Yertle the Turtle, Greco-Roman Meals and Jesus

YertleTheTurtleThe great poet and part-time theologian Doctor Seuss told the story about societal pecking orders, abuse of authority and how complex systems of hegemony and hierarchy can come crashing down by the simple acts of the little guy at the bottom of the pile. The story is Yertle the turtle. The antagonist is King Yertle and the protagonist is a seemingly insignificant turtle at the bottom of the turtle pile named Mack. Yertle, the king turtle, believes he is king of all he sees. His logic runs something like this – the higher his throne, the greater his empire. The problem is, his throne is perched on the backs of the common, ordinary turtles in his pond, placing a great strain on them.

Yertle’s greed for power and authority grows in proporition to the size of the turtle pile beneath his feet. His thirst to be supreme king gets so out of hand he believes if he can pile turtles to the moon he would rule it too.The whole project comes crashing down when one seemingly insignificant turtle near the bottom of the pile named Mack burps and brings the whole turtle pile crashing down into the pond.

Yertle is demonstrative of how the world works…people desperately seeking power and never having enough. This type of thinking has always been prevalent in the world. It is prevalent today and it was just as prevalent in Jesus’ day. In the first century, one of the places the pecking order become most prominent was at meals. Greco-Roman meals were all about honor and hierarchy. It was important who was invited and who wasn’t. It was also important where you were seated. Those seated closest to the host were given greater honor than those seated off in the corner. It was also important who was served first and what they ate. The most honored guests might even eat a different meal than others who were around the same table. In some cases, the least honored in the room might be lucky to get the scraps.

In Luke 14:7-14, Jesus addresses these social conventions head on,

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

We also see Jesus turn social convention on its head at the Last Supper. It is Jesus, the Master, who takes on the role of the servant by washing their feet. It is Jesus who serves them the bread and the wine. It is Jesus whose body is broken and blood spilled. It is Jesus who dies for us. That is not the way Yertle would have the story go but it is the way Jesus had the story go. Yertle was in a continuous grasp for more…how much could he see and how much could he say “yes” to. Jesus was in a continuous process of self-denial…of letting go. When taken to the highest point of the temple and shown the kingdoms of the world and being offered it all in exchange for worshipping the devil…he said “no” where many of us say “yes” on a daily basis to far less.

Jesus brought the pile to the ground, not by claiming the top position but by claiming the bottom position. How many of us embrace our inner Yertle rather than letting Christ be formed in us? How many of us seek the seats of honor and have trouble choosing the seat of humility due to our own fears and insecurities? Let us always remember that Jesus took the position of Mack, not Yertle. In due time, through his obedience, Jesus was exalted to the top of the heap that at his name every knee should bow and every enemy be placed under his feet. Let’s close with these words from the apostle Paul in Philippians 2:1-11,

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

If you want to hear more on this and how this applies to the Lord’s Supper have a listen to the 9/21/14 Communion sermon here.

One Response to Yertle the Turtle, Greco-Roman Meals and Jesus

  1. Mark says:

    This can also be turned to into “who gets the leftovers?” Too often the youth and people of the wrong gender, marital status, parental status, etc. got the leftovers. Now to define leftovers, they may be someone in the congregation who isn’t perhaps the best person to teach that particular Sunday school class or lead a discussion. It could be that they aren’t considered when a new program is being developed. It may also be that their concerns, questions, and opinions are disregarded. Their situation is left out of the sermon when examples are provided.

    I think Jesus is turning social convention on its head in more ways that one here.

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