If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
This quote appeared today on one of those “Quote of the Day” things, that seem designed so that a relative non-thinker can pretend to have deep thoughts once a day. It’s just slightly more meaningful than the fortune cookie fortune I read this weekend (It said, “an important conversation about you is happening today” – like that wouldn’t apply every day?).
It’s second goal would seem to be to prove that seemingly great thinkers often said really stupid things.
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper…” is quite a phrase; it’s packed with all kinds of Jungian implications and underlying theological assumptions. I’ll ignore the Jungian aspect (although I am curious as to how a Jungian would analyze King’s speech title, “I have a dream”); the theological assumptions are more than enough for one little post.
The question of “calling” is worth considering. Can someone actually believe that they were called, compelled, destined, or predestined, to be a street sweeper? Or, to look at it from another angle, can you accept that someone is called or destined to greatness? It really is the same question. If you believe that some are “called” to be greater than you are, then logically, the assumption would have to be that some were called to be lower than you. Is that what you believe?
It makes you think, doesn’t it? Is the American Dream truth, or is it a giant lie? Can anyone grow up to be President (as long as you were born here)? Or, is there in fact a cosmic caste system, where all of us deal with “glass ceilings?” Could the dangling carrot of success just be a guarantee of frustration and defeat?
I have known people who have believed (by evidence of their lives) that they were “called” to a low station. Bettering themselves was, in their eyes, a waste of time. I have known others who have accepted that their destiny was to greatness, and by default, also accepted that others by necessity were called to be “lesser.”
There are Biblical implications that some are called to be greater than others. Or, are there? Perhaps “free will” does, in fact, come into play? Is “calling” a participatory thing? Are some pots destined for the trash heap because that was the potter’s intent at the wheel, or was it because they cracked? Do some get more talents because they were destined for greatness, or because they were willing to invest them?
But, here’s the real question: what is the real definition of greatness? Do those with the most talents, with the apparent guarantee of a great destiny, get the “high place” at the table?
Apparently not. Perhaps it is those who make the most of what they have, not that they accept street sweeping as their calling, but who make the most of that opportunity, who get asked to move up to a higher seat. “Blessed are those who are poor in spirit …” Do we know, exactly, what Jesus meant here? Many take this to mean it is actually good to be poor in spirit. I think not.
The Kingdom of God, the “Upside-down Kingdom,” comes to bring greatness – the riches and advantages of a Kingdom inheritance – to those who may appear (to us) to have a lowly calling. Does that mean being resigned to a life of the mundane? Not at all. We are, after all, encouraged to “invest” what we have been given.
Our calling, along with whatever else it may mean, is to have life, and to have that life abundantly. If, along the way, we are called to sweep the streets, certainly we should do it well, but not because that is our calling, our destiny. We do it as an investment – because we are called to the Kindgom. The truly great are those who indeed believe that they are destined for greatness, and that there is room for all to be great.
To give up the “high place,” to unselfishly assist others up the “ladder” before you – that is a life of greatness, and to these will indeed be given more.
That is our calling.