Service of Commissioning, WFU School of Divinity

Luke 14: 1, 7-14: Table Manners

There are few things in this world that I love more than my alma mater, Bowdoin College. If you ask my spouse Raegan about my passion for all things Bowdoin, she will, with a dramatic eye roll and in as sarcastic a tone as she can muster, catalog the many tokens of my undying fealty and devotion to, as she mockingly calls it, “the old school.” There are coffee mugs, baseball caps, t-shirts, calendars, glass tumblers, coasters, a windbreaker, a wooden captain’s chair (with my name emblazoned on it, of course), a paperweight, winter gloves, a sock cap, and most recently, a bow tie that I haven’t even worn yet. (Raegan, I should say, is only jealous because she has nothing to be proud of herself, having attended some stupid university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, notable mostly for its statue of a man with a shiny foot.) You might have seen hanging in my office a framed picture of a college scene. I’ll give you a hint: it’s not Wake Forest. And you might have noticed another framed piece of sheet music, the Bowdoin alma mater, which shares a tune with the Wake Forest fight song.

I regret that many of you are so benighted that you have never heard of Bowdoin College until today. I only mention a few of our many distinguished alumni and friends which that liberal arts college in Brunswick, Maine, has gifted to the world: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the Civil War hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and my personal favorite, the sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, who, in the 1950s and ‘60s, helped Americans to understand that they were having sex. There is of course much, much more I could say about that great institution. But as sermons constrain the preacher to the sharing of the Good News of the Gospel, I will reserve the Great News of Bowdoin College for another occasion.

You can imagine my shock and dismay when, back in July, I heard a podcast by the well-known author Malcolm Gladwell in which he said, to my utter disbelief, the following words: “If you’re looking at liberal arts colleges, don’t go to Bowdoin. Don’t let your kids go to Bowdoin. Don’t let your friends go to Bowdoin. Don’t give money to Bowdoin or any other school that serves amazing food in its dining hall.” Now, I regard myself as a peaceable, nonjudgmental, respectful, conciliatory, and loving person. But here’s the thing: I now hate Malcolm Gladwell with the passion of a thousand burning suns.

You see, Bowdoin is consistently recognized for its excellent food. (I applaud, by the way, the person who decided he or she could make a living rating college food, and also for getting others to believe that this is a meaningful undertaking.) In his podcast, Gladwell compares Bowdoin to Vassar College in New York. He finds that Vassar, similar to Bowdoin in many respects but not quite as wealthy, has decided to cut down on the quality of student amenities in order to free up financial resources to support, as Gladwell calls them, “poor, smart kids.” Vassar students interviewed in the podcast consistently affirm the marginal quality of Vassar’s food but understand that that decision empowers their college to offer more money in financial aid. Bowdoin, meanwhile, serves, and I am embarrassed to say this out loud because it is true, dishes such as smashed chickpea avocado and pesto sandwiches, venison when it is in season, and lobster and steak at an annual celebration welcoming students back to school. Gladwell’s point is that food at Bowdoin is, as he says, a “moral problem,” because, in his words, “every time you spend money on a place like Bowdoin, you make it harder for poor kids to go to college.”

Ugh – a knife to my heart. Now, there are lots of problems with Gladwell’s argument. He ignores the fact that Bowdoin “is among the very small number of colleges that are need blind on admissions, meet full need, and never use loans in any part of a financial aid package, and that Bowdoin’s dining operations are self-supporting, with all funds coming from students who opt to join.” Gladwell doesn’t paint a fine-grained picture of what’s going on. But he’s not wrong about the more general point he’s trying to make: schools like Bowdoin benefit tremendously from their status as nonprofit and therefore tax exempt organizations. They owe an obligation to the public good to find ways to educate as many worthy students who cannot afford the considerable price tag as they can. And even if food isn’t really what is pushing tuition out of reach, the optics of lobster, steak, and venison aren’t helping in that effort. Really, one could say that Gladwell is offering some insights about hospitality – in a way, about table manners – which, as much as it pains me to say it, are helpful.

