Message: Proper 24

October 17, 2021 (Mark 10: 35 – 45)

Donald M Seekins

When I first read these verses from Mark, I wasn’t quite sure how I would be able to comment about them. However, I realized after a while that what I needed to talk about was something that is as much a part of our lives as the air we breathe, especially in Japan. In other words, HIERARCHY.

            Two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, who were brothers, came to Jesus one day and asked what might seem to be a rather harmless request: could one of them sit on His right hand, and the other on His left? By doing so, they could “bask in His glory.” But Jesus replies that they do not know what they are asking, and then inquires: do you “drink the cup that I drink?” and undergo baptism? as He had. After replying in the affirmative, Jesus says “but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” What He seems to be saying here is that there is NO proper order of seating among the disciples, indicating high or low status.

            Japan is well-known to be a society in which the consciousness of hierarchy is very strong. People must be properly ordered, according to differential rank or seniority. I recall when I taught at a university in Okinawa that the president’s office had a special set-up: in front of his massive desk, chairs were arranged around a long table. In meetings in his office, the President sat at the chair at the top of the table, flanked on the left and right by the deans of the two colleges, while lower down on the table senior and junior professors sat, and so on. This was especially apparent on the first day of work after New Year, when the president customarily opened his room to the staff to exchange New Year’s greetings. The room was usually crowded, and persons of junior status usually sat on folding chairs at the end of the room, opposite the president, while a few others stood. Another example of hierarchy, of course, is the formal Japanese custom of bowing.

            Thus, the office hierarchy was made corporeal, in the arrangement of the seating of the members of the university. This practice is widespread in Japan, not only in universities but in bureaucracies and companies. I imagine it is also quite common in South Korea and perhaps China.

            During China’s Tang Dynasty, from 618 to 907 CE, foreign ambassadors were invited from time to time to the Imperial Palace in Chang’an to be received by the Emperor. Envoys from the most “important” countries were seated in the very front, while those from lesser countries occupied the back rows. In the early 8th century, around the time that the city of Heijo or Nara was founded, the Japanese and Korean (or Silla) envoys had a dispute over who should have the best seat in front of the Dragon Throne. Thanks to the efforts of Abe no Nakamaro, a Japanese who had become a high official at the Tang court, the Japanese envoy got the prized seat, much to the chagrin of the Koreans. Even then, Japanese and Koreans were avidly looking for reasons to dislike each other!

            Nakane Chie, who had the distinction of being the first woman professor at Tokyo University, wrote a well-known book on hierarchy titled Japanese Society, which she described as the “vertical society.” Strong relations between individuals tend to be among unequal people in a hierarchy within a group, while relations between equals tend to be much weaker. My many years living in Japan have convinced me that Nakane’s theory is largely true. In my experience, relations with Japanese superiors could be (though not always) stable and mutually beneficial, because that was the expected pattern; but it was difficult to form relationships with equals, because the question always presented itself: “who’s on top?” For example, going to the room of a colleague to ask something was fraught with political drama, as the “superior” person always waits for the “inferior” one to come to his room!

            But hierarchy is universal.   In the West, we have a saying “below the salt.” In mediaeval times, the lord and lady of the manor often dined with their vassals at a long table. Salt, at the time a precious commodity, was set in the middle of the table. Those sitting “below” the salt were of low rank, while those “above the salt” were of higher rank, including the lord and lady themselves.    At British schools and colleges, I believe it is still the custom in the dining hall for the headmaster, teachers and distinguished guests to eat at the “High Table,” while the students eat at the ordinary tables, crowded together. everyone is probably familiar with this arrangement from the Harry Potter movies.

            The Buddhist religion, at least as it is followed in the Theravada countries of Southeast Asia such as Burma and Thailand, is very hierarchical. The Buddhist Cosmos is divided into 31 “planes of existence,” inhabited by sentient beings which include the denizens of the lowest hells on the bottom, and those who were Bodhisattvas, or “Buddhas-to-be,” on the top, about to enter nirvana. The Buddhist monkhood, or Sangha, is also strictly hierarchical.

            Mankind’s obsession with hierarchy often leads to funny situations. Ne Win, the old dictator of Burma from 1962 to 1988, always used a very high chair when meeting with subordinates. In fact, he was so concerned with the height of his chair relative to others that he took his favourite high chair with him around the country. He never wanted to find himself in the position of sitting in a lower position than anyone else.

            It isn’t surprising, then, that James and John thought that by acquiring the privilege of sitting next to Jesus, they would be showing their superiority over the other disciples, who, in fact, were quite angry at their request. Jesus makes the comment that “those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant. And whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

            The servant or slave never sits at the high table. He only brings food for the others to eat. For the Son of Man to serve constitutes a powerful challenge to the legitimacy of Hierarchy.