A story usually ascribed to Queen Victoria goes like this:
Her Majesty was hosting a formal banquet in honor of a foreign dignitary. All went well until the man, unaware of the proper function of a finger bowl, grabbed his with both hands and gulped down its contents. The other guests began to snicker. Noting his blunder and the guests’ derisive response, Queen Victoria took her own finger bowl in both hands and promptly drained it as well. That left the scoffers no choice but to follow suit. In one instant Her Majesty saved the guest of honor from crippling embarrassment and taught the rest of the august assembly a thing or two about noblesse oblige.
Noblesse oblige is the moral obligation that falls on those who are highborn, rich, or powerful. It is the added responsibility to act honorably, generously, and diplomatically toward all—and in all situations. In essence it is the responsibility of the noble to act nobly; for larger-than-life people to be, well, big-hearted, broadminded, and, just plain bigger than any situation in which they find themselves.
Here’s an example. For most new fathers, changing a diaper in the dead of night is no biggie. Hardly news. Unless you’re William, the crown prince of England. In his case, popping on a fresh Pamper is an act of noblesse oblige, pointedly demonstrating that even kings-in-waiting should not imagine themselves above dirtying their fingers to be a nurturing dad.
Christians call that grace. We see grace when the omnipotent God over all freely binds himself to covenant obligations he did not have to make, but made out of sheer sovereign love. It sums up the whole gospel, really: Jesus, the King of kings, graciously stooped down into death itself to bring us into his eternal kingdom of light. The gospels tell us that it was necessary for Jesus to endure all that befell him. How can an omnipotent God be under such obligation? The wonderful answer throughout Scripture is this: It is the inner compulsion of God’s own majestic essence: love, grace. Noblesse oblige.
God’s children are “born from above” (John 3:3, NRSV) by God’s Spirit. So we too are under noblesse oblige—it’s precisely the opposite of slavery that now obliges us.
As ambassadors of the heavenly kingdom, how do we carry ourselves? How do we present ourselves as the big peopleinto which we are already being molded? How do we reflect it in the ways we behave, tolerate, communicate, reconcile, and relate to all others?
We see many wonderful examples of God’s majestic presence in otherwise unremarkable folks. It makes no difference whether they are uneducated or educated, rich or poor, rural or urban. In all simplicity and humility they reflect wonderfully the nature of the one whom they represent—the One who is so glorious, majestic, and praiseworthy because he’s so surprisingly gracious.
If only I can learn to be like that when my neighbor starts his lawnmower before dawn, or when we have theological differences at the Bible study, or when the officer hands over that undeserved speeding ticket. . . .