I thought of Malcolm Gladwell as I considered our text for today, for the text, too, invites us to think about hospitality and table manners. And in the context of a service of commissioning, the text offers us an opportunity to consider ministry from the point of view of table manners. Jesus, invited on the Sabbath to a meal in the home of a Pharisee leader, makes two sets of observations about table manners, one for guests and another for hosts. In the ancient world, the table was laden with a social burden far heavier than the meals it supported. Questions about who got to come to the table, who sat where, in what proximity to whom, who got to speak and when, all mattered a lot. The banquet table was a market in social status, inviting trade in the currencies of honor and shame, and representing opportunities for hosts and guests to establish, maintain, diminish or improve their social status in the performance of shared meals.

Jesus’ advice upends the conventional strategies for success in the markets of social goods that were convened at banquet tables. He implores guests not to jockey for position at the table, and thus for the status that comes with position. For one thing, he seems to be saying, such strategies are liable to backfire: an attempt to position oneself in a place of honor will likely result in demotion, and thus in shame, rather than honor. But more fundamentally, Jesus is saying that true honor comes not with a position at a table, but in the exercise of the virtue of humility. He encourages hosts not to invite those persons most empowered to participate in the trade of social goods – friends, relatives, or wealthy neighbors – but instead to invite those most marginalized from social markets: the least, the lost, and the left out. And here Jesus is clearer about why a host should reverse the conventional strategy for table etiquette: because he or she will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

Now, if your table manners are anything like mine, they are instinctual, by now hard-wired in embodied responses to the table, and in the neural pathways that make those responses happen. I know this because I feel so profoundly irritated when my children violate table etiquette. In our house, I’m sorry to report, we don’t always remember Jesus as often as we eat, but do violate table manners as often as we eat. And I have had to learn that while it is important for our children to learn table etiquette, my irritation about their behavior at the table is way more about me than it is about them. It’s about my own formation in a family in which table transgressions, in all of their complexity, were, under the watchful eye of a mother who is a former nun, not just failures in performance, but something more akin to immorality. A lot of that stuff comes out for me now at our table. And I have to work hard to try to re-wire the neural pathways that make those responses what they are. The neural pathways of privilege and power are probably not dissimilar: students at Bowdoin and other high price-tag schools often come from families that enjoy, among other things, elaborate tables, and are wired, on a deep level, to expect the same privileges in their college experience.

Curiously, at first pass, Jesus does not seem to be urging guests and hosts to abandon the fundamental moral logic of the table market, of quid pro quo, a “this” for a “that.” Guests and hosts should not give up trading altogether, in other words. Rather, Jesus seems to be saying that guests and hosts should calculate their trades for the right goods – not social goods, but eternal ones. I think, however, that a deeper consideration reveals that if guests and hosts really do what Jesus is asking, if they practice the virtues of hospitality and humility at the table and in other social markets, they are endeavoring to learn a table etiquette that opens up a different kind of moral awareness. Those who diligently practice humility and hospitality will find that they don’t need to participate in markets for social goods. A training in righteousness, as Jesus calls it, changes the habits of social markets, maybe even those neural pathways that induce us to think we need things that we really don’t – not unlike, perhaps, the Vassar students, who have learned that they don’t need lobster and steak if it means that others have an opportunity to benefit from a Vassar education.

We are about to commission our students to join in the work of God in ministries already underway, all over our city and region. An important part of that work is in empowering the faith communities and organizations in which our students will serve, as well as broader communities, to practice good table manners – to encourage those who hold seats at the table to make space for the those who don’t; to empower conveners of tables to expand their welcome; and to serve in ministries of presence and comfort to those who continue to be excluded or to those who are new participants in table fellowship. And while our banquet tables may not function as social markets in quite the same way as they did in the ancient world, there are certainly many spaces in which the goods of status, prestige, voice, power, and wealth are traded in complex ways that empower some and marginalize others.

