Sometimes my spiritual struggles involve mayonnaise. Thankfully not often; I don’t like mayonnaise. To understand what I mean, you have to put up with a little bit of complaining; my life is pretty good, so complaining probably seems petty, but I’m frequently petty.
This particular incident happened a few hours ago while I was making my wife’s lunch for tomorrow. I always pack it the night before, because she leaves so early in the morning that I frequently don’t see her. I didn’t really want to do it. I was already exhausted and ready for the day to be over. I was sick; my wife was sick. Our daughter was sick yet somehow more awake than the rest of us. I still had a post to write, which I’d been working on for hours with nothing to show for my time. It didn’t help my writing that I was also painfully aware of being a post behind, and generally so far off of my posting schedule as to be embarrassed calling it a schedule at all. I couldn’t even remember the last time I did any of the writing which is, LORD willing, supposed to let me provide for my family, at least enough so that my wife doesn’t have to carry that burden and entirely miss our daughter’s childhood.
All of this was on my mind while I grumpily assembled my wife’s lunch and tried to be happy about it. I wanted to do nice things for her–she’s my wife and I love her, in addition to respecting how hard she works all the time–I just didn’t want them to take effort right then.
Thankfully I have lunch-packing fairly well simplified. The only real challenge is making her sandwich. (Again, I acknowledge that my life is pretty good if my difficulty is having to make a sandwich.) I don’t like touching food because I don’t like food. I have to touch her sandwiches though.
The part I dread most is the mayonnaise. I think it’s revolting, but my wife likes it. Tonight I was tempted simply to “forget” it. I’m not going to bother trying to explain how my mind tried to justify it, my choice was pretty clear even to me: I could do what I was supposed to do, or I could do less.
I very much wanted to choose the second option, to do less than I was supposed to do. As frequently happens when I’m tired, doing the right thing didn’t seem worthwhile. Frankly, I didn’t want to do yet another thing for which there wouldn’t be some sort of payoff. (Like I warned; I’m frequently petty.)
The scripture passage in my head at that moment was Luke 17:9-10, in which Jesus points out that, even if we were to love others perfectly, we would merely be doing what we were supposed to have been doing all along, not something special and meritorious. To put it another way, if I could manage perfect righteousness in every thought and action for my entire life, I would successfully satisfy God’s minimum standard. If life were like a class in school, I wouldn’t even get high marks. I would simply not fail.
And that’s assuming that I managed a lifetime of perfect righteousness. I can’t manage a day of perfect righteousness.
With that in mind, my mayonnaise situation seemed hopeless. I knew that I was supposed to put mayonnaise on my wife’s sandwich, but I also knew that I was so far from perfection that I couldn’t possibly earn anything good for enduring the icky white grossness.
Then I remembered the Bible passage I had been intending to talk about today: Matthew 20: 25-28. Bear with me for a moment, this is somewhat roundabout.
In the story leading up to those verses I just mentioned, James’ and John’s mom comes to Jesus to make sure that he’s treating her boys well, after the fashion of mothers since the dawn of time. To paraphrase, she asks him to guarantee places of honor for her sons, to which Jesus responds with something very much like what the current generation seems to call a “facepalm,” and which I imagine being accompanied by him mumbling, “Oy vey, you people always miss the point!”
He then goes on to explain that the right way for people in authority to act is to serve others rather than to demand service from others. As a convincing example, he points out that, though he’s God he came to serve and ransom sinners.
This all seems very straightforward until you think about it and realize that Jesus’s teaching doesn’t seem to relate directly to the question James’ and John’s mother asked. After all, he doesn’t tell them not to ask for positions of authority–the other disciples were upset about that, but the text doesn’t say Jesus was–rather he just says that they’re thinking about authority in the wrong way, and therefore thinking about him the wrong way.
They imagined that God (and therefore Jesus) was rather like they themselves and the people they knew, inclined towards his own self-interest and wanting to be at the top of the proverbial heap. We’ve all know from personal experience how easy it can be to take advantage of others or overlook people. Some people don’t do those things on purpose. A lot of people can be vicious about it.
Where I’m from it’s pretty common, whenever anybody does anything for anyone, to set out every detail of the agreement in writing. Everybody gets what they deserve because everyone has proof that he or she can use to make demands. That’s what James and John were seeking; they wanted a promise from God so that they could feel safe in their rights.
Jesus suggests an entirely different way of relating, and more importantly, he points out that God already relates in that better way. God is always self-sacrificingly generous. People don’t need to find ways to make God owe them because God wants to give them more than they would ask for anyway. (“Fear not, Little Flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Luke 12.)
Which brings us back to mayonnaise. In a way I was right: no amount of mayonnaise on any number of sandwiches would put me in a position where I could demand favors from God because I’d earned them. Even if I had always been perfectly righteous and loving, I wouldn’t be in a position to demand favors from God. However, I don’t need to demand favors from God, because God is generous.
That’s a happy thought. Ironically, not needing to earn God’s generosity made it easier to do the right thing with my wife’s sandwich. We love, as it’s written, because he first loved us.