Mark 10: 35-45 sits within the unfolding of a series of events on the road trip Jesus takes towards Jerusalem. Like all road trips, for some time we remember the isolated events that happen along the road. Over time however, our memory of isolated events along the way, which at the time occur within their own discrete context, become reshaped by the larger meaning and purpose of the road trip itself. So each week we note the happenings along the way, but also need to keep them in the larger perspective of what this road trip is about for Jesus.
The incident concerning James and John’s request to Jesus for the ultimate places of honor strikes me as a difficult reminder of our human propensity for over-valuing ourselves. Within Mark’s larger road trip narrative this is the third time the disciples have not heard Jesus correctly, or so it seems. Along the road, Jesus takes time to explain to his disciples his larger purpose for making this journey. He speaks of his expectations of humiliation, failure, death, and resurrection that lie ahead.
How did he know this? Is Jesus omniscient? Does Jesus share God’s bird’s eye panorama of the events unfolding? Maybe? However, I prefer to think of Jesus not as omniscient but as simply bringing to bear a very human awareness, unclouded by wishful thinking. Jesus knows all too well the consequences of confronting systems of power and oppression. He seems amazingly free of any fantasy expectation that he is going to win in this confrontation.
Along the road, Jesus speaks of the inevitability of his impending death three times. After the first time, Peter is so incensed he rebukes Jesus. A second time Jesus tries and while he’s speaking the disciples argue out of his earshot, or so they think, about who is going to be the most important among them when they reach the road trip’s destination. For them, the road trip is a political campaign tour on the way to winning the election. They are the Jesus campaign activists seeing him as the candidate of choice for the position of Messiah. They expect that when he wins power, there will be goodies for everyone who has supported him. Jesus tries one more time to tell them what to expect, and again his words fall on deaf ears.
The other disciples when they find out what James and John have asked Jesus become indignant, and maybe this is our response to them as well. Isn’t indignation our response in the face of another’s blatant attempts to curry favor?
Now maybe James and John, a story coming out of the mists of time has lost any real power to affect us beyond being mildly amused at their audacity. Yet, this story needs to be connected up with our own experience. When we relate to James and John’s grab for power, ditching their friends along the way, this story is a story that uncomfortably resonates with our ordinary everyday lives and becomes a conduit for our feelings of outrage at the unashamed grab for power and influence by others. Yet, the more complicated truth is, aren’t we also James and John?
Mark presents the disciples as stupid and slow to understand, in the grip of a fantasy of having their own day basking in the sunlight of freedom and prosperity. Yet, they are only doing what Christians have done ever since – view Jesus through the prism of our own worldview and self-interests.
It seems to me there are two ways of seeing James and John and all the James’ and John’s we daily encounter in our everyday lives. We can see them as main-chancers. Coming from near the bottom of society the promise of social advancement as followers of the man who was about to take Jerusalem by storm, must have been too much to resist. We can also see them as a kind of everyone. We all live in tension with our unfulfilled needs and longings to be more than we are, to be better than we are, and maybe more pressingly, to have more than we already have.
Missing the point
What is remarkable is not the motives behind their request. These seem all too understandable enough. What is remarkable is Jesus’ response. What is remarkable is that the disciples missed the point, and so do we, but for different reasons.
The ironing out of a confusion
We live at the end of a line of political and social development that has given us social democracy, sometimes also referred to as liberal democracy. Social democracy is characterized by the possibility for social mobility alongside the idea that the governed should determine who governs them. The old hierarchies of power and influence still pertain – after all human nature is still in a process of perfection, yet social mobility has until comparatively recently been a striking characteristic of our democratic society. Fuelled by a national system of education coming on the back of secularization, that grand post-Enlightenment momentum of social perfectibility, hitherto undreamed of possibilities for social and economic mobility opened up for many ordinary folk in our grandparents and parents generations.
Sadly, we now seem to be at the end of this line of social and political momentum and our 21st-century society seems to be coming to more closely resemble some of the gross inequalities more characteristic of Jesus’ time.
Another characteristic of social/liberal democracy that blinds us to the radical nature of Jesus response is our familiarity with the development of an ethic of public service. The age-old pattern of governmental appointments as tools for personal self-aggrandizement and financial enrichment through public theft was in the 20th century replaced by the concept of a civil service, the members of which were paid out of the public purse in order to serve the interests of the public good. All of this would have been quite alien in the society of first-century Palestine, as well as much of the following 2000 years of European social history. As with social mobility, as the 21st century progresses, notions of public service (servanthood) seem increasingly to be the mark of a previous age.
To our ears, Jesus teaching on servanthood, the first to be last and the last first is not so revolutionary, though it remains difficult to put into consistent practice. However, to the ears of his followers, it was incomprehensible – literally speaking. As human beings, we can only comprehend that which is already imaginable. Jesus suggests a radical vision for social relations beyond the social imaginary of his first-century hearers, and so – they literally miss the point. Each time he reiterates his vision of servanthood as the way his followers should relate to one another, the response is startling. It is as if a cone of silence comes down between him and them, preventing the words he speaks from being heard by them.
The disciples do eventually come to belatedly understand. Because Jesus with self-sacrificial consistency models the way he wants them to behave, they eventually do come to understand. Their still patriarchal and hierarchical worldview notwithstanding, the followers of Jesus come more and more to be able to not only comprehend his message but to begin to live it out in practical, everyday ways.
Here, is where the confusion needs to cleared up. It’s important to note that the development of a culture of servanthood is not the fruit of an early kind of project of self-improvement, which secularization and social democracy have shaped us to value. The followers of Jesus are radically changed not by their own growing social sophistication, but by what his death allows God to do. God raises Jesus to life, after life after death.
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
In the Tradition we have often come to see Jesus’ death as the price God paid to liberate us from the death of sin. There is a strong tendency to see Jesus as a heroic figure, freely and nobly offering up his life for the world. However, the efficacy of Jesus’ death lies not in its nobility, nor in it being the blood price demanded. The efficacy of Jesus’ death lies in what it allows God to do. Jesus’ death leads to the possibility of resurrection. This is the new thing that God does. And one of the most immediate fruits of this new thing, this fundamental change, is the development of a real culture of servanthood as the unique mark of community among the followers of Jesus.
Arriving at the point
The disciples do not achieve the servanthood Jesus called them to through the expansion of their own individual and social imaginations. The did not achieve anything. Instead, they became transformed as the spirit of Jesus was given back to them in the form of the Holy Spirit. It’s the Holy Spirit, not their self-improvement, that empowered them to emulate Jesus’ example of servanthood.
Bringing the point home
This last point is for us, the crucial one. The question of servanthood lies at the heart of our journey of spiritual renewal at St Martin’s. The danger is that we will be content to simply exemplify the best of our secular society’s notions of mutual respect and in the broader world, the ethic of community service motivated and empowered by our acceptance of the best traditions of social democracy. If our aim is to only do what good people do then we will miss our mark. Because, if this is all that happens we will as individuals and as a community remain unchanged. Remaining essentially unchanged means remaining unsatisfied.
I believe that our spiritual deepening has important implications for how we treat one another, how we serve and allow ourselves to be served by one another. This is not just a matter of becoming better than we are, doing better than we’ve done. It is a matter of becoming transformed by the power of God’s Holy Spirit moving among us. Like the first followers of Jesus, for us following Jesus is not a matter of self-assertion, not a matter of finally getting it. Following Jesus is a matter of allowing ourselves to become transformed by the power of the Spirit working among us. Like the first disciples before us, only radical transformation can bring about the change that our hearts are yearning for.