This is really hard work. Prophetic speech is an important element in encouraging good table manners, but it’s not enough. It turns out that people don’t do things just because prophets tell them to. Ministers will need to learn the skills of community building and of priestly presence, the many forms of everyday attention to the habits and practices of communities, some of which need encouragement, others refinement, and still others re-calibration. Following the example of Christ, ministers may even need to manipulate the dominant logics of table etiquette in order to dismantle them, performing forms of “table judo” to create the conditions of an expanded hospitality. Practicing the kind of table hospitality that God would have us practice means getting into the neural pathways of people, helping them to notice their embodied patterns of table etiquette, and empowering them to learn new ways of being in the world.

It is a great privilege that communities of faith welcome our students into their ministries. May God bless those communities, our students, and their mentors as all strive to be better hosts and guests at God’s welcome table. Amen.

Reflections on Matthew 20:1-16

Matthew 20: 1-16: The Laborers in the Vineyard

One of the things that strikes me about this passage is how easy it is for me to put myself in the place of the workers who were “first” and who felt slighted by the vineyard owner, and, conversely, how hard it is for me to put myself in the place of the workers who were “last” and were paid the same wage. Maybe you can feel it, too. A palatable sense of injustice, a nagging “what the hell”? The parable invites us to let go of that wondering about why workers who toiled all day long in the vineyard should get paid the same wage, albeit at the end of the line, as those who showed up at 5 o’clock and were paid at the front of the line. That’s what the Kingdom of God is like; if you don’t like it, that’s your problem. That’s what the parable seems to be saying to us. Indeed, the vineyard owner throws our outrage right into our faces. It’s my money; can’t I do whatever I want with it, he says. I can’t help it if you are envious of my generosity. The last shall be first, and the first shall be last. That’s the way of the kingdom. Get over it.

But I have a hard time letting go of my sense that the first unjustly became the last. There’s nothing about the parable that doesn’t lead us to believe that all of the workers were in a tough spot at the beginning of the day. The image that comes to my mind when I read this parable is the many day laborer pools all over the city of Atlanta, where men (mostly), brown-skinned men (mostly), and, I imagine, undocumented men (mostly), congregate at the side of the road and wait for white (mostly) employers to come by and hire them, for daylong construction jobs, to help out around the house, or whatever. I remember the pool of guys down by the Home Depot on Ponce de Leon near my apartment where I used to live, men who huddled together in hoodies and jeans on cold winter mornings. I am sure that many pay day laborers fairly enough, I suppose, but no one hires a day laborer in Atlanta because they really want to strengthen the local economy. Day laborers are hired because they’re the cheapest option that the black market in labor provides.

The parable permits one to imagine that the workers hired at the beginning of the day were just as desperate as those hired at the end. At the beginning of the day, the first were simply luckier than the last, though of course at the end of the day, the last end up being luckier than the first. Nothing prevents us from believing that the first and the last were equally unfree, in the sense that none of the workers had much meaningful choice about the kind of work they could do. If someone is willing to hire them, they’ll probably do it. If the wage is low, they’ll probably still do it. The thing about the marketplace is that you can only really participate meaningfully if you have something to offer. Markets work on the rule of quid pro quo – a “this” for a “that;” I give you something, and you give me something in return. So, the more you have to offer in the marketplace, the more empowered you are to participate, to use quid pro quo to your advantage. And the more you can put in, the more you will get out. But if you don’t have anything to put in, you don’t get anything in return. These workers seem to have only one thing to offer: their work. And because there is such a glut of workers to offer their labor for sale, just as there are innumerable labor pools in the city of Atlanta and all over the country, work comes cheap. The landowner of course has the upper hand.

