Cupbearers and Butlers

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Thursday in the week of Proper 25, Year 1 (Pentecost 22, 2015)

Nehemiah 1:11c ~ At the time, I was cupbearer to the king.

“Cupbearer” sounds like such a lowly position, but I’m given to understand that just the opposite is true. Cupbearers to monarchs in the ancient world were people of high rank, greatly trusted by their royal patrons. It was the cupbearer’s job to guard the king against poisoning cup, often by risking his own death by swallowing some of the king’s wine before serving it. The cupbearer’s close relationship to the king often gave him great influence at court.

In some translations of Scripture, the Hebrew word “mashkeh” is translated as “butler,” which perhaps makes the relationship of television’s currently most popular butler, the indomitable Mr. Carson, to Robert Crawley, 7th Earl of Grantham, Viscount Downton, the master of Downton Abbey, come to mind. Or, perhaps the relationship of Lord Grantham and his manservant, the unflappable (and apparently occasionally deadly) Mr. Bane. If Nehemiah was to King Ataxerxes as one of these gentlemen are to Robert Crawley, then one can understand how a “cupbearer” could be appointed the governor of Jerusalem.

Every Sunday (and often on other days of the week) I stand at the Table and bear the Cup, so it occurs to me that there may be something here worth considering. But . . . to whom am I cupbearer? It strikes me as inaccurate (perhaps even inappropriate) to claim to be cupbearer to my king. My king has no need of someone to taste his wine and test for poison; my king has no need of advice from a trusted servant; my king has no need of a sounding board or confidant from amongst the common folk. To whom, then, am I, the parish priest, cupbearer?

There is only one other possible candidate. I am cupbearer to the church, to the Body of Christ which gathers, worships, engages in fellowship, lives its life and its life-crises in the community of the parish church. I am Carson, or perhaps Bane, to the parishioners’ Lord Grantham.

The International Guild of Professional Butlers describes the duties of a Butler as follows:

“A Butler typically: Oversees the household staff usually of one residence. Understands concepts like being anticipatory, friendly not familiar, privacy and confidentiality, invisible and available. Answers residence phone, receives guests at the door and supervises the reception of visitors. Assists with staff training and organizes the duties and schedule of domestic staff. May assist or be charged with keeping the household budgets and inventory supplies. May schedule and oversee vendors of contracted services. May assist with household and family security measures. Oversees family packing and travel preparations. Understands social etiquette and formal service. Assists with planning and organizing parties and events in the home. Oversees and participates in proper table settings and entertainment prep. Serves meals and drinks and performs wait services related thereto. Knowledgeable about wines and spirits and oversees the wine cellar and liqueur inventory. May also serve as personal valet to the household and/or gentleman of the house. Performs light housekeeping duties. Coordinates with other staff as needed as well as with other parts of the employer’s organization.”

With only a few changes of language, much said in that job description can apply to a parish priest! Like any metaphor, it is partial, incomplete, and ultimately misleading, but also illuminating, instructive, and intriguing if not indulged too far. Perhaps it’s time to get a cut-away coat and some winged-collar shirts.