A sermon by Rev. Richard Miller, Minister of Trinity United Church, Montreal, QC. October 19, 2003. Mark 10:35-45
...whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
– Mark 43-45
From time to time I hear someone say that it was really easier for the disciples to follow Jesus than it is for people today. And the person will usually go on to say that people were closer to God back then, and that they did not face the same kinds of challenges and temptations that we do today? Have you ever heard someone say something like that? Perhaps we have sometimes felt that way ourselves. How much easier it must have been for those disciples who were right there with Jesus – hearing his teaching, seeing his miracles, and travelling with him as he carried out his ministry.
And yet in today’s Gospel reading we have James and John sounding very modern. “Teacher….,” they say, “[g]rant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Teacher, we were among the very first ones you called to be your disciples. We have followed you faithfully. We don’t say a lot of silly things or take brash actions like Simon does. So when you come to power, we want you to give special places to us.
They really do sound quite modern, don’t they? We have some derogatory expressions for that, you know. Have you ever talked about someone “currying favour” with someone? That’s pretty much what James and John were doing. Today we might call it “office politics,” but the bottom line is much the same. You use your connections to try to advance yourself over other people.
In verse 41 we read that “[w]hen the ten – [the other disciples] – heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.” Well, I imagine so. Perhaps because they got in their first with their request. Then again, probably several of them had been planning to make the same request, but now the game had been given away. Now they wouldn’t be able to make it work for them because Jesus was on to them. If James and John hadn’t given it all away, one of them might have made a more persuasive case.
So let me ask you, does this sound at all familiar? Does it resemble your experience at all? Have you ever seen and heard this kind of thinking on the job, or over the back fence, or on the telephone? Doesn’t this sound pretty modern to you? It certainly does to me.
So then, how does Jesus respond to this request by the two brothers, and how does it respond to the reaction of the other ten disciples? First of all he tells James and John that they don'’ know what they are asking. And that it is not for him to say who will sit at his right and his left.
And to all of them he says that among the Gentiles – the other nations – their rulers lord it over them – even to the point of being tyrants. “But,” Jesus said, “it is not to be so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (vv.43-45)
“.…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant….” That’s a strange thing to say, isn’t it? How can anyone be great by being a servant? And the second part of the verse is even stranger, for it says that “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Slavery was common in those days, and the servant and slave had some importance based on who was their master. But to be the slave of all had no importance at all. Jesus was saying that up was down. He was making the quite absurd statement that the way to be first was to be last – to be a nobody.
So then, the question I must face and that we must face is, what do we do with such a statement? And it seems to me that there are three possible ways for us to respond. First we can accept what Jesus said, and do all that we can to follow his teaching. That is a difficult road, for it goes against a great deal of what we have been taught, and of the way our world works.
The second say we may respond is to disagree. We might say that Jesus didn’t really mean that, or that the translators got it wrong, or that we just flat out don’t agree. That too is a difficult road, for it requires a kind of personal integrity that is willing to take a stand that may put us at odds with our Christian sisters and brothers. And while most of us will disagree with scripture here and there, not many of us are prepared to take a stand that is clearly contrary to the express teaching of Jesus.
The third possible way to respond is to say that we accept what Jesus said, but not do it; or to act like we accept this teaching while we continue our glory-seeking just the same. It is a seductive response, for it seems to give us the best of both sides – passing for being Christian on the one hand, while going our own way on the other. And it is pretty much the place that James and John and the other disciples were in. They had followed Jesus for some time. They had heard him teach before. They had already heard him say that "whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it." And again that "If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all." And yet, here they were, wanting special treatment.
Most of us are probably familiar with the program of the Mormons where people spend two years of service to the church before they become members. Sometimes I think we need something like that in other churches too. Only our two years would be spent in places where there is no glory – in situations where we would be the servant and the slave of all. I wonder how the church would be different if we each had to do such an internship to become a Christian.
You see, as much as you and I may resist what Jesus said here, it is one of those yardsticks by which our faithfulness is measured. It is one of the teachings to which we must answer. Have we given our lives for others? Have we become great in the kingdom of God by our service to the needs of others? If not, where can we start?