So, it may be true that the first workers of the day got lucky and were hired first – lucky in the sense that perhaps nothing distinguished them as workers in comparison with their colleagues who were hired later in the day. The cohort that was hired first very well might have been the cohort hired last. And yet even though the first workers were lucky at the beginning of the day, I feel on some level that they were cheated. The landowner claims that he honored his contract: he said he would pay the first workers a certain wage X for a day’s labor, and indeed he did.

But doesn’t the contract that the landowner made with the first workers implicitly say two things: first, that a day’s labor is worth wage X, and second, that if a worker completes a day’s labor, he will receive wage X in return for his work? Well, the first workers received wage X in return for their work, the second part of the contract. It seems, however, that the landowner implicitly changed the terms of the first part of the contract when he hired other workers to complete part, even a small part, of a day’s work for the same wage X. Common sense would say, I should think, that a fair treatment of the first workers would involve the landowner’s acknowledgement that he effectively changed the terms of the contract by the end of the day, and that the first workers should be paid at a rate reflecting the changed terms of the contract. Thus, by the end of the day, wage X was deflated: wage X at the end of the day is only worth the last part of a day’s work, which the last cohort of workers received. And so the first workers should be paid wage X times the number of parts that ultimately composed a full day’s work. Doesn’t that make sense?

What I ask myself what I think I mean when I judge the landowner’s behavior to be unjust, I am aware that I am basing my sense of justice on an idea of fairness, and my idea of fairness in turn on the rule of quid pro quo. I think the landowner’s actions are unjust because they are unfair, and unfair because he unilaterally alters the terms on which the exchange for the early workers’ labor is valued, and then does not honor the real value of their work. The landowner is the empowered party; again, the workers have nothing to leverage their engagement in the market other than the value of their labor. Without consulting the early workers, the landowner effectively re-values the workers’ labor, but then pretends that he has not done so. He effectively makes a new contract, and then he breaks it.

Questions about justice are questions about what is due. There are many ways to flesh the meaning of “due,” and thus many approaches to justice, which we will discuss more in this class. In the marketplace, what is due is determined by contracts that establish the terms of exchange. Market justice is quid pro quo: you and I agree on the terms of our exchange, and justice is served when we both honor the terms of that contract. Injustice in the marketplace, by contrast, happens when one party to a contract fails to provide their part of the exchange.

One thing that strikes me is how profoundly our American sense of justice is conditioned by our experiences in the market place. I wish I could say that our dominant moral formation happens in our families or in our communities of faith. But I dare say that it happens in the marketplace. Our sense what makes life good and how we should make decisions related to the good life – our moral awareness, in other words – is shaped in profound ways by our formation in market settings as buyers, sellers, customers, consumers, workers, owners, bosses, and the like. We instinctively reckon costs and benefits, even in non-market goods, like friendships, love, churches, and the like. We know bad deal when we see one, and the parable of the laborers in the vineyard shows us what appears to be a bad deal. That’s precisely because we know justice on a deep, visceral level through the lens of quid pro quo.

I’ve heard theologians try to explain away the apparent injustice of the vineyard owner. One theologian with whom I studied in graduate school argued that this parable illustrates the difference between love and justice. Justice, he argued, is what is due, and the landowner paid the early workers their due, according to the original contract to which both parties agreed. The love of God, this theologian argued, “always rises above the demands of justice, but never falls below them.” By giving the later workers the same wage as the earlier, the landowner demonstrates the impartial and other-regarding love of God. The landowner, in other words, meets the demands of both justice and of love.

It seems more likely to me that the parable does not show a just God according to the terms of a contract, but rather demonstrates the limits of market justice. Consider what comes next, on the day after the setting of the parable. Imagine that the next day, all of the workers who received the landowner’s wage again congregate in the labor pool, again waiting for the landowner or some other employer to hire them. They’re still relatively disempowered participants in the marketplace. Their primary asset is still their labor, and labor probably still comes cheap. But they all took home an equal wage the night before, and so they are all now a little less threatened by the rule of quid pro quo. In the marketplace, as I said already, one can only get if one has something to give. Well, the landowner has ensured that everyone who worked with him the day before is, at least over the span of a day, an equal participant in the market system the next day. All of his workers have both their labor and a day’s wage to offer in the marketplace. And so all have a little more to offer, and thus a little more power to receive in return. There are more decisions the workers can make as empowered participants in the marketplace.

