himself to be a servant even as he is also a teacher.
As the other disciples become angry, they all prove that they still don’t get it. They are not only bickering among themselves, but trying to re-establish what’s familiar. “How could you question the teacher?” “Weren’t you listening?” “God, you guys are so embarrassing!” Really sounds like a family, huh?
But Jesus puts a stop to all of that immediately. “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant.” It’s so beautiful because it’s simply an extreme version of something they would have all been taught since birth. Hospitality is not something to only practice within the confines of one’s home and biological family. It’s also not patronage, something to use in order to import obligation. It’s something to be given freely, and it can be practiced even among these disciples who have left behind their homes and families. “You are the family,” Jesus says. “You, gathered together, are home for one another.”
Biblical scholar, seminary professor, and Episcopal priest Wil Gafney puts it better than I ever could. She writes, “It’s good to be king. But Jesus didn’t want to be king. Kings take. But Jesus gives. A king will take your sister, wife or daughter. But Jesus gives women dignity. A king will take and tax your crops. But Jesus gives the Bread of Heaven and earthly food to the hungry. A king will take your life if you get in his way, but Jesus gives eternal life. You can keep that crown.”
Gathered here, together, we can leave behind the demands of capitalistic over-achievement, of passing, of having to perform in spaces that don’t give us space. We can rest in the peace of being able to just be.
Whether you’re caught in the system and trying to survive, whether you’re forced to fight for your dignity every day, or whether you’re entangled in privilege and afraid to lose it all, here, you have permission to be vulnerable. Food for your heart is here, more than you need. Love for you, beautiful and utterly unique you, is here, more than you can imagine. But this place where all of God is offered up to us, freely, with love, isn’t the end goal. It’s practice. What good is the best meal in the universe without a few guests?