by John Jewell
Gospel: St. Mark 10: 35-45
Years ago, I spent a week with friends who owned a large and lovely mid 19th century home in New England. When I arrived, they greeted me and showed me to me room which we reached by a large mahogany staircase. The landing of the staircase boasted a beautiful stained glass of a patriarchal figure who seemed to oversee the household.
I was truly amazed.
Directly across from the bedroom which was mine for the week, there was a narrow and steep staircase.
"Where does that lead?" I asked.
"It goes down to the kitchen," he replied, "You're staying in what used to be the servant's quarters."
Later that evening I journeyed down the tiny servant's staircase to the kitchen and thought about the servants who went up and down those stairs more than a hundred years before. As I lay reflecting that night, I thought how the "great ones" must have used the great staircase with the mahogany railings and the stained glass patriarch keeping watch over his household. And I thought about the "small ones" who must have used the small staircase -- descending early in the morning and ascending late at night when everyone else was at rest.
Corny as it might seem, I also wondered, "Which staircase would Jesus have used?"
In our gospel lesson, Jesus talks about servants and "great ones," and then turns the concepts inside out. The "great ones" are the those who serve. And the "greatest one" is the one who is servant to everybody else. The one who is lowest is actually the highest one of all -- the servant who is the first one down the tiny staircase in the morning and the last one to ascend in the evening.
This issue of being a servant is difficult for us to get hold of in our time -- especially in the western world. Though we still have maids, gardeners, cooks and child care workers, we don't use the term "servants" any more. Most people who work in the homes of our more wealthy families would likely be offended if they were referred to as servants. The ugly background of slavery in our history has contributed to the idea that being a servant is a bad thing. No one I know fosters in their children the desire to grow up and become a servant.
For Jesus and his followers, however, the concept of servant was well understood and a part of their social fabric. The biblical story includes the fact of slavery from beginning to end.
In Genesis, the curse which falls on Canaan is that of being a servant, "Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers." [9:25]
Joseph was sold as a slave by his brothers for about twenty ounces of silver -- or somewhere around $100 in our terms. (They didn't think much of him! The law spelled out a fine of about $150 for someone whose servant was gored by an ox! Ex.21:32) [Gen.37:28]
People could wind up in servitude to others through financial misfortune, or even voluntarily as Jacob did when he served Laban in order to marry Rachel. [Gen. 29:18] (Not such a good plan as it turns out!)
Slavery and servanthood was a part of everyday life for Jesus and his followers. The analogy of servant and master is used over and over again.
The letter to Philemon in the New Testament is based on St. Paul's appeal to a slaveholder to treat a runaway slave (Onesimus) with compassion and indeed to perhaps give Onesimus to Paul as a servant.
Jesus' words to his disciples in Mark 10:44 are stunning: "...whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all."
There is another dimension to the concept of servanthood or slavery in the bible. The image of a servant and master is used to portray the relationship between God and persons. To be a servant of the Lord was high praise. The word for servant in both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament is the word for "slave." To be a servant or slave of the Lord in biblical terms is to enjoy the closest relationship with God. It is not always easy to be a servant of the Lord, but it does carry an intimacy with God that comes no other way. The Apostle Paul, who calls himself the "slave" of Christ speaks of an intimacy that even goes to sharing the sufferings of Christ. "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death..." [Phil. 3:10]
The concept of being a servant of God is a thread that runs through the scriptures and is a quality of every biblical leader.
And Moses the servant of the LORD died there in Moab, as the LORD had said. [Deut. 34:5]
And it came about after these things that Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died... [Joshua 24:29]
"I have found David My servant; With My holy oil I have anointed him." [Ps.89:20]
And the LORD said, "Even as My servant Isaiah has gone naked and barefoot three years as a sign and token against Egypt... [Is.20:3]
Even the whole nation of Israel is called a "servant" to indicate the intimacy which exists between God and the People of God. "But you, Israel, My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, Descendant of Abraham My friend, You whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, And called from its remotest parts, And said to you, 'You are My servant, I have chosen you and not rejected you." [Is. 41:8-9]
When all seems lost for the nation of Israel, God makes a promise that redemption will finally come through a servant. "Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations." [Is. 42:1]
There is a very powerful concept that is a drumbeat throughout the biblical drama.
God's redemptive purpose and divine intent for all people can only be carried out through those who voluntarily surrender themselves to servanthood!
This takes us to another important theme in the biblical concept of the "servant of the Lord."
It is very clear from our gospel reading that James and John did not get the servant idea at all. They come to Jesus asking him to do them a favor. You have experienced this-- right? Someone comes along and says, "Would you do me a favor?" You haven't a clue what they might ask - they just want you to do something for them. James and John come to Jesus asking him to to whatever they ask!
Notice that Jesus doesn't say, "Sure guys. Anything for you." His answer might help in times when you are on the receiving end of a similar request. "What is it you want me to do for you?"
Helpful. Yes? Someone asks a favor without saying what it is they want and you answer. "What is it you want me to do? (Implying - "Then I can tell you whether I will do it or not."
In this case, Jesus simply tells James and John they don't know what they're asking. They want the top two positions in Jesus' kingdom. They are thinking in terms of First and Second Vice President of the Glorious Kingdom of God. They conceive of power, fame and perhaps even fortune. All the models available in the world around them point to these good things for those who rule kingdoms. The rest of the disciples become angry with James and John - not because they want to become servants so badly - but likely because they would prefer those honored positions themselves.
For certain they are not thinking of becoming partners in "Molly Maids" or "Housekeepers Incorporated." Jesus asks them in effect if they can stay the course with him and endure what he will endure. Without knowing what they are saying yes to, they are told that they will indeed be bound up with Jesus' destiny. They will discover later what being great in the kingdom of God is all about.
The reading from Isaiah opens up a whole new world of understanding about being a servant of God and what the greatest servant of all will do. This is not the Servant of God who become ruler of all - but a servant who endures profound suffering. There are a series of what some scholars call "Servant Songs" in Isaiah. The Servant who is God's Messiah is a servant who bears the pain and anguish, the sin and rebellion of the whole people of God. The words are striking. Listen once again:
"Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted
him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our
transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that
made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone
astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the
iniquity of us all."
Here's the part James and John could not possibly understand. The suffering servant will bring healing and redemption to all who trust in God. The way is painful and difficult, but it is a way that leads to life.
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the LORD shall prosper. [Is. 53:10]
The way of the Suffering Servant is the way of liberation and life. The way of pain and passion is the way to redemption and healing. The lowest road becomes the highest road. The tiny servant's staircase which leads to the servant's quarters will finally give way to the magnificent flight of steps where the One who is Lord of all watches over the household of God!
There are no words that can express the concept of servanthood better than these words of Jesus to his not quite understanding disciples whose hearts were in the right place, but whose heads were having difficulty.
"...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 10:43-45]
Sermons and Bible Commentary/Analysis for the 1st sunday after Shunoyo
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