Status and Salvation
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
October 22, 2006
Scriptures: Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45
“For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” –Mark 10:45
Our Gospel readings have now followed the theme of service and the servant for three or more Sundays, because the Gospel of Mark focuses on that theme in the section we are reading and indeed makes it a keynote of its whole gospel message. The context is rivalry and envy, status and striving, mostly within the pathetically small band of the disciples. Last time we looked they were arguing who is the greatest among them and Jesus showed them a baby in its mother’s arms, totally dependent, wholly trusting, as an example of the attitude that enters the divine intimacy called the Kingdom of God (9:33-37, 10:13-16). In today’s reading the sons of Zebedee, James and John, ask a favor, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (10:37). Perhaps they thought such status their due because they were in the first group whom Jesus invited to join him, along with Peter and his brother Andrew. If so the rivalry was focused on Peter and Andrew.
The parallel account of this incident in Matthew 20:20-28 is even more tightly packed with psychological cargo. In it James and John’s mother ask Jesus to do this favor for her boys. This means two things, one, that since the four boys had worked together as fishermen there was an established background of rivalry between the families in which the respective mothers were involved, and two, that John and James’ mother was part of the group of disciples, and perhaps Peter and Andrew’s also – their mommies went along to feed them and make sure they had clean underwear – and we can imagine them urging their sons to be sure they get the best deal, pushing them to succeed like the legendary Jewish mothers are supposed to do. So, if we follow Matthew, the problem is not only the rivalry in a bunch of boys, but their families are involved too, and we have the raw material of the average soap opera right there in the Gospels. The point is that this is real life we are dealing with, life like we live it in our own families and workplaces, here and now, and therefore that this teaching of Jesus is obviously applicable now, needing no interpretation.
So we have here is another instance of the attitude of rivalry, competition and striving that Jesus is at pains to warn against and condemn. One might say that it is for Jesus the sin of sins.
Consider the extreme sanctions he lodges against it. For this we must go back to the beginning of the section of the Gospel of Mark that deals with this theme. It is the confession of Peter in Mark 8:27-38, where having accepted Peter’s confession of his own divine status, Jesus forecasts the suffering and ignominious death that is in store for him. Peter refuses to accept this prophecy and Jesus calls him Satan, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God but of (the world).” Then Jesus warns them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save her life will lose it; and whoever loses her life for my sake and the Gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a person, to gain the whole world and lose his soul? For what can one give in return for ones soul? (9:33-38, passim). I cannot improve on these immortal words and so I quote them. They tell it all.
Mark knows how very important this theme, command, teaching, example (I don’t know how properly to describe it; perhaps I should say, “revelation,”) of humility with regard to status is for Jesus, and so he goes on to narrate examples of its opposite, to show how fatally prone we are to precisely this sin of status seeking rivalry, and to remind us again and again of Jesus’ warning against it. Mark seems to be obsessed with the evils of status seeking and status holding. In the course of his story from the Confession at Caesarea Philippi to the summation of the message in our text for today, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life” (10:45), he shows how we disciples argue about who is the greatest, keep mothers and children from Jesus, complain about someone no of our group healing in the patented name of Jesus, and we see a rich young man who prefers the status his wealth gives him to the life Jesus could give him.
To James and John, Mark’s Jesus says, “You do not know what you are asking,” and warns them of the arduous spiritual trials ahead (10:38-40). The other disciples become predictably indignant at the brothers, and the plague of rivalry appears above the horizon of denial.
The rubric over the whole narrative is “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31). It specifies the three prestigious classes in the society, the government (elders), the religious institutions (chief priests) and the academy (scribes). They are about to cast out and kill Jesus, and Peter and the other disciples could not accept this, because they wanted status in precisely the terms of these institutions. It is easy to understand how this prophecy would arouse what we might call “status anxiety” among Jesus’ intimate followers; their prestige depended on his, and his humiliation was therefore their humiliation. For them no political power, no religious power, and no intellectual distinction, none of the honors of this world; they must make do with the obscure intimacy of fellowship with the divine source of all life and prestige, at home in the Kingdom of God. They balked.
And we balk. Last week I had the dubious privilege of the extreme democracy of the San Jose airport security facilities. In general I love the human race, but no close up; there are so many of us, and we seem so ridiculously vulnerable, tearing of our shoes and surrendering our belts, holding pants up with one hand and stripping coats and jackets off with the other, in deep consultation about our toilet waters and toothpaste, all the while wearing masks of extreme patience over grimaces of hostility and blushes of indignity and shame. I spotted that place where the lines converge on the machines and sweating citizens stoop to tear off their shoes, as a place of extreme democracy, a place where we were all without any status at all, and I did not like it. So I am the first disciple to admit that I need this teaching of Jesus to be drummed into me daily, hourly, because it is so contrary to my natural attitude.
I am not being entirely facetious; democracy, even in its imperfect forms, which are the only forms we see, is an impulse that comes from Christ himself. Listen, “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:42-45). Jesus tells us that the Christian form of authority is the authority not of the Lord but of the servant.
Well, we have heard the term “public servant” used of politicians and bureaucrats, and when we hear it a wave of cynicism washes over us because we know whom they really serve, and we know the damages they are willing to do to the public interest in the service of their own sectional and personal interests. I believe in democracy, despite my uneasiness about crowds and my preference for one on one and solitude, and I know how hard we have to work really to be democratic. The Christian root from which democracy grows is visible in our Gospel for today; there are no privileged seats in the Kingdom of God; every one of us pathetic shoe stripping, pants holding people is powerfully loved by God, and therefore worthy of being taken seriously when consulted about our own governance. Democracy is self-rule in the deepest sense of ruling over our individual selves so that we can contribute authentic spiritual guidance to the governance of the group. The spirit of that self-rule is the spirit expressed in the example of Jesus, who although he is Son of Man, came not to be served but to serve and to give.
I believe that a sincere engagement with what Paul calls “the faith of Christ” is the way to go if one wants to break free of the icy hand of envy and cool the red hot cheeks of rivalry. It is not possible to give here the teaching that we need to move in this faith away from status seeking and the honors of this world. I have been trying to give that in my Bible Study class, which is now approaching the end of its 32nd year of continuous weekly teaching. You can begin to appropriate the true democracy of Jesus by contemplating these sections of Mark’s gospel. What Milton once called the “last infirmity of noble mind” can cripple us to the end, or we can find in Christ the quiet fulfillment of all our desires and especially our great desire for significance and a successful life. It costs work, but what else is ultimately worth our effort?