Thursday, October 22, 2009

Power, Control and Service (Proper 24 Year B)

Isaiah 53:4-12

Psalm 91:9-16

Hebrews 5:1-10

Mark 10:35-45

Today, I want to think about the passage from Mark. In Mark we have three passion predictions. Today’s passage follows immediately after the third and most detailed one. Jesus has told the disciples that “the Child of Humanity will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes . . .they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him, and after three days he will rise again” (Mark 10:33-34) (1)

Immediately Jesus is asked by James and John if they could have seats of honour in the coming realm. Jesus does not rebuke them as one would expect, but merely asks if they can stand firm in persecution. After they have replied in the affirmative Jesus told them that they would suffer persecution, but that positions were not Jesus’ to grant. We (and the readers of Mark) know that these two disciples would indeed suffer persecution and that James would ultimately be martyred.

This first section of the passage shows us that suffering does not earn us any rewards. Jt is not exalted as the way of discipleship. It is simply something that happens. A possible consequence of following Jesus. This is a challenge to any Christian (or Jewish) understanding that suffering is pleasing to God and will merit reward. It is worth noting the contrast with Mark 9:41 where giving someone a glass of water will bring reward! We are already seeing that the way of discipleship is service not suffering.

As the story unfolds the other disciples were annoyed with James and John. Markan Jesus uses it as an opportunity to contrast the way of power with the way of servanthood. And not only a servant but a slave! Slave status was despised and thought of as even lower than the poor peasants. Additionally, Jesus said they needed to be a slave to all. Each person was to serve as if they were the lowest of the low.

It is worth noting who Mark had Jesus speaking to here. It was the twelve disciples. Jesus was not speaking to the women disciples, nor to the children, nor to a crowd of poor peasants, servants and slaves. In other words he was not speaking to those whom society already considered should serve, but to the free men, those who already had some status and power.

Then Jesus uses his own life as example of life given in service. Mark does not see the death of Jesus as atonement but as the completion of Jesus life lived in service for others. It is martyrdom not sacrifice. Martyrdom was considered honourable.

Joanna Dewey says, “The disciples are encouraged to follow Jesus not only in preaching and healing but also in faithful behaviour in the face of persecution”1 . The disciples, too, may have to give their lives as they seek to follow Jesus in lives of service to others.

Henri Nouwen in In the Name of Jesus says, "The long painful history of the church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led." and “The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which the world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross. . . . It is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest." (2)

This desire in humanity to seek power and success, seems to be part of the human make-up. It was present even with Adam and Eve as they sought to ‘be like God’.

As each of us seek to be disciples of God can we lay aside that human need for power and control and use our lives in the service of others?

(1) Joanna Dewey, “The Gospel of Mark” in Searching the Scriptures Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza (ed) 495 (I have followed her interpretation of this passage)

(2)Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus (Crossroads: New York, 1996), 60