The humorist Dave Berry learned a thing or two on his summer internship in Washington forty years ago. But like many internships, his expectations met with very different realities. Years later, and with typical wit and wisdom, Berry deconstructed the distorted values that characterized those corridors of power:
“[W]hen I got to Washington I discovered that even among young people, being a good guy was not the key thing: The key thing was your position on the great Washington totem pole of status. Way up at the top of this pole is the president; way down at the bottom, below mildew, is the public. In between is an extremely complex hierarchy of government officials, journalists, lobbyists, lawyers, and other power players, holding thousands of minutely graduated status rankings differentiated by extremely subtle nuances that only Washingtonians are capable of grasping.
For example, Washingtonians know whether a person whose title is “Principal Assistant Deputy Undersecretary” is more or less important than a person whose title is “Associate Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary,” or “Principal Deputy to Deputy Assistant Secretary,” or “Deputy to the Deputy Secretary,” or “Principal Assistant Deputy Undersecretary,” or “Chief of Staff to the Assistant Assistant Secretary.” (All of these are real federal job titles.)
Everybody in Washington always seems to know exactly how much status everybody else has. I don’t know how they do it. Maybe they all get together in some secret location and sniff one another’s rear ends. All I know is, back in my internship the summer of 1967, when I went to Washington parties, they were nothing like parties I’d become used to in college.
I was used to parties where it was not unusual to cap off the evening by drinking bourbon from a shoe, and not necessarily your own shoe. Whereas the Washington parties were serious. Everybody made an obvious effort to figure out where everybody else fit on the totem pole, and then spent the rest of the evening sucking up to whoever was higher up.
I hated it. Of course, one reason for this was that nobody ever sucked up to me, since interns rank almost as low as members of the public. ” (footnote: Dave Berry: http://www.thisisawar.com/LaughterDaveWashington.htm)
The Gospel reading this week suggests that James and John, and the ten disciples who exploded at them in anger, would have fit quite nicely into the Washingtonian world that stratifies people into a hierarchy based upon their perceived power, worth, or status, and then pursues a zero-sum game of unbridled self-interest. Of course, Jesus’ rebuke of the disciples warns us of our own tendency to do the same.
Answering the call of discipleship means that we are baptized into Jesus’ life and ministry. Our baptism plunges us into the dying and rising mystery of Christ. The disciples kept misunderstanding this. Discipleship means emptying ourselves to be servant over and over again and constantly learning the cost of our baptismal yes is. Serving means nothing more than giving our lives for the other. It means when our nerves are frazzled and the baby is crying, we manage to find the energy to comfort and caress. When we hear of a neighbor in need,we ring the doorbell, introduce ourselves and ask how we might help. Serving others means that we look for ways to make the lives of others better.
Would that we be so bold about serving others as about seeking our own glory!