No rescue, however, was forthcoming. Dad nodded slightly in the affirmative. You made your bed, his gesture said, now lie in it. I accepted a second helping of the dark spheres. This time, I ate only half the helping. I studiously avoided eye contact with Mrs. Turtle.
“That was delicious, Emma,” Dad said with a smile. I nearly spit out the milk I was using to wash down another sprout. Who was this man, and what had he done with my father?
“I’m glad you liked it,” Mrs. Turtle glowed. “Can I get you some more?” I waited to see Dad now hoist on his own petard. But he was a past master at the game.
“No, no thank you. I’m stuffed. Couldn’t eat another bite.” Where was that linguistic lodestone when I foundered in the straits of despair? I couldn’t eat another bite either, but there I was with a second helping of sprouts. “We’d best be getting back to work, anyway. We have to do our own grinding before chores tonight.”
Mrs. Turtle nodded her understanding and appreciation. Turtle wrinkled his nose, knowing that the day would continue without an afternoon nap. In minutes we were back at work.
“So to become human,” wrote Jean Vanier, “implies two realities. It means to be someone, to have cultivated our gifts, and to be open to others, to look at them not with a feeling of superiority, but with the eyes of respect” (Becoming Human, page 3). Dad’s humanity was never more evident to me than at the table of the Turtles.
Obviously I have reflected over the years on the Strange Case of Mrs. Turtle’s Sprouts. In earlier years I was impressed with my level of personal sacrifice at the table. I often saw myself as the long-suffering hero in this minor morality play. In fact, mine was a bit part at best.
As I have grown, I can see my dad viewing the Turtles “with the eyes of respect.” I am certain his behavior appears ridiculous in a time when self-absorption trumps all other values. I can hear him described as passive-aggressive, a people-pleaser with inadequate boundaries. Anyone who knew my dad would find such descriptions absurd.
No, this was an exercise in love for the neighbor. “Bear one another’s burdens,” Paul urges the Galatians, “and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (6:2 NRSV). I am certain these words did not occur to Dad at any point during the day. I am also quite certain he intended to live as Paul describes. And he did so without a second thought.
It is only in these last years that I have come to the fullest import of our experience. Even when I saw Dad as the moral hero, I kept us in an unspoken position of superiority. We were doing the Turtles such a favor by tolerating the bad food and the plodding personalities. To my shame, I see now how wrong I clearly was.
“For if those who are nothing,” Paul warns me, “think they are something, they deceive themselves.” Guilty as charged. Nothing could make Dad like Mrs. Turtle’s cooking. But he understood that we were guests as the table. We were welcomed with honor and affection. We were not superior in any way. We were invited to join the household as friends of the family.
This was Jean Vanier’s experience as he formed and lived in the L’Arche community. In sharing life with the vulnerable, he learned to embrace and even to love his own vulnerability. He did not serve from a sense of superiority but rather solidarity. This is, perhaps, why Jesus orders the seventy to travel light. They carried no equipment which might have encouraged any sense that they were “above” their hosts.
“Eat what is set before you,” Jesus commands. So the mission is not one of power over others. We do not come the solutions for a world filled with problems. It is unfortunate that so much of Western Christianity these days comes with precisely the imperialistic, colonizing perspective. We come, instead, as agents of the Incarnate One–the one who humbled himself and became obedient even to death on a cross.
So we have no power over others. We do not come to dominate or colonize. We eat what is set before us. We seek out space at tables in the neighborhood, the community, the planet. In our loving solidarity, perhaps we can then earn the privilege to be heard. In the places where welcome is extended and accepted, we can share what we find that makes life worth the bother.
We are all beggars, as Martin Luther reminds us, showing other beggars where the bread is. We can only share, however, if we are first willing to be welcomed, to be vulnerable to receive. We can only share if we eat what is set before us.
Of course, not every table was a welcome table for the seventy. What do we make of Jesus’ words when the welcome is withheld?