I think the parable is saying that the kingdom of heaven is a place in which the logic of quid pro quo doesn’t determine the possibility of human flourishing. To the extent that market participation empowers persons to live the human lives that God intends, it is a good and necessary thing: markets can invite creativity, ingenuity, individual agency, and commitment to work. But the kingdom of heaven is a place where the bottom line, the threshold requirement, is empowerment to participate in the life of the kingdom – what we sometimes call social justice, where what is due to all human beings is empowerment to participate in social and political life. In the kingdom of heaven, the last shall indeed be first and the first shall indeed be last, if what makes the “first” first and the “last” last in the earthly kingdom is the moral logic of quid pro quo – the capacity to participate only if one has something to offer. We are to appreciate but also to consider the limits of market justice, and strive to empower the least, the lost, and the left out to participate even when the market says they have nothing to offer.

On Rotten Compromises

In a recent article in the Emory Magazine, Emory University President James Wagner praises the Three-Fifths Compromise as a model example of political compromise:

Some might suggest that the constitutional compromise reached for the lowest common denominator—for the barest minimum value on which both sides could agree. I rather think something different happened. Both sides found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared—the aspiration to form a more perfect union. They set their sights higher, not lower, in order to identify their common goal and keep moving toward it.

Maybe you’re now doing the same double-take that I did. Let me get this straight: Wagner is saying that the Three-Fifths Compromise, which traded on the view that slaves are not fully human, and thus cannot be citizens, but from whom slaveowners may nonetheless extract some political benefit for themselves – this reflects the virtue of political compromise? Wagner goes on to liken compromise of this sort to the kind of work that goes on in university settings:

The constitutional compromise about slavery … facilitated the achievement of what both sides of the debate really aspired to—a new nation.

Something like this process occurs every week on a university campus. Through debate, through questioning, through experimentation, we aim to enlarge the sphere of knowledge and refine the exercise of wisdom, to do the hard work of opening others’ minds and keeping our own minds open to possibilities.

There are lots of problems with this. First, it isn’t clear how “debate,” “questioning,” and “experimentation” in university settings involve compromise. Wagner rightly says that the business of a university is to enlarge the sphere of knowledge and to refine the exercise of wisdom. But these are non-rivalrous goods: my engagement with the goods of knowledge and wisdom doesn’t prevent others from doing the same. You can’t use up knowledge and wisdom. So, why would you need to compromise?

But more to the point: if universities like Emory aim, as Wagner says, to “contribute to human well-being … in the twenty-first century,” then how is the Three-Fifths Compromise a good example of that work? In his book On Compromise and Rotten Compromises, the political theorist Avishai Margalit defines a “rotten compromise” as

an agreement to establish or maintain a regime of cruelty and humiliation – in short, an inhuman regime, in the literal sense of inhuman, unfit for humans (Princeton: PUP, 2010, p. 89).

Margalit has in mind the various compromises world leaders made with Hitler that ultimately promoted the Holocaust.

On Margalit’s definition, the Three-Fifths Compromise is a prime example of rotten compromise. That’s why it is a bad example of political compromise. No compromise is good that undermines human flourishing, even if the compromise aims at a higher good that promotes it.

In our divisive political climate, there has been renewed interest in compromise as a political virtue. It’s a good idea, I think, to promote compromise. But any discussion of compromise has to include an awareness of its limits. My view is that the theological category of the imago Dei contains possibilities for making sense of healthy political competition as well as both the necessity and limits of political compromise. Compromise should end right where a resulting policy would deface the image of God in persons affected by it. The Three-Fifths Compromise was rotten because it did just this.